How Are Heat Pumps Different From Traditional AC Units?

Most people are aware that heat pumps, despite their name, also can provide a cooling function to households and businesses. But are they as good at cooling a building as a traditional air conditioner? And if they are as good as air conditioners, what makes them different from an air conditioning unit, and why would a typical homeowner select one over the other? This discussion will endeavor to clear up those little mysteries, and provide a basis for selecting one or the other in given situations.

How the Two Are Different

During summer, when a heat pump would be functioning as a cooler, according to Climate Progress in an article on the Huffington Post, there is no visible difference between the two units at all – they do exactly the same thing. However there is a difference, and that difference comes into play during winter when the heat pump would be used as a heating unit. Because a heat pump is equipped with a reversing valve, the flow of refrigerant can be reversed, which in essence reverses the inside and outside units. In this state, the inside unit of the heat pump would circulate warm air while the outside unit would discharge cool air.

Benefits of an Air Conditioner

According to Tom Konrad, when a home is equipped with an air conditioner, it must also have a furnace for heating during the winter. The benefit to this setup is that a furnace will not shut down if the temperature outside gets cold, but an ordinary heat pump may do that. Some of the newer, more capable heat pumps are ‘all climate’ models that can tolerate extreme cold, but these are not in general use yet. An air conditioner will also usually have a lower initial cost than a heat pump, and has historically fewer problems than a heat pump.

Benefits of a Heat Pump

According to Washington Energy Services, when using a heat pump, a home will probably not require any other source of heat generation, and it is very likely to have lower annual costs than the air conditioner/furnace tandem. Heat pumps can be used with a ‘green’ geothermal setup which is less expensive and takes advantage of the earth’s natural warmth. It also uses energy that is not a fossil fuel, which reduces the carbon footprint on the planet. In general, heat pumps will be more energy efficient than air conditioning units, especially if the air conditioner is a somewhat older model. Lastly, a heat pump takes up considerably less indoor space than a furnace would, freeing up room for other storage.

How to Choose Which is Right For You

Unless you purchase one of the new ‘all-climate’ heat pumps that can handle extremes of weather, you might not want to go with a heat pump if you live in a traditionally wintry climate. Below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, they are not as effective at heating the home, and you would need a secondary heating source. If you live in a climate that doesn’t get that cold, or if you do live in a cold area but can purchase the all-climate heat pump, the heat pump might be the better buy.

Otherwise, decide what is most important to you – the savings you can realize from having an all-in-one HVAC system, the green technology of geothermal heat pumps, or the lower initial cost and slightly better maintenance record of an air conditioner.