What's the Difference Between an AC and a Heat Pump?

Technician working on an air conditioner or heat pump - Jarboe's Plumbing, Heating and Cooling

When it’s time to replace a cooling system, the question on Louisville homeowners’ mind is which is better – air conditioner vs. heat pump? The selection of a new cooling system is an important choice for home comfort, and Louisville area homeowners need to know the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Luckily, the NATE-certified cooling technicians at Jarboe’s have plenty of experience in this area. We are here to help you settle your own air conditioner vs. heat pump debate and arrive at the best cooling choice for your household’s needs. We examine how each system type works, what they cost, and how their energy efficiency stacks up.

When you’re ready to make a choice between air conditioner vs. heat pump, give us a call. We provide a great selection of Carrier cooling products that deliver amazing value and efficiency for your Louisville area home. Our skilled technicians install your new air conditioner or heat pump so that it is capable of meeting your family’s cooling demands for many years to come.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Operation

First and foremost, to make a decision on an air conditioner vs. heat pump, you need to know how each system works. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding how air conditioners operate – many Louisville homeowners mistakenly believe they create some sort of coldness that cools air. This is probably because furnaces make heat to warm the home.

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

How does an air conditioner move heat, you ask? 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, all an air conditioner does to cool your home is moves heat out of your living areas. It doesn’t produce ice or extreme cold temperatures and infuse the air with cooling.

Now that you know how an air conditioner works, we let you in on the big secret – heat pumps work in the same manner for cooling! They also move heat from inside your home to the areas outside the house.

There are two types of heat pumps: air source and geothermal. Air source heat pumps move heat from one air source to another, from inside to outside. Geothermal systems move heat from the air inside your home into the ground where it is deposited. Or, they deposit heat into a water source.

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

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 the hot Louisville summer.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump: The Facts

So, there must be some differences between an air conditioner vs. heat pump for us to be answering the question. While they offer the same cooling process, that is the end of what they have in common. The air conditioner vs. heat pump debate is often settled for homeowners on the basis of heating abilities and energy efficiency. For many Louisville area homeowners, price is an important factor for home purchase decisions.

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, homeowners shut down their air conditioners and utilize heating systems such as furnaces for warmth.

Unlike an air conditioner, a heat pump also provides home 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 Louisville homeowners 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 for Louisville homeowners, 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

It’s no secret that price is an important factor when you decide between an air conditioner vs. heat pump. HVAC systems are not a light investment for many Louisville area homeowners! Let’s take a look at what you can expect with pricing on an air conditioner vs. heat pump.

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. Air source heat pumps and air conditioners range from a few to several thousand dollars to install, depending on the model. Geothermal systems are about $10,000 on the low end and $30,000+ on the high end, with the ground loop system being the most major expense in these systems.

Now remember, 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 your Louisville home’s HVAC systems.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump – Get Help Now

A decision on air conditioner vs. heat pump is different from one homeowner to the next, based on the factors above. What is right for your needs may not fit the needs of your neighbors. You need to weigh all the important factors to make the right call on air conditioner vs. heat pump.

Jarboe’s is here to help simplify your decision regarding air conditioner vs. heat pump. Our NATE-certified technicians share the ins and outs of all options to help you understand what’s available and make a smart purchase decision for your needs and budget.

If you need help or are ready to make the call between an air conditioner vs. heat pump upgrade, give us a call! We provide high quality equipment matched with skilled installation to deliver the cooling (and possibly heating!) you need from your new air conditioner or heat pump.

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