heat pump with heat pump vs air conditioner caption

Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner – What’s the Difference?

Today, everyone knows what an air conditioner is and what it does. That’s obvious. After all, nearly everyone has central air conditioning in their home. But, heat pumps are not quite as well known and there is often confusion when it comes to the differences (and similarities) between heat pumps and air conditioners. In this post we’re going to clear up that confusion for you so that you walk away with a better understanding!

What is a Heat Pump?

First of all, let’s go over exactly what a heat pump is. A heat pump is simply an air conditioner that also provides heat. Pretty neat, right?

A heat pump is designed to be able to reverse its cooling operation and provide heating as well. It accomplishes this by pulling in heat from the outside air and transferring it inside to your home. Essentially, a heat pump is a complete heating and cooling system. An air conditioner, on the other hand, needs to be paired with a heat source, such as a furnace, to be considered a complete heating and cooling system.

Does a Heat Pump Cool as Well as an Air Conditioner?

As we already covered, a heat pump is a conventional ac unit that also provides heat. So, yes, a heat pump cools just as well as an air conditioner because it operates under the same principles. While a heat pump provides heat which makes it quite different from an air conditioner, they both provide cooling in the exact same way.

Which is More Efficient?

Both air conditioners and heat pumps are similar in efficiency. Since they operate under the same cooling design and principles, their rate of efficiency is identical.

The main advantage with a heat pump’s efficiency is when it comes to heating. There isn’t a heat source that is more efficient than a heat pump. But, that can change if the outside temperatures drop below freezing.

Because heat pumps use the warmth from the outside air to provide heating into a home, the lower the temperature drops outside, the less efficient a heat pump can become. A gas furnace, on the other hand, produces its own heat with the use of a fuel that produces a flame inside the furnace. If the outside temperature drops, even well below freezing, a gas furnace can continue to produce heat with no problems.

Learn more about the temperature ranges that heat pumps are most effective in.

So, as you can see, a heat pump’s main advantage when it comes to efficiency is how well it performs at providing heat when compared to other heat sources (in accommodating climates). When it comes to providing cool air, heat pumps and air conditioners are very similar in efficiency.

Now let’s move on to comparing costs.

Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner Cost

When it comes to cost, a heat pump will typically cost a little more than an air conditioner. And, this is understandable since the heat pump is providing both heating and cooling for your home. If you are in a climate that needs heat in the cooler months, you can expect to pay similar costs when comparing a heat pump and an ac + furnace combo setup.

carrier heat pump
Standard Heat Pump
air conditioner and furnace
Typical AC + Furnace Combo

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Please note that the costs listed below are for example purposes only.

3.5 ton 14 SEER Air Conditioner 3.5 ton 14 SEER Heat Pump
Cost – $4,432Cost – $5,358
3.5 ton 14 SEER Air Conditioner + Gas Furnace3.5 ton 14 SEER Heat Pump
Cost – $5,303Cost – $5,358

As you can see from tables above, the cost of an air conditioner alone is less than that of a heat pump. But, when combining an air conditioner with a heat source, in this case a furnace, the cost is similar to that of a heat pump. This is typical throughout the HVAC industry, but be aware that costs can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Related: Heat Pump vs Furnace – Which is Better?

Which One Lasts Longer?

Because a heat pump typically runs year round, they tend to have a shorter lifespan than air conditioners. A heat pump provides cooling in the warmer months and heating in the cooler months. An air conditioner only runs to provide cooling in the warmer months therefore it can run twice as much or more when compared to a heat pump, depending on the climate.

Which is Better Overall?

To decide which is better in the heat pump vs air conditioner debate, it really comes down to personal preference.

Are you in a climate where you need both cooling and heating? If not, then an air conditioner is probably best for you. If you are in a climate where you need both cooling and heating, does the temperature drop below freezing for long periods of time? If so, an air conditioner combined with a furnace or some other HVAC system is probably best for you.

For example, our climate here in Jackson TN is somewhat on the edge of heat pump territory and ac + furnace territory. We experience freezing and below freezing temperatures, but they don’t usually last for long periods of time. As a local HVAC company here in Jackson, we install both heat pumps and ac + furnace combos for our customers and they both seem to work well in our climate.

Wrapping It Up

I hope this information has removed any confusion and has given you a better understanding when comparing heat pumps and air conditioners. As far as cooling goes, heat pumps and ac units are practically the same. The main differences are when it comes to heating, cost, and longevity. Both HVAC systems are great investments and if they are the right fit climate wise, they will definitely meet your needs!

2 thoughts on “Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner – What’s the Difference?”

  1. Just a quick note to say THANK YOU for the clear and unbiased information on the pro and cons of a heat pump vs. an ac unit and furnace. Great info and much appreciated. Is there any good info on what brands are the most reliable overall? I live in the New England where it gets quite cold in the winter. Every HVAC company seems to push whatever brand they typically carry or are familiar with. I’ve had a Lenox system for many years and considering a Carrier system. Have also heard Bryant is very good (or uses the same parts as Carrier). Your thoughts? Thanks again for the excellent info. Jim S.

    1. Jim you wouldn’t be doing wrong if you went with a Carrier system or a Bryant system. They are both solid, dependable systems and we actually install them both. You are correct. Bryant and Carrier use similar parts for their units. We also install a lot of Goodman units as well.

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