Choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner depends mostly on your budget and your climate. Heat pumps are more versatile than air conditioners, providing heating and cooling capabilities but cost more. In contrast, air conditioners have lower up-front costs but mean you’ll require a separate heating system.
If you’re unsure which is right for you, this article will help make your decision easier. We cover the advantages and disadvantages of both heat pumps and ACs and compare them based on cost, maintenance requirements, and longevity. Once you’re finished reading, use our handy tool to find the best local HVAC installers near you.
Today’s Homeowner works with an independent reviews team to create evidence-based research that helps our readers make informed decisions. The reviews are always independent. For transparency, we may be compensated if you purchase through a link.
What Are the Differences Between a Heat Pump and an Air Conditioner?
The biggest difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner is that a heat pump can be used for heating and cooling, whereas an air conditioner can only be used for cooling. Heat pumps function fundamentally differently than air conditioners — switching a heat pump from heating mode to cooling mode is as simple as reversing the airflow through the system. Air conditioners are designed for one-way operation, which makes them suitable only for cooling.
Heat pumps use the temperature difference between the inside and outside air around your home to heat or cool the air as needed. An air handler pumps air into the system, allowing it to pass over a heat exchanger before it’s fed into a compressor. The compressor squeezes the air, causing it to heat up before it’s passed back over the heat exchanger. The warm air is then pumped in the desired direction, into your home during the winter and out during the summer.
Air conditioners also use a compressor, condenser, and evaporator coil to remove heat from the air inside your home before blowing it out of the exhaust. However, the airflow in an air conditioner can’t be reversed, so homes with ACs need another heating method, such as a furnace. Purchasing an air conditioner and a furnace is usually more expensive than purchasing a heat pump, so air conditioners cost more than heat pumps, even though they are more expensive on their own.
An important consequence of how heat pumps work is that their efficiency dramatically decreases when the outside air temperature drops below freezing. Heat pumps are better for homes in moderate climates without extreme outdoor temperature fluctuations between seasons. If you live in a colder climate with harsh winters, you’ll be better served by an air conditioner and gas furnace combo.
Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll restrict our discussion to air-source heat pumps, which are much more common for home heating and significantly more affordable than other types of heat pumps like geothermal heat pumps and dual fuel heat pumps.
The video below explains the difference between heat pumps and air conditioners nicely if you need a visual aid:
Pros and Cons of Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioners
Both heat pumps and air conditioners have their advantages and disadvantages, so there isn’t one right answer for everyone. Choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner comes down to deciding how much you want to pay and whether you mind having a separate system for heating. The climate where you live also plays a role in determining which type of HVAC system is the better option, as does what type of system you currently have.
Heat Pump Benefits and Drawbacks
Heat pumps are more versatile than air conditioners since they can act as a type of heating and cooling system at the same time, conditioning your home by changing the airflow direction depending on the season. This flexibility is convenient but also means that a heat pump must work harder than an air conditioner, leading to higher maintenance costs and shorter lifespans.
Heat pumps are also more expensive since they double as a heating and cooling system. Remember that the combined cost of an air conditioner and a furnace is almost always higher than that of a heat pump.
|Costs less than an AC plus furnace||Doesn’t last as long as an AC|
|Provides both home heating and home cooling||Higher up-front cost for equipment and installation|
|Works well in temperate climates||Requires more maintenance and upkeep|
Air Conditioner Benefits and Drawbacks
Air conditioners have lower up-front costs than heat pumps and generally longer lifespans, but you’ll have to pair an air conditioner with a heating system, which will cost more than just buying a heat pump. Most homeowners won’t need to run their air conditioner constantly throughout the year, so ACs tend to last longer than heat pumps and require fewer tune-ups.
|Doesn’t require as much maintenance as a heat pump||Usually less efficient than a heat pump|
|Lasts longer||You need a separate heating system|
|Lower up-front cost||–|
Heat Pump vs. AC: Cost Comparison
At first glance, heat pumps appear more expensive than air conditioners since they cost more up-front. However, even though heat pumps have higher equipment costs and cost more to install, the cost to run them long-term is lower since they’re typically more efficient than a comparable air conditioner.
Heat pumps also heat and cool your home, eliminating the need for a separate heating system. By contrast, an air conditioner can only be used for cooling, so you’ll also need to factor in the cost of a furnace or other heating equipment to make a fair comparison. The combined cost of installing an air conditioner and furnace is almost always higher than installing a heat pump.
Another important factor is that heat pumps run year-round, making them more prone to malfunctions and breakdowns from constant wear and tear. Depending on the type of service contract you have with your HVAC company, the cumulative costs of maintaining a heat pump may exceed the cost of maintaining an air conditioner.
Another consideration is that heat pumps are eligible for tax incentives unavailable for air conditioners. You can claim 30% of the total project cost up to $2,000 if you install a mini-split with a SEER2 (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio — explained below) rating greater than 16 or a ducted heat pump that qualifies for the ENERGY STAR label. This tax credit can make heat pumps more affordable than a similarly-sized ducted air conditioner.
No matter which type of HVAC system you choose, you’ll have to choose a unit with enough capacity to handle the space you’re heating or cooling. Larger homes require beefier systems, which, of course, cost more. The following table compares heat pump costs (both before and after the tax credit) to air conditioner costs for several different home sizes:
|Home Size||Heat Pump||Heat Pump After Tax Credit||Air Conditioner|
|1,000 sq. ft.||$3,256||$2,279||$2,960|
|1,500 sq. ft.||$3,836||$2,685||$3,305|
|2,000 sq. ft.||$4,477||$3,134||$4,070|
|2,500 sq. ft.||$5,934||$4,154||$4,485|
|3,000 sq. ft.||$7,979||$5,585||$5,435|
Don’t forget that you’ll have to pay several thousand dollars more if your home doesn’t have existing ductwork when you install a heat pump or central air conditioning system. Ductless mini-split air conditioning units, window air conditioners, and wall ACs are all significantly cheaper than central air conditioners and heat pumps, making them more attractive to homeowners on a tight budget.
Finally, keep in mind that you’ll have to replace a heat pump sooner than you’ll have to replace an air conditioner, so the lifetime cost of choosing a heat pump over an air conditioner will still likely be higher over several replacement cycles, even after considering the tax credit.
Are Heat Pumps More Efficient Than Air Conditioners?
Heat pumps are usually more efficient than central ACs, using less energy for a given cooling capacity. Higher efficiency means lower monthly electric bills and energy costs, making heat pumps more affordable in the long run than air conditioners. Heat pumps are also a more efficient heating method than most natural gas and propane furnaces.
Any given heat pump may be more or less efficient than a particular air conditioner, even though heat pumps are more efficient than air conditioners overall. Using the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER2), you can compare specific products.
Higher SEER2 ratings indicate greater energy efficiency. As of January 1, 2023, all heat pumps and air conditioners must have a SEER2 value of at least 13.4 in the northern part of the U.S. and 14.3 in the southern part of the U.S. SEER2 values above 19 are considered exceptional.
In addition, the heating efficiency of air-source heat pumps measured by the equipment’s Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) must be a minimum of 8.8.
Do Heat Pumps Last Longer Than AC Units?
Generally speaking, heat pumps don’t last as long as air conditioners, all else being equal. The average lifespan for a heat pump is between 10 and 15 years, while the average lifespan for a comparable air conditioner is usually between 15 and 20 years, with the best AC brands lasting up to 25 years. These averages represent many types of heat pumps and air conditioners, but specific circumstances can affect your heating equipment’s longevity.
The primary reason heat pumps don’t last as long as air conditioners is that heat pumps are used year-round, while air conditioners are only used during warmer weather. This means that heat pumps accumulate wear and tear roughly twice as fast as air conditioners.
Another factor that affects your HVAC system’s longevity is upkeep. Air conditioners need annual tune-ups to continue functioning smoothly and maintain their efficiency. Most HVAC contractors recommend servicing your heat pump at least once per year, although many suggest that biannual service is a safer bet. Following your HVAC technician’s advice is a good way to extend your system’s lifespan and avoid problems as it ages.
Heat Pump vs. AC: Which System Do We Recommend?
Heat pumps and air conditioners each have their places, and which is right for you depends on your current living conditions. Buying an air conditioner is a great way to save money if you already have a relatively new furnace. Air conditioners are less efficient than heat pumps but cost less and last longer, making them a good choice for budget-conscious homeowners.
On the other hand, if you’re considering replacing an aging furnace, going with a heat pump can kill two birds with one stone and take over both heating and cooling duty. Even though heat pumps cost a bit more up-front than air conditioners, you won’t have to spring for a separate heating system, making them effectively cheaper when considering the combined cost of an AC system and furnace.
Heat pumps are also more efficient than air conditioners, saving money on your monthly utility bills. The drawbacks of choosing a heat pump are:
- The higher up-front cost (disregarding any tax credit)
- The shorter lifespan
- The reduced efficiency in cold climates.
Regardless of which you choose, don’t forget to check out our HVAC company comparison tool to find the best local installers near you.
FAQs About Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioners
How long does it take to switch from AC to heat?
Switching a heat pump system from cooling to heating is as easy as flipping a switch, thanks to the built-in reversing valve. The specifics vary depending on the manufacturer, but the process comes down to changing your thermostat from heating to cooling mode. Your heat pump should change modes immediately, so contact your HVAC service company if it doesn’t switch immediately.
Do I need a permit to install a heat pump or AC unit?
Most jurisdictions require an inspection and permit to install a heat pump or AC unit. Your local HVAC installers should be able to help you navigate the legal requirements of installing a new HVAC system. Check with your local jurisdiction for the details if you’re concerned.
Can I install a heat pump or AC unit myself?
Unless you have experience working with heat pumps and AC units, we highly recommend using a professional HVAC company to install your HVAC unit. Choosing the right heat pump or AC for your home is complicated, and installing it even more so. Navigating local laws, installing specialty equipment like evaporator coils, and charging the refrigerant are all delicate operations that are dangerous and best left to a professional.
Are any tax credits or rebates available for installing a heat pump or AC unit?
Heat pumps with adequate efficiency ratings are eligible for a federal tax credit of 30% of the total cost, including labor, up to $2,000. Some local governments may also offer tax credits or rebates for installing a new heat pump, so check your local laws to avoid missing out. Air conditioners are not eligible for the same credits, although some air conditioners may be eligible for discounts through an Energy Star home appliance rebate program.