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Understanding the Similarities and Differences Between Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps

The Short Answer Is: An air conditioner is primarily designed to provide cooling by removing heat from the interior environment and expelling it externally, typically used during warm weather. In contrast, a heat pump serves a dual purpose, capable of both cooling and heating operations throughout the year. It achieves this by transferring heat either into or out of the living space as needed, making it a versatile option for maintaining desired indoor temperatures in various seasons.

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 new central air conditioning systems is an important choice for home comfort, and Louisville area homeowners need to know the advantages and disadvantages of both an air conditioning system and a heat pump system.

Luckily, the NATE-certified cooling technicians at Jarboe’s have plenty of experience when it comes to cooling equipment for your home. 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, as both heat pumps and air conditioning units are HVAC system options. We examine how central AC units and heat pumps work, what they cost, and how their energy efficiency stacks up.

When you’re ready to make a choice between air conditioning and heat pump systems, give us a call. We provide a great selection of Carrier cooling products that deliver amazing value and energy-efficient cool air 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 – and perhaps energy-efficient heating, too!

How a Central Air Conditioner or Heat Pump Works

First and foremost, to make a decision between an air conditioning unit or heat pump HVAC system, you need to know how both a heat pump and an AC work.

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding how air conditioners operate – many Louisville homeowners mistakenly believe air conditioners cool air by creating some sort of coldness. This is probably because natural gas furnaces make warmth through combustion to provide heating the home. In reality, an air conditioner doesn’t create some icy condition that produces cold air. Its process is simpler than that – it works by extracting heat inside and transferring it to the outside air.

How does an air conditioner extract heat, you ask? Well, the process goes like this:

  • Warm air from your home circulates into the indoor components of the cooling system, which may be an air handler or a furnace.
  • Warm air passes over the evaporator coil.
  • Refrigerant within the coil pulls out unwanted heat from the air.
  • Refrigerant moves through the lines to the outdoor unit and is pressurized by the compressor to pump heat out of living areas.
  • The refrigerant moves to the condenser coil, which lets the heat off into the surrounding outdoor air.

So, all an AC system does to cool your home is move 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 when in cooling mode! They also pump heat from inside your home to the outside air with the summer heat. 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.

Types of Heat Pumps

There are two main types of heat pump systems: 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.

The Facts About a Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner

So, there must be some differences between a heat pump vs. air conditioner for us to be answering the question. While they offer the same cooling process, cooling output 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 financing purchase decisions.

Home Heating Options

Both heat pumps and air conditioning systems have a cooling mode, but only one of these HVAC systems can be used for supplemental heat or heating the entire home over cold and mild winters. An air conditioner simply cannot heat your home, and it 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.

Heat pump heating can be used to warm your home once the outdoor temperatures drop. How is this possible? A heat pump’s reversing valve changes the direction of refrigerant flow to transfer heat energy from the outside air to the inside air. The heat pump heating process 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 mixed 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 or an auxiliary electric heater 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.

Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is a big concern in your choice between an air conditioning system or heat pump, as the more energy efficient your system, the less energy is consumed, which keeps energy costs 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. Both types of cooling systems have equipment options that are ENERGY STAR® rated for improved efficiency. Central air conditioning systems with the ENERGY STAR® label are about 8% more energy efficient than conventional AC units, and ENERGY STAR® heat pumps are 5% more efficient than standard heat pumps.

Now, air conditioners do run into efficiency problems when operating in extreme summer temperatures. 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 exceed the point where your preferred indoor temperature is within 20 degrees of the outdoor air temperature. 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 %, while a geothermal heat pump’s efficiency is between 300% and 600 %. 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 mild winters in Louisville, 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.

Life Expectancy of Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps

For some homeowners, choosing the cooling system type that will last the longest is an important factor when purchasing new HVAC equipment. While usage habits and frequency of annual tune-ups for maintenance have a great impact on system longevity, air conditioners typically average a longer service life than an air source heat pump. This is because air conditioners are only used for cooling and get a break half the year, while heat pumps work all year long to provide heat and cooling in a home. However, geothermal heat pumps tend to last longer than air conditioners and conventional heat pumps – the ground loop alone can last 50 years or more! Air conditioners average around 10 to 15 years of service, while heat pumps tend to run 10 to 12 years.

Price to Install Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps

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 between an 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 choosing to install an air conditioner or install a 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, request a free HVAC system estimate! 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. We also provide repairs and annual tune-ups for all types of cooling systems to help homeowners keep this equipment in top shape year after year.

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