What's the Difference Between an A/C and a Heat Pump?

Technician working on an air conditioner or heat pump - Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling, & Plumbing

The Cincinnati summers leave homeowners to seek respite inside and enjoy the cool conditions their cooling systems provide. Which cooling system works best in your Cincinnati home, an air conditioner vs. heat pump?

The air conditioner vs. heat pump dilemma is a major consideration amongst Cincinnati homeowners who need to upgrade their cooling equipment. The NATE-certified cooling technicians of Thomas & Galbraith explain each cooling system type in a bit more detail to help you make this important decision.

When it’s time to make a choice between air conditioner vs. heat pump, turn to Thomas & Galbraith for quality cooling systems and installation in and around Cincinnati. We help you select the Carrier cooling equipment that is right for your home and provide flawless installation to keep you cool, year after year.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump: How They Work

Let’s begin our air conditioner vs. heat pump discussion with a look at how each system type works to cool your Cincinnati home. Air conditioners are commonly mistaken for a system that produces cooling to lower indoor temperatures. However, this is not how it works. This misconception is likely do to the fact that their usual heating system counterparts, furnaces, create heat.

How an air conditioner actually keeps a home cool is through the transfer of heat, from indoors to the area outside your home.

  1. First, hot air passes over the system’s evaporator coils. The refrigerant held within them takes on the heat, leaving cooler temperature air.
  2. Refrigerant lines carry the heat-containing refrigerant to the outdoor air conditioning system components, the compressor and condenser coil.
  3. Heat from the refrigerant is released from the condenser coil into the outside air.

Air conditioner are able to keep indoor areas cool as they move heat from one area where it’s unwanted, to the outdoors which is able to take on the extra heat. There is no creation of cooling involved and infused into the air.

Since the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate involves two different types of cooling system, you may think they operate in different ways. Surprise! Heat pumps and air conditioners cool homes in the exact same way! They use the same components to transfer heat from your home to another area!

Now, there are two different types of heat pumps: air source and geothermal. Air source heat pumps exchange heat from the air inside your home and the air outside of your home. Geothermal heat pumps however exchange heat between the air in your home and the ground, or a water source in some cases. Geothermal heat pumps are attached to a ground loop, which sits underground and carries heat energy into the earth to be deposited.

When it comes to the cooling side of the air conditioner vs. heat pump question, there’s not really a favorite as far as the cooling process is concerned. This is because both systems act in the same manner. Both air conditioners and heat pumps transfer heat out of your home in order to produce cooler indoor temperatures.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Debate

It’s hard to imagine why the question of an air conditioner vs. heat pump even exists if they both follow the same cooling process. The differences really come when it is time to heat your home. One system is able to tackle the job, while the other system is not.

Home Heating Needs

If you choose an air conditioner in the air conditioner vs. heat pump decision, it’s unavoidable – you have to have a separate heating system unless you wish to go without heat during the Cincinnati winter. Air conditioners are often paired with furnaces, which are used from the late fall to early spring for home heating.

If you choose heat pump in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate, you don’t necessarily need a separate heating system because a heat pump is able to do both. How is this possible? A heat pump runs in reverse when it is switched into heating mode.

In heating mode, the system reverses to extract heat from the outdoor air for use inside your home. Heat energy is absorbed by the condenser coil, transported through the refrigerant lines and emitted into the air at the evaporator coil. This heated air then circulates into your home’s living areas.

Geothermal heat pumps also work in reverse. They extract heat through the ground loop from the earth or water source, which remains a consistent 55 degrees or so throughout the year.

In the heating ability component of the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate, heat pumps are a clear winner over air conditioners.

Energy Efficiency

In regards to energy efficiency in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate, cooling and heating must be compared separate. Whether you choose an air conditioner vs. heat pump, the energy efficiency of that unit directly effects utility bills, which are an important concern amongst Cincinnati homeowners.

Heat pumps and air conditioners measure energy efficiency using SEER, which stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. The higher the SEER number, the more efficient the air conditioner or heat pump. This also means that a heat pump and an air conditioner with the same SEER rating have the exact same efficiency – both systems cost you the same to run for cooling.

One problem in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate is extremely hot temperatures. Air conditioners do well when the difference between outdoor temperatures and the indoor temperature you want is under 20 degrees. On an extremely hot day into the mid-90s, air conditioners struggle to keep Cincinnati homes a cool 70 degrees. On the other hand, heat pumps don’t really struggle with high temperature differentials.

On those hot days, air conditioners are far less energy efficient than heat pumps. When conditions are mild, both air conditioners and heat pumps run the same efficiencies between units with like SEER ratings.

Heat pumps really generate savings when it comes to heating vs. furnaces. An air source heat pump delivers between 175 to 300 percent energy efficiency, where the highest efficiency furnaces are around 98 AFUE (annual fuel utilization ratio – the amount of heat produced for amount of energy consumed). A 98 AFUE furnace is only 98 percent efficient. Geothermal heat pumps, on the other hand, are 300 to 600 percent energy efficient.

Air source heat pumps do struggle to adequately heat Cincinnati homes when temperatures drop between 25 to 30 degrees or lower. The average low temperature is in or under this range typically in the winter months, but that doesn’t mean these conditions happen every day. A heat pump may be enough to comfortably heat your home through the winter, or you can install a backup heat source to run when conditions force your air source heat pump’s efficiency to decline.

Geothermal heat pumps however are not affected by cold weather. The temperatures below ground remain steady no matter what, thanks to the Sun’s energy. A geothermal heat pump provides adequate heating when an air source heat pump is unable.

For the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate on heating, air conditioners are out. Air source heat pumps are a good option, though geothermal heat pumps are a superior choice.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Cost

Cost is another important factor when you decide between air conditioner vs. heat pump. Many Cincinnati homeowners look at sticker price to help make this decision, so here is what to expect.

Heat pumps themselves have less moving parts, which helps make their purchase and installation price lower than that of an air conditioner. Air conditioners are likely to cost you more to install. Plus with an air conditioner, you absolutely need a heating system, or else you are definitely going to be cold throughout the winter.

Though the heat pump itself is more affordable, geothermal systems come with far more costs than air source heat pumps. The requisite ground loop is the most expensive component to install. Geothermal systems can range between $10,000 and $30,000 to install depending on system configuration. Fortunately, they generate great energy savings when in heating mode so many Cincinnati homeowners find that installation pays for itself within a matter of years.

For air conditioner vs. heat pump cost, a geothermal heat pump system is your most expensive option. Air conditioners come in next, with air source heat pumps being the usual lowest cost option. Don’t consider only cooling components though, because if you need a primary or backup heating system, this adds more cost to your HVAC system total.

Thomas & Galbraith Helps End Your Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Debate

When it comes time to make a selection between an air conditioner vs. heat pump, our HVAC company is here to help. The answer to the air conditioner vs. heat pump question has no one right answer – this decision is different for each household and depends on factors such as climate, cost, and energy savings goals.

For a new air conditioner or heat pump, contact Thomas & Galbraith today. We offer genuine Carrier cooling systems and our NATE-certified technicians perform expert installation. No matter what you choose in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate, we have you covered.

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