Heat Pump vs AC: Costs vs Effectiveness

Published by 
AllThingsHVAC
Last updated: 
September 6, 2016

The heat pump vs AC debate is about 100 years old but stronger than ever. A quick look at their reviews illustrates this better than anything else. While a customer praises a product for being the best and most efficient, another one condemns it for not working properly or breaking down.

Surprisingly, they can both be right. Most performance issues in HVAC appliances are due to improper installation or an uneducated choice when it comes to which one would be more fitting. Here are the main differences between heat pumps and air conditioners, and how to decide which one is the best for you:

heat pump vs AC cooling efficiency

Heat Pump vs AC:
The Ultimate HVAC Battle

The air conditioner vs heat pump discussion is far from short or simple.

Many factors influence which appliance works best under certain conditions, some that can be controlled and others that are independent of our will or actions. Here are the most important:

Heat Pump vs AC: How They Work

ACs and heat pumps use coils to circulate refrigerant which is expanded and/or compressed when moving through coils. The expansion process cools off the refrigerant, while compression heats it up. Unlike most air conditioners that only have air cooling functions, heat pumps are able to use both processes to provide comfortable temperatures all year around.

Excessive humidity makes us perceive the air as warmer or colder than it actually is, so removing moisture is essential for a comfortable environment. Even though air conditioners are known to control moisture, more heat pumps offer this option as well.

There are many variations to these products. Heat pumps, for example, can come in all sizes and capacities – and so can air conditioners. Ductless heat pumps, or mini split heat pumps, are recommended for smaller rooms or garages that do not need cooling and heating 24/7.

But is the heat pump vs AC battle really necessary?

You might have noticed we mentioned most wall air conditioners are only able to cool off the air inside a home; This happens because some AC units make use of the inverter technology to also heat the air. To put it simply, they incorporate heat pumps to create a highly efficient heat pump air conditioner combo. However, they are only to be used occasionally since central air conditioners with heating functions are not efficient and will drastically increase energy costs.

A portable air conditioner with heat pump is a great choice for small rooms that only need climate control from time to time. They take up little space and can be stored far away from guests’ eyes when not in use.

Heat Pump vs AC: Effectiveness

Other than the fact that ACs usually have higher SEER than heat pumps when cooling off the air, there is no major functionality difference when the outside temperatures are high. However, heat pumps are considered the most effective electrical heating systems at the moment.

It’s impossible to assert which one of these two HVAC appliances is more effective because there are many variables involved. Climate is the most important one, but local electricity prices and the staggering variety of air conditioners and heat pumps also add to the difficulty of this question.

Heat Pump vs AC: Costs

Here’s a breakdown of the costs involved in buying, installing, and running a heat pump vs AC:

Note: The values mentioned below are approximates only. Running costs heavily depend on local energy prices and frequency of use.

Heat Pump vs AC: Acquisition & Energy Costs

When looking at the acquisition prices, heat pumps usually cost more than air conditioners: Up to $2,000 more than a central air conditioner and about $500 more than a ductless one.

However, if installed in appropriate climate areas and under the right conditions, they can save energy from day 1. The U.S. government often provides rebates for saving energy to citizens who only use heat pumps to regulate the temperature inside their homes. Air conditioners initially cost less, but even the most effective one will not help you save as much as a heat pump on the long run.

Heat Pump vs AC: Installation & Maintenance Costs

There are no major differences when talking about installation costs of a heat pump vs air conditioner. Troubleshooting and maintenance costs are not much different either if used in the right climates. No matter your choice, we recommend only buying new appliances that have not been used as display models. To verify this, you can look for an original manufacturer’s seal on the outside of the packaged item.

How to Choose Between a Heat Pump vs AC

For those who live in warm areas where heating is only needed a few days or weeks per year at most, an air conditioner is the right choice. Its generally higher SEER and ability to cool off the air like no other appliance makes it the best HVAC unit in these cases. If you live in an area where temperatures rarely go beyond the freezing point, a heat pump can be the right choice. It can successfully act as a furnace and an air conditioner with heat pump if the outside temperatures are not extreme.

However, heat pumps have limited capabilities and functionality when it comes to extremely cold climates. When temperatures drop well below freezing points for prolonged periods of time, its outside coils collect ice which interferes with their efficiency. Many heat pumps have special burners to remove the ice, but they are only effective above certain temperatures and can drastically increase annual operating costs. Therefore, a furnace could be a much more fitting choice for colder areas (under 30F).

heat pump vs AC running costs

How to Choose a Heat Pump or AC

No matter your choice, there is one aspect you need to take into account when deciding how powerful the HVAC appliance will be. A higher BTU air conditioner or heat pump is not always the best option – especially if we’re talking about humid areas.

A powerful climate control appliance will, indeed, heat or cool the house faster, but it will not fix an important aspect: Humidity. Given it will only function at reduced capacity and from time to time, the AC or heat pump will not be able to properly control the moisture and will lead, in time, to mold and respiratory issues.

For moist climates, the best HVAC appliance is one of small capacity since it will work at a steady speed and permanently remove moisture from the inside air.

Those living in sunny areas might benefit from a solar panel compatible heat pump or AC. Although considerably more expensive, once installed they will require little to no running costs. If you already have an environmentally-friendly house which converts solar power to energy, these might be what you need. They can be used as standalone HVAC appliances or as auxiliaries that will help keep a steady and comfortable temperature while maintaining expenses to a minimum.

Some Energy-Saving & Health Tips

Acquiring a highly efficient HVAC appliance is a must for keeping energy bills low. The latest models have a SEER of up to 25, but anything above 18 is considered very efficient. But efficiency isn’t all: Extra functions are just as important. We already mentioned moisture and how it can enhance the perceived temperature. Other useful features can be mobile control or programming.

Regularly changing the filters can also help with keeping the bills to a minimum, since dirty and clogged ones will make the appliance run at higher than needed capacities. This results in extra monthly expenses that can be easily avoided and can even lead to the appliance breaking down which will add to the costs.

Changing filters is also recommended for health reasons since over time they gather dust, spores, allergens, or bacteria that can be harmful to our wellbeing. Itchy or runny nose and eyes are signs the filters need changing or cleaning. This should be done as often as possible, at least twice per year for temperate climates and 4 or 5  times for areas where the appliance is used all year around.

When using an HVAC appliance, keep the windows closed to avoid wasting energy. Inside ducts or vents and outside units should not be obstructed by furniture, walls, or other objects since this might impede proper functioning and can also damage the obstructing object. For example, heat pumps or air conditioners which can also increase the amount of moisture in a room can deter furniture, doors, or other woodwork items.

Window coverings are another energy-saving tip that is often overlooked. Thick textile coverings can keep the house a few degrees cooler or warmer by stopping sunlight and draught from coming in.

Heat Pump vs AC: Bottom Line

Although we mentioned heat pumps involve lower running expenses, the cost effectiveness of a heat pump vs AC heavily depends on the frequency of use, global positioning, the needs of individual customers, and local energy costs. There is no universally right choice when it comes to cooling and/or heating systems: Every type and model of appliance on the market is someone’s best choice, as well as the most unfit product for someone else.

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