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Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner: What’s the Difference & How to Choose

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heat pump vs air conditioner

A heat pump is basically an air conditioner that can also work in reverse to provide heat.

If you need to replace your air conditioning system or your entire HVAC, should you consider getting a heat pump for AC? A heat pump can replace your air conditioner, and possibly your heating system as well. But it is important to make sure it’s the right choice for your needs.

In this article, we’ll compare a heat pump vs AC, and explain the advantages and limitations of heat pumps. Then we’ll address the all-important question of cost.

Heat pump vs air conditioner: how are they different?

In warm weather when your space needs cooling, a heat pump and an air conditioner do exactly the same thing. They cool indoor space by removing heat and releasing it outside.

In cold weather, when your space needs heat, obviously a traditional air conditioner can’t help you. That’s why most residential and commercial spaces have furnaces or sometimes electric heat.

A heat pump, on the other hand, can provide heat as well as cooling.

How does it do that? Let’s revisit our definition of a heat pump: “an air conditioner that can also work in reverse to provide heat.” Without getting too technical, a heat pump can remove heat from the OUTSIDE air and release it INSIDE.

If you’re not an HVAC expert, this part might not make sense to you… how can it remove heat from outside air in the winter? It can do so because even though people feel cold as outdoor temperatures drop, there is still some heat energy in the air. Heat pumps can absorb it and transfer it indoors to provide heat.

Heat pump advantages over AC + furnace

Heat pumps cost less to operate

This is the main reason for choosing a heat pump vs an air conditioner and a furnace. Heat pumps are very energy efficient, so you can save quite a bit on your utility bills. (Check out what energy.gov has to say about air source heat pump efficiency.)

Heat pumps don’t burn fossil fuels

Unlike a gas or oil-burning furnace, heat pumps do not need to consume fossil fuels to produce heat. That makes them a more planet-friendly heating solution.

One system to maintain and repair

If you’re using a heat pump as your sole source of heating and cooling, there’s only one system to maintain, and one system to diagnose and repair if anything goes wrong. That also lowers your total cost to operate.

Check out this related article about heat pump troubleshooting.

Heat pumps can save space

When you don’t need a separate appliance for heat, using a heat pump can be a space saver… which is a boon in places like NYC where space is so expensive.

Heat pump limitations

Heat pumps are less efficient in cold climates

The biggest downside of a heat pump vs AC is that heat pumps lose efficiency in colder weather.

This makes sense when you understand how a heat pump works. When the outside air is colder, there is less heat energy to absorb and transfer inside, so the heat pump has to run longer and work harder to generate hear. If it’s cold for an extended period of time, the operating costs go up.

Possible need for supplemental heat

Heat pump technology has improved quite a bit recently, and they can work in colder climates much more effectively than they could in the past. However, if temperatures drop well below freezing, you may reach a point where a heat pump may not be able to provide enough heat.

That’s why, for homeowners and business owners here in the Northeast, you may need to have a backup heat source if you choose to go with a heat pump. Of course, that will add to your overall cost.

Heat pump vs AC cost

The cost of equipment plus installation for a heat pump is generally higher than the cost of going with a traditional central air conditioner. The difference can be as much as several thousand dollars.

However, if you are replacing your heating equipment as well as your AC (and you don’t need supplemental heat) then you could end up saving money. That’s because you need only one new system instead of two.

COMMERCIAL HVAC TIP: Heat pump tax credit for 2018

Business owners, listen up!

Right now (until the end of 2018), there’s a new tax rule that lets you deduct the entire cost of commercial hvac equipment, plus installation, on your 2018 tax return. (This replaces the old rule that allows you to depreciate the cost over the life of the equipment.)

That means you get a big tax break all at once, instead of a tiny tax break over many years.

Watch this video to learn how it works:

Heat pump vs AC: more help making the right choice

You’ll live with your choice for many years to come, so it’s smart to get help when you’re making a decision this important. When you request a replacement estimate, we’ll talk through all your needs and recommend the right HVAC system for your needs and your budget.

HVAC System Replacement Quote