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Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner: What’s the Difference & How to Choose?

HVAC Business Tips

Heat pumps and air-conditioners are the two most common names that you would hear if you interact with an HVAC technician or a contractor. Unfortunately, most common people often confuse one with the other.

If you plan to replace cooling system or install a heating system on your premises, then it is critical that you know the difference between the two. Yes, your HVAC technician will explain the difference, but it will be greatly beneficial to you if you know these terms beforehand. Such knowledge will ensure that your interactions with the technicians remain fruitful and you get the best possible solution from them.

In this post, we are going to uncover the key differences between a heat pump and an air-conditioner and give you a good idea about which one to choose and when.

Principle of heat pump and air conditioner

The basic working principle is almost the same for both the air conditioners and heat pumps.

First, let’s see how AC units work.

When the warm air from inside the room moves over the evaporator coil inside the air-conditioner, the refrigerant that’s present within the coil pulls all the heat from the air. This refrigerant, powered by the compressor, moves to the outdoor components via the in-built lines to the condenser coil, which, in turn, lets the heat off to the surroundings.

Let’s now see how heat pumps works.

The heat pump works almost the same as the air-conditioner. It has a reversing valve, using which it can change the flow of the refrigerant. This enables it to heat or cool a room. Air is blown over an evaporator coil, through which the heat is transferred from the air to the refrigerant. The heat is then circulated in the refrigerant into a condenser coil. Here, the heat is released as the fan blows air across the coil. This way, the heat is easily transferred from one place to another.

To summarize, an air-conditioner is just a cooling system while a heat pump is both a heating and cooling system.

Heat pump vs. air conditioner

Now that you have seen the similarity between these two systems let’s understand the core differences.

Heating

We already know the answer to this. The AC unit can only keep your home cool, while the heat pump system can keep your room cool during the summers and hot during the winters.

At this juncture, let us introduce the two types of heating systems – geothermal heat pumps(also known as ground source heat pumps) and air source heat pumps. The air source heat pumps use air as the medium to transfer heat from one point to another. A geothermal system moves the heat from one source to another by using water instead of air. The geothermal system extracts the heat from the water that is placed in another unit and transfers it to the room in the winter season. During the summers, the heat is transferred from room to water.

Efficiency

This is a very important aspect that you need to consider while choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner. The concept is pretty simple – the more efficient the system is, the less power it will utilize. HVAC technicians measure the heat pump and air conditioner efficiency using SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio).

The efficiency of the air conditioner varies based on the outdoor temperature. A typical air conditioning system is designed in such a way that it will keep your indoors cool with good efficiency if the difference in the outdoor and indoor temperature is around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. During summers, when the temperature difference is much higher, the efficiency of the air conditioner will reduce as it needs to work harder to keep your indoors cool.

But the heat pumps don’t have a similar problem with the outdoor temperature. They give out the same efficiency irrespective of the difference in the indoor and outdoor temperature. Heat pumps are usually more efficient than the air conditioner, or for that matter, any heating systems. The geothermal heat pump has an efficiency between 300% to 600%, and the air source heat pump has an efficiency of 175% to 300%. Air source heat pumps usually do not deliver great results in the winter season if the outdoor temperature drops below 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Price

This is again a very important factor. After knowing all the differences and similarities, you would want to see if either of them fits your budget or would you need a different type of HVAC systems.

Let’s start with the most expensive one – the geothermal heat pump. It can cost anywhere between $10,000 to $30,000, with the ground loop system accounting for the majority of the price. Next comes the air conditioner. The most affordable system is, of course, the air source heat pump. Based on the model of the air conditioner (like central AC) and the air source heat pump, it can cost anywhere between a couple of hundred dollars to several hundred dollars.

Conclusion

Choosing an HVAC unit for your premises is never easy. But when the HVAC units so closely resemble in terms of features and capabilities, you are bound to be confused even further. That’s what happens when you have to decide whether to pick and air-conditioner or a hear pump. You need to weigh in various factors given in this post such as efficiency, price, the possibility of heating, etc. By keeping them in mind, you can make a final decision.

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