An air conditioner and a heat pump unit display with text, "What's the difference between an air conditioner and a heat pump"

Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioners

Homeowners have a lot of choices when it comes to heating and cooling a home. A quick web search about air conditioning systems will yield millions of results. Suffice to say, picking a new system can be overwhelming! Two of the most common ways to cool a residential home in the Inland Empire area is by air conditioner or by heat pump. So what is the advantage of heat pumps vs air conditioners? It’s starts with knowing how they differ.

So… what is the difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner?

A heat pump is a system that can both heat and cool. An air conditioner can only cool. An air conditioner is traditionally paired with a furnace in order to supply both heating and cooling to a home.

So, a complete HVAC system is either an air conditioner and a furnace, or a heat pump.

Heat pumps have been gaining in popularity for their ultra-efficient operation. Plus, it can be more affordable to install a heat pump rather than both an air conditioner and a furnace.

Similarities: Heat Pumps vs Air Conditioners

When it comes to cooling, both heat pumps and air conditioners will serve your home well.

Here are some ways these two systems are similar:

  • Both systems are split systems. That means there are at least two pieces of separate equipment that work together to cool your home. The air conditioner or heat pump that is installed outdoors is connected to an indoor coil and blower to push air through your home.
  • Both systems use a compressor and refrigerant to do the work of heat transfer
  • The two systems have a similar look at feel from the outside

When it comes to cooling, the systems basically work the same way. Energy is transferred through the two coils in the system to keep your home comfortable.

The way that mechanical cooling works is via the basic refrigeration cycle. Refrigerant in the system continuously circulates from the outdoor unit to the indoor coil. With the help of components like compressors, valves, coils, and fans, the refrigerant continuously changes state from liquid to gas (evaporating) and then gas to liquid (condensing).

From a cooling perspective, heat pumps and air conditioners are very similar. Both systems utilize the refrigeration cycle, and similar components, to keep your home cool.

Differences: Heat Pumps vs Air Conditioners

So far, everything seems about the same between heat pumps and air conditioners. But there’s one big difference: heating!

Heat pumps can produce both cooling and heating. A heat pump has a special component called a reversing valve. This allows the refrigerant to change direction in the system. While in cooling, the refrigerant in the indoor coil will evaporate from liquid to gas. In heating, the refrigerant moves the opposite direction through the coil and instead condenses from gas to liquid. This means the heat pump itself must be capable of producing both liquid refrigerant and gas refrigerant. The reversing valve makes it possible!

Air conditioners cannot produce heat. An air conditioner does not have a reversing valve. So, it is designed for the refrigerant to flow in one direction. That means that it can only cool and can never heat. Homes in the Riverside area with air conditioners will generally have a furnace to support heating.

Heat pumps can cool and heat, but there are some limitations. Some heat pumps are not capable of heating at very low temperatures, so some form of supplemental heat is sometimes needed.

Heat Pump vs AC: Which one to buy?

Now that you know the main similarities and differences between an air conditioner and a heat pump, it’s time to make a decision. Either system can be a great choice. But, one might be more suited to your home depending on your specific situation. Here are some considerations:

Price of air conditioners vs heat pumps

A complete heat pump system will consist of an outdoor unit and an indoor unit. With an air conditioner, you’ll need an outdoor unit, an indoor unit, and a furnace. However, heat pumps are generally more expensive than air conditioners because of their specialized design and additional components. Another item to consider is incentives and promotions. Because heat pumps are more efficient, they qualify for better rebates. A professional from Sheldon’s Heating and Air Conditioning can help you with a quote for both system types and find you the best possible deal.

Energy efficiency and cost of operation

Heat pump systems offer the most energy-efficient products on the market. And, they only use electricity. That can save on operational costs. And if you’re building a new home, that eliminates the need for a natural gas connection to your attic area.

But, heat pumps use a lot more energy the lower the temperature drops. So even though they are efficient cooling systems, you might see you energy bills spike if we ever experience rare, freezing cold California winter.

When comparing air conditioning efficiency, look for the SEER ratings. The higher the SEER, the more efficient a unit is. It’s kind of like looking at miles per gallon when shopping for cars. A single point here or there may not be a significant difference, but if two products are 3 or more points different it will show in your energy consumption. Remember: HVAC rebates require specific SEER levels, so take care in choosing the right system for you!

System life

Heat pumps will operate all year round, while air conditioners only operate when you need cooling. So, air conditioners will last a few years longer than a heat pump. But remember that with a heat pump, you’ll save money on energy costs throughout its useful life.

Sheldon’s Heating and Air Conditioning Can Help Settle the Debate

If you’re still not sure about whether to install a air conditioner vs. a heat pump, please give us a call. The HVAC experts of Sheldon’s Heating & Air can help you decide on the best system for your home. We can also assist in finding deals and rebates that will reduce your initial investment. Since you only make this choice once every 10-15 years, you want to make the right decision. Call the professionals!


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