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AC vs Heat Pump: Battle Cooling!

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AC vs Heat Pump: Battle Cooling!


Many of us in Western Washington must face the Shakespearian question: to cool or not to cool? Buying cooling equipment may seem like a large investment for only a couple months, but on those nights when you are losing sleep due to a hot bedroom, air conditioning seems like a life saver. So how to get cool? For homeowners with ducts the leading options are central air conditioning or a heat pump. Let’s get to the face off: central air conditioning, heat pumps and some alternative methods face off.

To start, let’s examine some similarities between heat pumps and air conditioners. Both systems are powered by outdoor units. They use the science of thermal energy to transfer heat in the air from one place to another. The units connect by a line-set charged with eco-friendly refrigerant to a coil that is placed above your furnace.

An air conditioning system, like your fridge, absorbs heat from air that passes over the coil, and the resulting cool air is moved into your ducts and through your home. The collected heat is expelled through an exhaust process. Okay, there’s more science than that, but you get the idea (or check out There are room air conditioners that hang out your window and cool one room and air conditioning systems, aka central air, which is what we are comparing to heat pumps today.

The heat pump’s main advantage is it can cool and heat, so you can use it all year round. A heat pump pulls heat out of the outside air when it heats your home but can be reversed to pull heat out of your house and cool. In fact, our climate is one of the most efficient for heat pump operation. Heat pumps provide an economical source of heat (the air, it’s free!) down to freezing, when you’ll want to have a back up heating system kick in. If your home is currently heated by an inefficient heat source, for example oil, you’ll see much lower heating costs with a heat pump. The investment could pay for itself on the heating costs alone – and your air conditioning would be free! Our local Washington utilities offer rebates for heat pumps because of the real energy savings they provide. The heat pump is also one of the ‘greenest’ ways to heat and cool your home because it is powered off of renewable electricity.

But don’t count air conditioners out just yet! The largest advantage is an air conditioner will give you a cool, comfortable home in the summer with less upfront cost than a heat pump. If you already have an energy efficient way to heat your home, such as a high efficiency gas furnace, then perhaps a heat pump will not yield a high enough return on investment. Or, if space is an issue then an air conditioner may be the right choice as they are more compact and fit into tighter spaces.

There are also other options out there. Ductless heat pumps can provide super-efficient cooling and heating to homes with no or insufficient ductwork. A ductless heat pump can lower energy costs 25-40% when replacing electric baseboard heat. If you are an electrically heated home, chances are your utility is offering $800-$1200 rebates on these units. They are great for combined heating/cooling of the whole house or just for one room. Another option for a lot less money is a Solar Attic fan. These will use solar power to run a whole house fan. They don’t cool off the house per se, but pull the heat right out of the house and reduce upstairs temperatures but as much as eight degrees.

The important thing here is that you do not need to suffer through those hot summer nights and prices can be reasonable to cool down. Washington Energy Services’ home energy specialists can help you choose your best cooling option. Call 800 398 4663.

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16 thoughts on “AC vs Heat Pump: Battle Cooling!

  1. Hello Patti, thanks for asking. The cost difference will vary depending on your house. You can probably consider a full house sized AC from around $4000-$8000 and a heat pump from $5000-9000. A ductless heat pump single unit would provide cooling to up to 1000 sq ft or one part of the house for less.

  2. Thanks for asking about heat pump sizing. Most people don’t realize that heat pumps come in different sizes, which relate to how much output it will take to heat your house (or cool it). This is a factor of not only the size of your house but the ducts, windows, insulation, state codes where you live, and other criteria. The way that it is determined is by doing a state mandated Manual J heat loss calculation based on measuring your specific home. This is a bit complex which is why we send our team out to do it for you, and it’s part of your free estimate process. I have attached a link to an article about how you might do this and as you will see, importantly, it notes that you should have a pro contractor confirm it. We would be happy to do that for you, just give us a call.

  3. I have central heat in my almost 1900 sq ft home, so I believe the duct work is there. Which should I consider to get air conditioning, a heat pump or Central A/C?

  4. That is a great question and there can be many factors that can influence your decision. If you have a very efficient, relatively new furnace that provides sufficient heat and do not think you could benefit from energy savings on your heating, a central AC might be all you need. The best way to evaluate choices is to get one of our pros to come out. They will measure, check your ductwork out and show you the different options. That way you can make an informed call.

  5. We are going to build a new home that will be very efficient, ie well insulated, etc. We live in South Louisiana. Because heat pump compressors run all year long, will a regular efficient central AC compressor last longer because of the reduced run time? I have yet to see a heat pump compressor last over 10-12 years and I know of regular central AC compressors lasting over 20 years. Our winters last 3-4 months.

  6. Hello thanks for asking,
    Every home and user is different but in general, AC compressors with less use can last a little longer with annual maintenance. If you rarely need heat, your benefit from an AC may be greater than a heat pump. But it all has to be installed correctly, sized right for the duct work, not too high of a charge and other things that your professional air conditioning contractor would need to be on top of. If the install is incorrect, even the best quality equipment can have a shorter lifespan.

  7. Hi,
    To my understanding A/C it is just one form of heat pump. I don’t understand what is the difference cause they are working the same. I do understand that some A/C units can work only to cool (meaning to take the heat outside) but today most of them can also heat (taking the heat inside). So again that means that it’s the same?

  8. Thanks for asking. While there are similarities, they are not the same. Cooling can be performed by either an AC or a Heat pump. When we speak of air conditioners in this article, we refer to units that only do cooling. Heat pumps and ductless heat pumps do both heating and cooling. There are enough differences between the various types of equipment in function and cost which can influence which one a person would like to purchase.

  9. Hi Pedro, if you don’t need heat, then a heat pump is not a cost effective choice. Go AC!

  10. I’ve heard good things about ductless mini-split units, both to it’s efficiency and how quiet they are. I have a gas furnace with a separate AC unit needing to be replaced. Could a ductless mini-split work in my 1500 square ft house? Could a ducted mini-split utilize my existing ducting?

  11. Hello Ron, you have a lot of choices for replacing your AC. While we think ductless splits are wonderful, if you already have ductwork running throughout your house, a single AC unit may end up being a better value than going with a ductless mini split. The reason would be that with a 1500 sq ft house, and depending on the layout of that house, you may need to have multiple ductless heads. Once you are at 2 or more heads, your ductless heat pump will be close to the price range of an AC. This is only something we could determine when we do a site visit and give you an estimate. If you live in our service area, we would be happy to provide you with one. Just give us a call or fill out the online free estimate form.

  12. Question:
    We need to replace our central AC unit. We have gas hot water baseboard heat. All AC duct work is in place. In North Carolina (hot and humid, but also needing heat) is AC or heatpump a better investment?

  13. Hello Marjorie and thanks for asking. Since you live in North Carolina you will need to do your price comparisons in your local area, and those will be a big determinant of your return on investment. It looks like you said you have gas hot water and separately baseboard heat – is that electric? Your local HVAC contractor will be able to model out a comparison of heat pump vs AC and the impact each will have on your heating cost and cooling cost. If your baseboard heat does not cost that much, you may find an AC a less expensive upgrade.

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