Key Differences Between a Heat Pump and an Air Conditioner

When it’s time to upgrade and replace a building’s HVAC system, many consumers are overwhelmed by the available options. How can they know what type of system best suits their needs? It’s often up to the HVAC professional to guide them through the options and help them make the best decision. But explaining the differences between types of HVAC can be a challenge in itself. How, for example, do you explain the key differences between a heat pump and an air conditioner in a way that the average property owner understands?

So, what exactly is the difference between a heat pump and a traditional air conditioner, and how does a customer choose the right option for their needs?

What is a Heat Pump?

Heat pumps cool homes by removing heat from the inside of the building to the outside. The process can be reversed so that the same system can heat a home during the cooler season. A heat pump system works based on the principle that it’s easier to move something than to make something.

Most heat pump systems are known as a split system because they consist of two parts: an indoor air handler and an outdoor unit. When the temperature is cooler, the heat pump pulls heat from the outside air into the home. Most heat pumps can pull enough heat from the outside air to heat a home to 70 degrees even when the outside air temperature drops into the thirties.

Heat pumps are popular because they run on electricity, eliminating the need to access natural gas. Consumers also enjoy heat pump systems because they are an efficient way to heat and cool homes, especially when choosing a geothermal heat pump that produces more cool and warm air by volume than the amount of energy required to run them. A heat pump is not a great option, however, for customers in areas that drop below freezing in the winter, as they will sacrifice both efficiency and comfort in those conditions.

What is an Air Conditioner?

Much like a heat pump, a central air conditioner extracts heat from the inside and moves it to the outside of the building. An air conditioner, however, only cools a home, much as its name would imply. Therefore, an additional furnace is required to heat a building.

Also, like heat pumps, many central air conditioning systems consist of a split system. The air conditioner relies on refrigerants to pull heat from a home and release it outdoors. In the process, it dehumidifies the air. The cool air is then distributed throughout a building with ductwork.

Some consumers prefer central air conditioning over a heat pump because the specialized system is considered the most effective way to consistently cool a home. However, because it cannot heat the building, consumers in areas where the temperature drops below 60 degrees have to purchase an accompanying furnace, requiring additional space and a larger initial investment.

What’s the Difference?

The main difference between an air conditioner and a heat pump is the ability to heat a building. A heat pump features a reversing valve in the outdoor unit, so it can absorb heat energy from outside air, even in cold temperatures, and transfer this heat to the inside of a property. An air conditioner, on the other hand, can only cool a home. An accompanying furnace is needed to fully control the climate of a building.

Of course, a heat pump has its limits. When the outside temperatures drop below freezing, a heat pump is inefficient and requires more energy to maintain warm temperatures inside the building. Many heat pumps, therefore, feature an auxiliary electric heater attached to the indoor unit to add extra heat when outdoor temperatures drop too low. Auxiliary heating, however, is inefficient. Cold temperatures don’t raise the same issues for properties with an air conditioner and furnace.

Choosing Between a Heat Pump and an Air Conditioner

Depending on a property and its location, both a heat pump and an air conditioner can be a good option. When choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner, consider the following factors:

  • Upfront Costs – How much does a heat pump cost to purchase and install? What about an air conditioner? While the indoor unit of a heat pump generally boasts a lower cost, the accompanying outdoor unit can have a higher upfront cost than an air conditioner. Remember, when purchasing an air conditioner, it will be necessary to also run a furnace.
  • Cost to Operate – What is the energy efficiency of a heat pump compared to an air conditioner? Heat pump systems provide energy-efficient electric heat in moderately cold temperatures and cost less to operate under those conditions compared to furnaces and systems that use more expensive fuel sources. When temperatures drop below freezing, however, a heat pump requires more energy to maintain the indoor climate and therefore costs more to operate. When cooling, both heat pumps and air conditioners can be highly efficient based on the equipment’s SEER rating.
  • Equipment Lifetime – How long will a heat pump last compared to how long an air conditioner can be used? After all, lower upfront costs are wasted if the equipment has to be replaced years earlier than a more expensive alternative. Of course, the longevity of both a heat pump and an air conditioning system can be affected by a variety of factors. In general, however, an air conditioning unit lasts longer than a heat pump. Why? Since a heat pump heats and cools a home, it is used year-round, possibly twice as much as an air conditioner. A heat pump doesn’t get a seasonal break from operation.


Still unsure whether a heat pump or an air conditioning system is right for your property? Why not ask a professional for advice? An HVAC professional can help you understand the ins and outs of each type of system and consider what is best for your specific situation.


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