closeup of heat pump outside of brick house

Are you considering installing a heat pump vs. AC to cool your home? Heat pumps and air conditioners have a lot in common. They provide cool air using efficient refrigeration systems; most styles are electric. They even look alike to the untrained eye. However, heat pumps and air conditioners are different.

The chief advantage of heat pumps is they can operate in reverse to heat homes, but this feature is only practical for some homes. Heat pumps differ from air conditioners in cost, performance, maintenance, and lifespan. Understanding the nuances of each device will ensure you purchase the ideal unit for your needs.

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What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is a heating and cooling system that transfers heat outside in summer and inside in winter. Unlike most HVAC equipment, heat pump systems don’t require separate units for heating and cooling. Heat pump systems work year-round to provide homes with comfortable temperatures.

Types of Heat Pumps

Homeowners looking at heat pumps have many styles to consider. Each design operates differently and carries advantages and disadvantages. Five types of heat pumps are installed in homes today: air-source, water-source, ground-source, absorption, and hybrid. The key distinction between each is the source they exchange heat with, air, water, or ground. Air-source heat pumps are the most common, but the ground and water-source heat pumps are more efficient.

There are other differences among heat pump types. All heat pumps transfer heat with refrigerants, but they might use Freon, water, antifreeze, ammonia, or a combination. Most heat pumps are electric, but alternative fuels power some styles. Particular heat pumps can be paired with gas furnaces for backup heating in cold climates.

Air Source Heat Pumps

Air-source heat pumps transfer heat between buildings and the outside air. They come in several varieties. Split-system ducted heat pumps are similar to air conditioning systems with outdoor condensers, indoor air handlers, and ductwork to deliver the treated air. Mini-split systems include an outdoor unit and at least one indoor unit, but they don’t connect to ductwork. Single-package units contain all the heat pump’s components in one outdoor cabinet.

Water Source Heat Pumps

Water source heat pumps transfer heat between buildings and bodies of water, like backyard ponds or wells. Pipes are sunk deep in the water where temperatures remain consistent despite surface-level fluctuations. The heat pump pumps the source water through its system to transfer heat between the home and the water supply. Water-source heat pumps are cheaper than ground-source heat pumps but require adequate water supplies year-round.

Ground Source Heat Pumps

Ground-source heat pumps, a form of geothermal heating and cooling, transfer heat between buildings and the ground. Refrigerants or water and antifreeze circulate through pipes buried deep below the earth’s surface, where temperatures are consistent year-round. Ground-source heat pumps have high installation costs but have long lifespans and deliver the most energy-cost savings.

Absorption Heat Pumps

Gas absorption heat pumps don’t run on electricity like other heat pumps. They are air-source units powered by natural gas, propane, solar-heated water, or geothermal-heated water. They have higher running costs than electric heat pumps but are ideal for homes without electricity. Absorption heat pumps use a mixture of ammonia and water to transfer heat.

Hybrid Heat Pumps

Hybrid or dual-fuel heat pump systems combine air-source heat pumps and gas furnaces. The heat pump cools the home and heats it when temperatures are mild. The gas furnace takes over heating when it’s too cold outside for the heat pump to be efficient. Heat pumps in moderate climates can quickly meet heating needs, but heat pumps in cold climates might struggle.

What is an air conditioner?

An air conditioner is a cooling unit that uses refrigerants to remove humidity and heat from indoor spaces. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the home’s air, transfers it outside, and blows freshly cooled air into the house.

Types of Air Conditioners

Air conditioning is possible for every home and budget due to the many styles on the market today. You’re sure to find an air conditioning unit that works for you whether you’re cooling an entire home or a single room, a small house or large house, or a home with ductwork or without.

Four types of air conditioners are commonly used in buildings today:

  • Central air conditioners

  • Mini-split air conditioners

  • PTACs

  • Window and portable units

Every style is electric and uses refrigerants to remove humidity and heat from indoor air, but each type contains distinct components, installs differently, and has individual requirements. Air conditioners also vary in efficiency and cost.

Central Air Conditioners

Central air conditioning systems, the most common form, include indoor and outdoor components and distribute cooled air through ductwork. The outdoor condenser contains a compressor and a condensing coil. The indoor unit consists of an evaporator coil and an air handler or furnace fan. Refrigerant lines connect the two units. Central air conditioners are perfect for larger homes with existing ductwork.

Mini Split Air Conditioners

Mini-split air conditioning systems include outdoor condensers and one or more indoor units typically mounted high on walls. Refrigerant lines connect the indoor and outdoor units. Mini-splits are ductless air conditioners; the indoor units contain small fans to blow cooled air into the rooms. These compact air conditioners are ideal for smaller homes without ductwork but are costly if many indoor units are necessary.


Packaged terminal air conditioners (PTACs) are self-contained heating and cooling units typically used in hotel rooms, hospital rooms, and apartment buildings. Most PTACs are installed through walls near floor level. PTACs are excellent for heating and cooling small spaces without ductwork, such as sunrooms and home additions.

Window and Portable Air Conditioners

Window and portable air conditioners are small, self-contained units that are ideal for apartments and small houses. Window units install in window openings. Installation is more straightforward than other styles, but the units must be secured so they don’t fall. Warm air vents out the backside of the unit, and a fan component blows cold air into the room.

Portable air conditioners are free-standing units that can be moved from room to room but must be situated near a window and electrical outlet. Warm air vents through an exhaust hose connected to a window, and the unit’s fan blows cold air into the room.

How a Heat Pump vs AC Works

The way air conditioners operate is similar to how heat pumps work. Both air conditioners and heat pumps transfer heat using refrigerants and coils. Central air conditioning systems and split-system heat pumps operate identically. Refrigerant flowing through the system absorbs heat from the home’s air at the indoor evaporator coil, and the air handler’s fan blows the cooled air through ductwork and into the house. Then, the refrigerant containing the home’s heat flows outside to the compressor to be pressurized and heated. Next, the compressor pumps the refrigerant through the condenser coils. The condenser’s fan blows air that cools the refrigerant and releases the stored heat. Finally, the refrigerant enters the expansion valve to be depressurized and further cooled. The refrigerant flows back to the indoor coil to repeat the cycle.

Heat Pump vs Central Air Conditioner: Key Differences

Heat pumps and air conditioners operate alike, share many of the same components, and have other things in common. But heat pumps and air conditioners are different. The chief distinction between the two units is that heat pumps include a reversing valve that reverses the refrigerant’s flow to deliver heat to the home in winter. Air conditioners don’t have this component, so they can only extract heat from houses to cool them. Therefore, homes with air conditioners require separate units for heating, and places with heat pumps don’t. Heat pumps and air conditioners also differ in cost, installation, energy efficiency, performance, maintenance, and lifespan.


Heat Pump

HomeGuide says heat pump installation costs $3,800 to $8,200 on average. Heat pump type, size, efficiency, and brand affect the total cost. Heat pump equipment typically runs $800 to $4,500, and installation labor costs $1,200 to $3,500. Heat pumps cost $40 to $160 per month to run. Electricity rates, climate zone, heat pump efficiency, and other factors determine operational costs.

Air Conditioner

HomeGuide says air conditioner installation costs $2,500 to $7,500 on average. Air conditioner type, size, efficiency, and brand affect the total cost. Air conditioner equipment typically costs $1,000 to $5,000, and installation labor runs $1,000 to $2,500. Air conditioners cost $80 to $200 per month to run. Electricity rates, air conditioner efficiency, and other factors determine operational costs.


Heat Pump

Heat pumps must be professionally installed. Heat pump installation is slightly more expensive than air conditioner installation. Split-system heat pumps require ductwork, significantly increasing installation costs if no ductwork exists in the home.

Air Conditioner

Professional installation of air conditioners is essential. Air conditioner installation is less expensive than heat pump installation. Central air conditioners deliver treated air through ductwork. New ductwork installation significantly adds to the overall installation costs.

Energy Efficiency and Performance

Heat Pump

SEER ratings measure heat pump cooling efficiency, and HSPF ratings measure heating efficiency. Units with higher ratings are more efficient and use less energy. Heat pumps are more efficient than air conditioners, dehumidify better, and use less energy.

Heat pumps are most efficient when cooling and use five times less energy than heating. Standard heat pumps perform best above 40°F. Some heat pumps are too inefficient in low temperatures to provide adequate heat.

Air Conditioner

SEER ratings also measure air conditioner efficiency. Units with higher ratings are more efficient and use less energy. Air conditioners are less efficient than heat pumps, don’t dehumidify as well, and use more power.


Heat Pump

Heat pump maintenance includes filter changes every one to three months; regularly removing vegetation, debris, snow, and ice around the unit; coil cleanings; and biannual professional inspections if the unit is used year-round. Heat pumps that are used for cooling and heating require more maintenance than air conditioners.

Air Conditioner

Air conditioner maintenance includes filter changes every one to three months, coil cleanings, regular removal of vegetation and debris around the unit, and yearly professional inspections. Air conditioners require less maintenance than heat pumps that are used year-round.


Heat Pump

Heat pumps don’t typically last as long as air conditioners. Heat pumps get more usage and sustain more wear and tear when they are used for cooling and heating. How long do heat pumps last? The average heat pump lifespan is 15 years, but you might get more or less time out of your heat pump depending on your climate, region, and level of maintenance.

Air Conditioner

Air conditioners last longer than heat pumps because ACs are used for only part of the year. The average air conditioner lifespan is 15 to 20 years. Maintenance and other variables determine how long HVAC systems last.  

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Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner: Choosing the Best Option

There are advantages and disadvantages to installing a heat pump vs. an air conditioner. Both units provide cooling, but heat pumps also provide heating. Air conditioner equipment and installation costs are cheaper, but heat pumps free you from furnace equipment and installation costs because they cool and heat. On the other hand, heat pumps used year-round for cooling and heating have shorter lifespans than air conditioners.

Heat pumps are more efficient, dehumidify better, and use less energy than air conditioners, but they can be inefficient heaters in cold climates and might require backup heating.

Heat pump and air conditioner maintenance during the cooling season are similar. Heat pumps that are also used for heating require additional care. However, all heating systems require maintenance.

Heat pumps and air conditioners come in wide varieties to suit any home. Whether you’ve decided which is best for your home or are still debating, an expert can give you additional details and advice to assure you make the right decision.

Frequently Asked Questions

What heat pump qualifies for tax credit?

Under the Inflation Reduction Act, heat pumps with at least 75% thermal efficiency ratings qualify for tax credits. Homeowners can claim 30% of the installation costs up to $2,000.

Do heat pumps run on gas or electric?

Electric heat pumps are typical, but absorption heat pumps can be powered by natural gas, propane, solar-heated water, or geothermal-heated water.

Will my air conditioner work in winter?

Air conditioners are not designed to run in winter. Most manufacturers discourage running air conditioners in temperatures below 60 to 65°F. The compressor’s oil becomes too thick to lubricate in cold weather effectively, and the condenser coil can be damaged if condensation forms and freezes on it.

Can an air conditioner heat a room?

Air conditioners can’t provide heat unless they are components of a heat pump system.

Are heat pumps as good as air conditioners at cooling?

Heat pumps cool as well as air conditioners and possibly better. Air conditioner and heat pump cooling efficiency are measured by SEER ratings, making it easy to compare units.

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