Homeowner Articles Are Heat Pumps More Efficient Than Air Conditioners

There’s nothing more pleasant than the feeling of cool air in the unbearable summer heat.

But when you see the price that luxury costs you, you might think twice about indulging in it.

With this problem in mind, you’re probably looking for a more efficient and cheap way to get cool air in your home.

So instead of a conventional air conditioner, can a heat pump provide better results?

The short answer: it can, but only if you have the right system. Some kinds of heat pumps provide more efficient cooling output than a traditional central AC unit, but this depends on a wide range of factors.

Let’s discuss what influences efficiency and what you can do to maximize it.

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What is a Heat Pump System?

heat pump

A heat pump is a type of heating or cooling system that transfers heat energy.

Heat pumps take heat energy from an outside source when in heating mode and transfer it into the home.

The opposite is true for cooling mode: heat pumps will take heat energy from inside the home and transfer it to the outside.

Heat pumps are fully reversible, which means they can be used as both heating and cooling systems.

This is possible thanks to the AC compressor and a reversing valve, which drives heat transfer, and the basic laws of thermodynamics.

Heat pumps function with an auxiliary electric heater and additional electric resistance heaters to provide heat when outdoor temperatures drop.

But you won’t need to worry about these features when you’re in cooling mode.

How Do Heat Pumps Differ From Air Conditioners?

The most notable difference between how heat pumps work and how air conditioning systems do is that a heat pump is fully reversible, while an air conditioning system isn’t.

For what you get with a heat pump, you need to install an air conditioning unit and a heating system like an oil or natural gas furnace.

This makes the heat pump a much simpler device to install and maintain.

Despite these differences, many of the systems’ components are similar.

Both heat pumps and air conditioners use features such as an evaporator coil, blower fans, ventilation, air filters, and an air handler unit, amongst other things.

How Many Kinds of Heat Pumps Are There?

Heat pumps have a dynamic design that can be used in several different ways.

Firstly, we can’t talk about heat pump efficiency without first looking at the different designs themselves.

There are numerous different kinds, with the ways they work suggested by their names:

Air Source Heat Pump

An air source heat pump collects heat from the outside air and transfers it into your home.

They are the most popular kind of heat pump, and the technology behind them continues to develop rapidly.

Air Source Heat Pump

Geothermal Heat Pump

Instead of using the outside air to transfer heat, geothermal heat pumps use heat energy stored in the ground.

These systems are relatively expensive to install, but make up for it with their low running costs and consistent supply of energy.

geothermal Heat Pump

Water Source Heat Pumps

Water source heat pumps are a rarer kind of heat pump that uses energy stored in water for heating and cooling.

Though less popular, they can be very effective if you have an exploitable water supply near your home.

Air Source Heat Pump

Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner: What’s More Energy Efficient?

As we’ve just shown, the efficiency of a heat pump installation depends on what kind of heat pump it is. But it’s not the only factor influencing energy efficient heating.

So that begs the question, what exactly is energy efficiency? And what affects it?

energy label

What is Energy Efficiency?

Put as simply as possible, energy efficiency is using as little energy as possible to perform a task.

If a device uses more energy to complete the task than another device, it is considered less energy efficient.

Obviously, then, you want a cooling unit that uses very little energy to cool your house but at the same time can do all the same things that a normal unit can.

Energy Efficiency of Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner

Air conditioners and heat pumps measure efficiency using a special tool called the SEER rating (seasonal energy efficiency ratio).

Professionals work out these ratings by calculating a system’s energy output divided by its input and assigning it a rating based on the result.

Central air conditioning systems are required to have a SEER rating of at least 14.5 to be Energy Star certified.

On the other hand, a heat pump system only needs to have a SEER rating of 13. Requirements for a window AC unit are much lower than central AC units, with only a minimum rating of 10.

In this way, central air conditioners are required to be more energy efficient than heat pumps.

But as SEER ratings can be very different amongst different air conditioning and heat pump systems models, either could be more efficient than the other.

There is still an important point to make about heat pumps and climate. As discussed earlier, a heat pump works by exchanging heat with outdoor temperatures.

This means that heat pump systems work great in moderate climates but will struggle in more extreme climates.

Those cold days will strain your heat pump if you live in a very cold climate. Heat pump systems can be inefficient when relying on electrical resistance heating to stop your heat pump from freezing up.

Other Factors Affecting Efficiency

AC installation

Efficiency isn’t just determined by the SEER rating of your heat pump or air conditioner unit. Many factors can influence a system’s true efficiency and must be considered.

Installation Costs

Most people interested in buying an energy-efficient system want to save money on energy bills. But if your system ends up costing a considerable amount in installation, you might end up losing money in the long run.

While system size, brand, and efficiency affect pricing, air conditioning units are generally much cheaper than most heat pumps.

This is because of the heat pump’s sophisticated outdoor unit, which exchanges heat with outdoor temperatures in both summer and winter.

Due to the price of the outdoor unit, you should only invest in a heat pump if your long-term savings will offset the installation costs. Otherwise, you’re better off investing in an air conditioning system.

Both a heat pump and an air conditioner will be significant investment. No matter which one you choose, you should ensure you get one that’s the right size for your home.

This will stop you from paying more than necessary for your air conditioner or heat pump.

Saving Money with the Inflation Reduction Act

If you live in the United States, you may be able to save money on your heat pump or air conditioning system thanks to a new rebate law passed in August.

This law offers a 30% tax credit for anyone installing a heat pump worth up to $2000!

This is undoubtedly a strong argument for heat pumps in the heat pump vs air conditioner debate. And as this tax credit is still fully in place until 2032, you have plenty of time to make a decision.

Lifespan of Systems

One final consideration to think about is the lifespan of your system.

As heat pumps and air conditioners get older, they lose their efficiency. So no matter how great your system performs, it can lose all its efficiency when it reaches the end of its lifespan.

An air conditioner will last longer than a heat pump in most cases. For example, air conditioners typically last for 15 to 20 years, while heat pumps may only reach up to 15.

This is because heat pumps work twice as much as air conditioners. After all, you use them in both seasons.

Regular maintenance on your heat pump or AC system can ensure it maintains its efficiency for as long as possible.

We recommend getting it checked every year to ensure everything runs smoothly and any potential problems are caught early.

Final Thoughts

In the debate of heat pump vs air conditioner, there’s no clear-cut answer.

Heat pumps and air conditioners can both provide efficient cooling, but this depends on their style, SEER rating, and environment.

Also, the costs associated with installing a heat pump might convince you to just go with an air conditioner and furnace instead.

If you want a heat pump or a central air conditioning system installed but don’t know where to start, contact us at Upstate Home Maintenance Services.

We can help you determine if you’re eligible for heat pump rebates and work with you to help you save as much as possible.

Call us today, and we can discuss the best options for your situation.

We also offer services for all other heating and cooling systems, whether it’s a traditional HVAC system or an eco-friendly new air conditioner.

Whatever your HVAC system problem is, we have the expertise to fix it.

This article was written by Morgan Loch

Owner of Upstate Home Maintenance Services LLC and Local HVAC Guru

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