The term "heat pump" might not sound all that appealing when you're A/C breaks down in the middle of the summer. However, heat pumps, like air conditioners, are designed to blow conditioned, cool air during the warmer months.
If your heating and cooling system is outdated or you've finally decided to invest in a new central system, it's worth it to weigh the differences between an AC system and a heat pump so you can make the smartest decision for your home and lifestyle.
Difference Between AC System and Heat Pump
Let's start with a basic definition:
Conventional air conditioner
- This is an individual unit, designed specifically to pull warm air out of a building, cool it via the condensing unit and refrigerant, and return it back into the interior space. The condenser portion of the AC unit is located inside the home, the compressor is located outside - typically on an adjacent wall or roof. Because an air conditioner only blows cold air, homeowners using AC systems must employ some type of separate heating unit or furnace to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures during cooler months.
- A heat pump does double-duty, using reversible technology depending on the season. In this case, the indoor unit is called the air handler and the outside unit is the heat pump. During the summer months, heat pumps work just like ACs, using refrigerant to cool off warm air. During the cooler months, a heat pump extract heat energy available from the outside air (Yes! There is even heat energy available in "cold" air) and move it indoors.
Advantages & Disadvantages of a Conventional AC System
The advantages of AC systems include:
More Affordable Equipment and Installation
In most cases, and AC system is more affordable than a heat pump, and that includes the installation costs. This makes sense since the unit is simpler and only works for about half of the year. If you go this route, make sure to have the HVAC reps go over the first-time versus life time costs of both options so you make an informed, long-term decision.
In most cases, and air conditioning system lasts longer than heat pumps because they're used less frequently. This saves money in terms of both repair and replacement costs.
More Consistent Heating Options
While an air conditioner won't provide any heat, those who live in particularly cool climates will (ideally) need to counterbalance their AC unit with a furnace that delivers adequate heat during the winter. This gives you the option to choose a heating unit that maintains consistently comfortable temperatures on the coolest days and nights here in the Richmond, VA area.
Disadvantages of an AC system are:
AC Systems Only Blow Cold
Since an AC unit only blows cold air, you'll need a heating solution during the winter months. For many people, the idea of having multiple systems (An AC plus a furnace or supplemental heating option) is a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to annual maintenance and repair/replacement needs.
AC Systems Can Be Expensive
Unless you have a renewable source of energy, the energy required for the AC unit to do its job can result in excessively high utility bills.
Advantages & Disadvantages of a Heat Pump
The advantages of a heat pump include:
Heat Pumps Are Very Energy Efficiency
Heat pumps are generally considered more energy efficient because they move, or transfer heat, as opposed to using energy to generate heat. Electric heat pumps are especially cost efficient in parts of the country where solar or other renewable energy sources can be employed.
A One-Stop Solution
Because heat pumps deliver heat during the winter and cooling during the summer, they are a one-stop solution for year-round home comfort. This means more streamlined maintenance and repair/replacement schedules.
Heat Pumps Are Particularly Efficient Heaters
We mentioned energy efficiency above, but it's worth a separate note highlighting that heat pumps are exceptionally efficient heating sources, especially when compared with older, oil-run models.
Disadvantages of heat pumps include:
Inability to Temper Extreme Cold
Because heat pumps transfer heat from surrounding air, they work best in moderate climates. Those who live in areas where temperatures are more extreme may find their heat pump lacking on particularly cold days or nights as we do here in the greater Richmond and Central Virginia regions.
Heat Pumps Are More Expensive
Since they perform both heating and cooling functions, and are slightly more complex than an AC system, heat pumps are slightly more expensive to purchase and installation costs run higher as well. Also, heat pumps have a shorter life expectancy than a quality-equivalent AC system because they experience greater year-round wear and tear.
While DIY research is always a good first start, we recommend consulting with a licensed heating and air conditioning professional such as Howell's Heating & Air to assist you with evaluating which heating and cooling sources make the most sense for your home and lifestyle.