Practically everyone knows what an air conditioner does and why it is such a common component of the home’s cooling system, but fewer homeowners are aware that despite its name, a heat pump can provide the same kind of cooling. There are some differences in functionality between the two systems, and there are pros and cons to using each, which might well influence a buyer in need of a new cooling system.
Differences between the systems
The most obvious difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner is in their respective functionality, since an air conditioner has the single purpose of cooling the air in a home or office, whereas a heat pump can provide both cooled and heated air to the same building. During the warm months, both units operate the same way – they extract hot air from the home, filter out the hot air from refrigerant, and recycle that cooled refrigerant back into the home. In winter however, a heat pump can also work in reverse – it pulls the cold air from the home, absorbs warmth from outside air into the refrigerant, and recycles the refrigerant back into the home.
Statistically, air conditioners last slightly longer than heat pumps, largely due to the fact that heat pumps operate in both seasons, whereas air conditioners are only needed during summer months. Air conditioners are also a little less expensive to install than heat pumps, so initial cost is almost always lower.
One disadvantage of having an air conditioner installed is, of course, its single-use functionality. In comparison with heat pumps, improvements in air conditioners have not developed at quite the same pace over the past couple of decades. This means efficiencies gained by heat pumps have been at a rate of three or four times greater than that of air conditioning technology.
The big advantage offered by a heat pump is its dual-purpose heating and cooling functionality. It also can provide significant savings over using a furnace as the heating system. It should be mentioned that in regions where temperatures dip to freezing and below, heat pumps are less effective as heating systems, and that is a definite disadvantage. In such cases, heat pumps will usually be coupled with a secondary heating source, such as a furnace, that would be used when the outside temperature becomes too low for effective heat pump operation.
Another disadvantage is the heat pump’s shorter life span, although this is to be expected from a unit running year round. While it is understandable, it still means that homeowners can expect to replace a heat pump several years sooner than it would be necessary to replace an air conditioner. With higher functionality comes higher maintenance costs.
One last ‘pro’ is that high end heat pumps of today are a vast improvement over those available as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, and they have become very energy efficient in the home, returning big savings to owners. There have even been recently developed heat pumps which overcome the limitation on winter temperatures, and can operate effectively even in frigid weather, although these heat pumps are more expensive.