Larry Cook

Heat Pumps versus Air Conditioners to Cool Your Home

In Kansas, families need to have a reliable heating and cooling system to stay comfortable. According to Energy Star, a typical household spends $2,000.00 per year on energy bills and roughly 43% of the cost goes towards expenses to heat and cool a home. Selecting the right heating and cooling system for your home can make a big difference when it comes to comfort and energy savings. In this article, we will be answering the following questions – what is the difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner? Keep reading to learn about heat pumps vs air conditioners.

Air Conditioners

Most of the time when you hear someone refer to their air conditioner, they are referring to a central air system, also called a split-system air conditioner. A central air conditioning system normally includes a thermostat to control the system operations, an outdoor unit that contains a fan, condenser coil and compressor, an indoor unit that contains an evaporator coil and fan, copper tubing for refrigerant to flow between the indoor and outdoor units, an expansion valve to regulate the refrigerant, and ductwork.

Inside of a home, the central air conditioner cools down warm air as the air blows across a coil filled with refrigerant. The refrigerant absorbs the hot indoor air as the refrigerant turns from liquid into gas. Thereafter, the cool air is dispersed throughout the house. The outside unit is also working. The refrigerant that turned from liquid into gas inside the home gets compressed then enters into the outdoor unit’s large coil. Heat releases outside, and the refrigerant becomes a liquid. Then, the outdoor unit’s large fan pulls the outside air through its coil.

A central air system, or split-system air conditioner is only designed to cool the indoor air. If someone wants to warm his or her house during the winter, a furnace or heat pump must be used.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are designed to cool and heat. There are two main types of heat pumps: air source heat pumps and geothermal heat pumps. Air source heat pumps move heat between the inside and outside of a home, whereas, geothermal heat pumps (also called ground source heat pumps) move heat between the air inside and the ground outside. This review of heat pumps will focus on air source heat pumps.

Air source heat pump systems have an outdoor unit with a coil and fan. The coil functions as a condenser while the heat pump is in cooling mode and as an evaporator while the heat pump is in heating mode. Additionally most air source heat pumps will also include an indoor unit, sometimes referred to as an air handler, which also contains a coil and fan. Air source heat pumps contain refrigerant, a compressor, reversing valve, and expansion valve. Air source heat pumps are designed to transfer heat in such a way that the heat energy travels naturally to areas with lower temperatures and pressure. Heat pumps, while in air conditioning mode, function very similarly to a central air conditioning system, as heat pumps absorb the indoor air heat and then this air is released in the outdoor unit. To heat up the indoors, a heat pump moves heat from one place to another (but, does not actually generate heat). An air source heat pump absorbs heat from the outdoor air, in hot or cold weather, and then moves it to the indoor air.

Which System is Best for Homes?

Heat pumps or air conditioners? Both are great options, but one may be a better fit for your home. Below we cover a few factors to consider when deciding between a heat pump and an air conditioner. Remember, the key difference between an air conditioner (central air or split-system air conditioner) is that a heat pump can both heat and cool, whereas an air conditioner only cools. 

Cost To Purchase And Install

When considering heat pump costs, be sure to consider the total installation and equipment cost. A heat pumps indoor unit generally is lower cost but has a higher cost outdoor unit when compared with a central air conditioning system. The best way to get an accurate cost comparison between a heat pump and an air conditioner is contacting a professional HVAC company to provide you with a quote that is tailored to your specific home. An HVAC company will also be able to discuss your various HVAC system options, including air conditioner costs, heat pump costs, and the installation costs of the system that you choose.

Energy Efficiency and Cost To Operate

Air source heat pumps are a great energy efficient option for heating and cooling needs. When a heat pump is installed correctly, it can provide up to three times more heat energy to a home than the energy it consumes.[1] Heat pumps are generally only used in portions of the United States that do not experience extended subzero temperatures. If you desire to heat your home in a climate with extended subzero temperatures, you may also need a backup heat source to create a hybrid heat system (note, generally a geothermal heat pump system wouldn’t need a backup heat source). However, technology is advancing and heat pumps are starting to be used more frequently in extremely cold climates. When considering heat pumps being used in cold climates, Energy Saver explained that “a study by the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships found that when units designed specifically for colder regions were installed in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, the annual savings are around 3,000 kWh (or $459) when compared to electric resistance heaters, and 6,200 kWh (or $948) when compared to oil systems. When displacing oil (i.e., the oil system remains, but operates less frequently), the average annual savings are nearly 3,000 kWh (or about $300).”[2]

When a heat pump is cooling, its energy efficiency is about the same as an air conditioner. The energy efficiency will depend on the SEER rating of the heat pump and/or air conditioner. Overall, heat pumps are known to have higher energy efficiency than other HVAC systems, which can help homeowners’ save money on energy bills.

How Long Will the System Last?

The lifespan of an HVAC system always comes down to a variety of factors, such as maintenance, weather conditions, proper installation, and more. How long does a heat pump last and how long does an air conditioner last? These are good questions to ask because we know that heat pumps heat and cool, while air conditioners only cool. Generally, air conditioning systems (central air systems or split-systems) have a longer life span than heat pumps. The reason air conditioning systems have a longer lifespan is because air conditioners are not running all year long. In the winter months, air conditioners get a break. Whereas, heat pumps do not get a break because they operate year round, heating and cooling. Regular HVAC maintenance can help extend the lifespan of heat pumps (and air conditioners). 

The downside of heat pumps shorter lifespan may very well be neutralized when you consider that heat pumps are great energy efficient systems that have the potential to help you save a significant amount of energy which translates to money savings. 

Ask An HVAC Expert

It’s important to consult with an HVAC expert when choosing the best air conditioner and furnace, or heat pump, for your home. An HVAC expert will be able to correctly evaluate your home’s heating and cooling needs, taking into consideration your lifestyle, the proper HVAC system size, and more. At Larry Cook Heating and Cooling, we offer free estimate consultations where an HVAC expert will customize an HVAC plan for your needs. If you’re located in the Wichita metro area, contact us today for your free estimate by calling 316-322-5668!  


[1] https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/air-source-heat-pumps

[2] https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/air-source-heat-pumps

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