Air Conditioning vs Heat Pump

Which is better – air conditioner or heat pump? To selection the best cooling system type, it’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of both. TRV Mechanical is here to help you examine how each system type works and how their energy efficiency compare.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Operation

To decide between an air conditioner vs. heat pump, it’s helpful to know how each system works. There are some misconceptions surrounding how air conditioners operate – some people mistakenly believe they create a coldness that cools air. This is probably because furnaces make heat to warm the home.

In reality, an air conditioner doesn’t create icy condition that chills the air. The process is simpler than that – it moves heat, from one area to another.

How does an air conditioner move heat? Well, the process goes like this:

  • Warm air from your home circulates into the indoor components of the cooling system.
  • Warm air passes over the evaporator coil.
  • Refrigerant within the coil pulls out heat from the air.
  • Refrigerant moves through the lines to the outdoor components and is pressurized by the compressor.
  • The refrigerant moves to the condenser coil, which lets the heat off into the surrounding outdoor air.

So an air conditioner cools your home by moving heat out of your living areas. It doesn’t produce ice or extreme cold temperatures or infuse the air with cooling.

Now that you know how an air conditioner works, surprise – heat pumps work in the same manner for cooling! They also move heat from inside your home to the areas outside the house. When it comes to cooling, all heat pumps and air conditioners use the same process to achieve the cooler temperatures you rely on indoors during a hot summer.

There are two types of heat pumps: air source and geothermal. Air source heat pumps move heat from an air source inside to the outside. Geothermal heat pump systems move heat from the air inside, into the ground (or a water source) where it is deposited.

Geothermal systems need an added component to function – a ground loop. This is made up of connected piping filled with fluid, which carries heat away and deposits it below ground.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump: The Facts

While air conditioners and heat pumps offer the same cooling process, that is the end of what they have in common. Air conditioner vs. heat pump debate is often settled on the basis of heating abilities, energy efficiency and price.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Heating

Air conditioner vs. heat pump heating is no question, because air conditioner simply cannot heat your home. The air conditioning system is only useful during warmer months. As temperatures dip lower, you musty shut down the air conditioner and utilize heating systems such as furnaces for warmth.

Unlike an air conditioner, a heat pump also provides heating! How is this possible? A heat pump’s process reverses, and goes like this:

  • The condenser coils extract heat from the outdoor air, which is absorbed through the refrigerant.
  • The refrigerant moves into the indoor system components to the evaporator coils.
  • Heat energy is emitted from the evaporator coils and mixes with air circulating through the system.

This process adds warmth to your indoor air. Geothermal heat pumps operate in reverse the same way as an air source heat pump does, except they extract heat from below ground or a water source, not the air outside.

With a heat pump, you have two systems in one – both your heating and cooling needs are conquered with one unit. When you have an air conditioner, if you want heat during the winter, you have to have a heating system as well. Many people choose furnaces for this purpose.

If you’re looking for one system to do it all, there’s no question on air conditioner vs. heat pump – the heat pump wins. Air conditioners, plainly put, are for cooling only.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is a big concern in your choice between an air conditioner vs. heat pump, as the more energy efficient your system, the less energy is consumed, which keeps utility bills lower.

Air conditioners and heat pumps measure efficiency using SEER, which stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. An air conditioner vs. heat pump with the same SEER rating use equal amounts of energy to cool homes under ideal conditions.

Now, air conditioners do run into problems when outdoor temperatures are extremely high. See, air conditioning systems are designed to adequately cool your home when the difference in indoor and outdoor temperatures is no more than about 20 degrees. During the summer, temperatures can climb above this point. When this happens, your air conditioner is unable to run as efficiently while it cools your home.

Heat pumps on the other hand don’t have a problem with high outdoor temperatures. They deliver the same efficiency cooling no matter if the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors is small or vast.

Under ideal outdoor conditions, air conditioner vs. heat pump efficiency is pretty even. The big jump in energy efficiency is when heating mode is used.

Both types of heat pumps are vastly more efficient than air conditioners, furnaces, and other types of heating systems. An air source heat pump’s efficiency ranges between 175 and 300 percent, while a geothermal heat pump’s efficiency is between 300 and 600 percent. This means for every unit of electricity the equipment consumes, they produce more units of heating.

Now, air source heat pumps are not a great heating source when outdoor temperatures drop below about 25 to 30 degrees. Usually this isn’t such a problem, but we do get the occasional extremely chilly day. On these days, if your home has a backup heating system, you want to use that because it is more efficient than your heat pump is when it faces these temperature extremes.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Price

Your most affordable option is usually going to be an air source heat pump. Next comes an air conditioner. The most expensive cooling system is a geothermal heat pump system, with the ground loop system being the most major expense in these systems.

However, with a geothermal system, you don’t really need a backup heating system. With an air source heat pump, you might. With an air conditioner, you absolutely do. Backup heating equipment or a primary heating system add expense when you upgrade an HVAC system.