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Heat Pump vs Central Air – Detailed Comparison 2022

by Lisa Hayden
Heat Pump vs Central Air

There are pros and cons to both heat pumps and central air conditioners. Here is a brief rundown of each to help you decide which option is best for your home:

Heat Pumps

-Pros: Can be used in any climate, efficient (uses less energy than other heating methods), can both heat and cool your home

-Cons: Not as effective in extremely cold climates, can be more expensive to install than other heating methods.

Central Air Conditioners

-Pros: More common and thus easier to find parts/service for, cheaper to install than heat pumps

-Cons: Only effective in moderate climates, uses more energy than other cooling methods

So, which is better for you? It depends on a few factors. A central air conditioner or heat pump may not work well for you if you live in an extreme climate (very hot or very cold). Also, a heat pump may be better if you want to save on energy costs. However, a central air conditioner may be the way to go if you are on a tight budget. Ultimately, the decision comes down to your specific needs and preferences.

How does a heat pump differ from a central AC? How does each appliance operate – and which is the right choice for you? Let’s find out!

Related:

  1. Heat Pump Water Heater Vs. Tankless Water Heater
  2. What Size Heat Pump Do I Need For a 2,500 sqf House?

Heat Pump vs Central Air Conditioners: Comparison 

Before you understand how heat pumps and central air conditioners compare, you must know how they operate. Here’s a quick look at how they work – 

How Heat Pumps Work

Heat pumps use the refrigeration cycle to move thermal energy from outside a building to the inside – or in the opposite direction. They work like refrigerators to transfer heat instead of producing it. This closed-loop enables them to perform like heaters and coolers.

The standard heat pump that uses air for heat transference is an air source heat pump. Another variant is the geothermal heat pump that carries out the heat transference between your home and the earth. This is more expensive and hence, less common. 

How Central Air Conditioners Work   

Central ACs use closed loop systems and have many components of a refrigerator, like the refrigerant. They have two units – one on the inside and the other on the inside. They transfer heat outside and, at the same time, produce cold air that is spread indoors.  

The unit inside spreads the cool air indoors. The outdoor unit with the compressor exposes the refrigerant to heat and pressure before it enters the compressor coil to remove heat. Central ACs have supply and return ducts (openings) to cool the whole building. 

Heat Pumps Vs Central Air: Feature Comparisons

Now that you have a basic understanding of how the two devices work let’s compare their features. 

a) Basic Mechanism 

Central ACs produce cool air, spread indoors, and transport hot air outside. But heat pumps don’t produce heat or cold. They work by transferring air of different temperature levels inside and outside a building to cool or heat up the indoors.  

b) Heating/Cooling Capacity

Heat pumps can act as a heater in the winter and as a cooler during summer. In other words, they have both heating and cooling abilities. But ACs are mainly used as coolers. Only some models are engineered to work as heaters.

c) Weather Conditions

A heat pump performs best when the outside temperature is above 40F. It won’t stop working below that temperature, but its efficiency drops. But a central air conditioning device is highly effective when the temperature is exceptionally chilly outside.    

d) Energy Efficiency 

Heat pumps can run consistently without burning too much energy. So can ACs. But if the temperature outside is too low, a heat pump uses more energy to work efficiently. While central ACs are more energy-efficient in the cold, heat pumps help save on heating costs.   

e) Initial Cost

Heat pump units, especially geothermal ones, are costlier than central AC. Plus, the installation cost is higher because the process is more complex. However, buying and installing central air conditioning systems can cost you a few thousand dollars less. 

f) Durability

Central air conditioners are known to last longer than heat pumps. However, there is an important consideration here. Central ACs are only used in summer to cool indoor air. On the other hand, heat pumps perform two functions and run throughout the year. 

g) Installation 

Traditional central ACs are complex machines that need to be adequately connected and require openings to spread cool air. However, the heat pump installation process takes more time and effort. But air source heat pumps are simpler than geothermal heat pumps.  

h) Maintenance

Heat pumps are easier to maintain than central ACs. They only demand a checkup of the parts twice a year to ensure everything is running correctly. But ACs need a change or cleanup of the filters every month or two during cooling months.

i) Planning Permission  

In some parts of the world, installing a heat pump requires planning permission. This is only valid for the first heat pump installation under particular conditions. But central air conditioners do not require planning permission – unless it has a noisy external unit.

j) Environmental Impact

Heat pumps are a good choice because they lower greenhouse gas emissions. Studies support this quality of heat pumps. Central ACs are known for harming the environment due to their gaseous emissions that cause global warming.    

Central Air vs Heat Pump: A Quick Look

Features Heat Pump Central AC
Basic Mechanism This device produces no heat/cold air Produces cool air and pumps out hot air
Heating/Cooling Capacity Works as both heater and cooler in different seasons Majorly used as a cooler, though some models can act as a heater 
Weather Conditions More efficient as a cooler/heater unless the temperature is below 40F Works efficiently as a cooler in all weather conditions
Energy Efficiency High energy efficiency, except in a near-freezing climate Modern energy-efficient models available at higher prices 
Initial Cost Costly; geothermal models are pricier than air source models  Less expensive; prices may vary depending on features
Durability Less durable due to round-the-year usage More durable because it is used seasonally
Installation Complex model and, therefore, complicated and expensive installation Less complex and pricy installation, though not completely easy
Maintenance Requires less maintenance; checking twice a year is enough Needs cleaning and filter change every 1-2 months during regular use
Planning Permission It may require planning permission in some locations It does not usually require planning permission
Environmental Impact Lower emission of harmful greenhouse gas Higher gaseous emissions causing global warming

Pros and Cons of a Heat Pump

Why should you buy a heat pump? What disadvantages of a heat pump should you be aware of? Let’s take a look!

Pros:

  • It offers both heating and cooling
  • More efficient option
  • Low maintenance needs
  • More eco-friendly

Cons:

  • High initial costs
  • Less efficient in frigid weather

Pros and Cons of Central Air

Now let’s understand what makes central ACs so highly coveted

Pros:

  • Pocket-friendly
  • Lasts longer
  • Easy to install
  • Ideal for all climates

Cons:

  • Environmentally harmful
  • Regular maintenance needed

Heat Pump vs. Central AC Buying Guide: Factors to Consider

Whether you should choose a heat pump or a central air conditioner depends on various factors like the following – 

Budget:

Heat pump units are more expensive, and the installation cost is also much more. The initial price of central ACs is lower. But some advanced and energy-efficient units can be costly. But remember that central AC installation isn’t exactly pocket-friendly either.     

Location:

Heat pumps start to lose efficiency if the outside temperature drops below 40 F. Modern heat pumps can work even at or below the freezing point, but they are exorbitantly priced and burn energy. Air conditioners can work efficiently in any weather conditions.

Heating/Cooling Needs:

A heat pump is ideal for you if you want to use a single device for heating and cooling your building. It can reduce the cost of a heater and maintain average energy bills. But if you only need a cooler on your property, a central air conditioner will be sufficient.   

What is Better: Heat Pump or Central AC?

While heat pumps are more expensive to buy and install, they are more energy-efficient and reduce energy bills. But this is only true if the outside temperature does not drop too low. That’s because, in such conditions, they will burn more energy.

The initial cost of a central AC is lower, but the energy costs can be higher in the long run. But a central AC is suitable for you if you live in frigid regions and already have heater solutions installed in your building.    

Mini-split heat pumps: the best energy-saving option

Mini split heat pumps are becoming popular for homeowners looking for an efficient way to heat and cool their homes. Central air systems have been the traditional choice for many years, but mini splits offer several advantages over central air systems.

One of the most significant advantages of mini split heat pumps is that they are much more energy efficient than central air systems. Mini-splits use less electricity to operate and can save you money on your monthly energy bills.

Another advantage of mini split heat pumps is that they are easier to install than central air systems. Central air systems require ductwork installed in your home, which can be messy and time-consuming. Mini-splits do not require any ductwork and can be installed quickly and easily.

Finally, mini split heat pumps offer more comfortable heating and cooling experience than central air systems. Mini splits provide targeted heating and cooling to specific areas of your home, so you can keep your home at a comfortable temperature without wasting energy.

If you are looking for an efficient and comfortable way to heat and cool your home, mini split heat pumps are a great option.

Final Words

Should you buy a heat pump or a central AC? There’s no single answer to settle the “heat pump vs central air conditioner” argument. It depends on your needs, location, and budget. You must consider the modern heat pumps and central ACs before investing.  

FAQ

Is central air cheaper than a heat pump?

The initial cost of buying and installing a heat pump is more than a central air conditioner. However, there’s more to the “heat pump vs. central air cost” debate. Due to high energy efficiency in mildly cold temperatures and lower maintenance, it’s more cost-efficient. 

Does a heat pump cool as well as an air conditioner?

Heat pumps can cool your building as well as an air conditioner. They are often considered more efficient – and they’re also capable of working as a heater. However, their efficiency level starts to drop if the temperature outside drops as low as 40F.

Does a heat pump use more electricity than an air conditioner?

Heat pumps are more energy efficient than central air conditioners. They may also qualify you for tax incentives or rebates – reducing your overall costs. However, this is only true when the outside temperature is not too cold. Plus, modern ACs are energy-efficient. 

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