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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.

39 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.

  14. HI,
    I’m have a new oil hot air furnace and want to install a heat pump or central air conditioner in an old house but fairly well insulated(walls & windows). I live in the Hudson Valley, New York.
    I understand the difference between the two and my question is: Since the heat pump will use electricity to heat until the oil furnace needs to kick in at lower temps,do you think that the cost of the electricity would substantially offset the price of oil, if using oil alone?
    Is there a general comment to this question since there are many variables involved.

  15. I have. 4 ton central AC and oil heat running through hot water baseboard. Central air is shot. Should I consider a heat pump? Will I need to replace my 8 year old oil burner?

  16. Hello and thanks for asking. Wow that sounds like an interesting system with lots of options for saving you money. We would have to see and work with you in person to make a recommendation in this case. If you are in the Puget Sound area, please give us a call and we can come out and have a look at your system. Estimates are always free. Thanks!

  17. Hi Jerry, yes you will see savings. A really simple way (without doing a heat loss calc on your house) would be to follow the general info on cost to run these products. All of the estimates that we have from manufacturers and utilities show that the cost to heat with a heat pump is approximately 1/3 of the cost to heat with oil. (actual figures depend on your cost for electricity and oil). So said another way, for days that you would have heated with oil but are now able to heat with a heat pump, you save about 2/3 of the cost you were paying for the oil. To calculate how many days that would be, you could take a look at an average temperature record for your area (easily available with online search), and find the days between 35 degrees and the average temperature at which you don’t run your heat. This assumes you set the heat pump to engage the furnace at 35 degrees. Then you could pencil out your savings. Hope that helps, and let us know if you have follow up questions. Thanks!

  18. We live in San Diego, where the temp rarely gets below 40 in the winter; and USUALLY not over 85 in the summer. We are putting in new dual pane windows and need to replace our gas furnace and AC unit. Would a heat pump make more sense than replacing both units?

  19. Dave, thanks for asking. They both cool well and both will work hard for you. It might come down to cost to operate. If you go with a heat pump, it will run on electricity year round, all day. If you have relatively low cost electricity, then heat pumps can be much cheaper to run. If your power is higher cost, then having a gas furnace in the mix might save you in the long run. A secondary consideration would be placement & sound. Efficient heat pumps run with continuous operation and can be louder than an AC (depends on a number of factors including brand and location). We recommend finding a local top rated contractor and getting a bid for both a heat pump and air handler vs a gas furnace and an energy efficient AC. Have your contractor show you the total cost of ownership including local energy costs and payments so you can make an informed decision. Plus in California, be sure to look up the local rebate programs.

  20. I live in south Texas and run my A/C almost constantly from March to end of November. Is a heat pump the best way to go for me?

  21. Joann, there are many factors in making your choice and you’d really want to meet with a local qualified contractor to go over them. Both can be a good choice. Here in the Northwest, we have a longer heating season, so heat pumps are more common because they efficiently heat and cool. It might surprise you to learn that the majority of homes in Seattle do not have air conditioning, although many are getting it in the past few years as it warms up here. If you heat your home with electricity, then the energy savings from a heat pump could be meaningful, and you should definitely give it a look. If you heat with natural gas in the winter, and your furnace is high efficiency and well maintained, then you’d have to look at the comparative pricing between the AC & Heat pump in your area. Thanks!

  22. Is there significant savings between a unit with Seer/Hspf of 20.2/10.3 and one that has 19.2/10. Both these units are made by the same company. Can there be significant savings between the two? Same heating and cooling output one is called HE (high efficency). (we are in upstate NY)
    Thank you.

  23. Hello K. Both of those units would be efficient. Those unit SEER/HSPF’s are so close together that the savings difference is likely minimal, assuming that they both have similarly efficient motors. The most efficient heat pump products these days have inverter driven variable speed motors. They will have 20 SEER and 13 HSPF and would be a little more efficient. If you wish to share with us the brand and model of both, we might be able to investigate further. Thanks

  24. Trying to convince my better half that we should invest in an AC unit. Here in the Seattle metro area I figure we would need AC for two, maybe three months out of the year. For a ~1,600 sqft two floor home would a 16 SEER vs a basic 13 SEER unit be overkill based on average variables? Not sure the payback period is worth the incremental cost.

  25. Hello Marc, cooling is definitely becoming more widely used in Seattle. Heat pumps can provide cooling and reduce the cost of your heating, to give most homeowners better payback, especially if you have a less efficient or older furnace. For an AC only unit, 16 SEER vs 13 SEER – both will cool your house. It is a question of the level of energy efficiency and other features you are looking for. In Seattle, you would also want to meet local noise ordinances. If you have questions about these or wish to learn more, just give us a call. Thanks!

  26. im buying a new furnace and either a ac or heat pump my home is well insulated and the cost between the 2 will be about 1000$ just wondering if a heat pump will be the way to go over ac i live in indiana for a savings

  27. Hi Jeff, thanks for asking about the savings. We’ll assume you mean that the heat pump is $1000 more? In order to tell which way to go, we’d need more detailed information. However, we can give you a couple of very broad questions to ask your contractor. Are the cooling efficiencies (SEER) and capacity similar between the heat pump and the AC being proposed? If so, then the source of your payback on the $1000 will come from efficiencies when you are in heating mode. And in Indiana, we hear it’s very cold in the winter. In most areas, the cost to create heat with a high efficiency electric heat pump is lower than the cost to create the same amount of heat with a natural gas furnace. Even with a newer furnace, the heat pump can be up to 20% lower (you’d need to do the calculation based on your utility costs and furnace efficiency). So, the more you use the heat pump to produce heat, the faster the extra cost will get paid back. This is why many people will spend more on a great heat pump that can handle lower temperatures productively. There are a lot of variables in this scenario. We recommend that you ask a top local contractor in Indiana for that info. Thanks!

  28. Question: I live in New England and am replacing my furnace and central AC (They are both 25 years old). I’m getting a very efficient new furnace for heating (it gets cold here in Winter). Will a heat pump be sufficient to cool my house in the summer? Or do I need another central AC unit?

  29. Hello Jeff from New England,
    Thanks for the question. Yes, heat pumps can do a great job of cooling homes in the summer. The question which one to choose between high efficiency furnace plus AC vs heat pump and air handler or furnace comes down to your particular house and the costs in your area. We encourage you to find a top rated contractor in your area and ask them to do a detailed comparison including how much you might save on your heating costs from the portion of time you use the heat pump. Also ask about any local or state rebates available. If they can’t do that for you, hire one who can. Thanks!

  30. Hi
    Can I run my ac unit without the heat pump being on? It’s leaking and it’s upstairs. So I went to the breaker box and turned it off. But can I still run the ac unit without the heat pump?

  31. I have a 1500 square foot ranch, no basement, no hallways with a seperate 400 square foot family room off a breezeway. All rooms open off a 32×16 great room. Ductwork is poor even after heating company charged $5000 and I get to heat attic still but that is another story. House is in Northeast . Would a heat pump be better? Could it handle 1500 sq ft with no ducts?

  32. I live in central Washington where it’s cold in the winter & hot in the summer. I’m looking to replace my heat pump but I’m not sure if a heat pump or an air conditioner is the best way to go. Our house is 3930 sq ft & have been told we need a 5 ton unit. Can you help. Thanks

  33. Hello Ac, you say your heat pump is leaking? is that leaking water or refrigerant? We recommend getting service right away. If you heat pump is off you may be able to use your furnace or air handler on a fan setting, but without the compressor on, no AC.

  34. Dear Alice, we are sad to hear that you paid so much and they didn’t run the ductwork, or seal your attic, to enable your home to heat properly. Perhaps another contractor could fix the ductwork so it’s working for you. If you are giving up on ductwork, a ductless heat pump is a good choice. Top ductless systems can produce a fair amount of heat even when it’s freezing outside, but you will need to keep some kind of backup heat for the below zero nights. We hate for you to spend more money, so we hope you can fix your situation. Thanks!

  35. Hi Jim, we are big fans of both heat pumps and ACs. There are a few things to consider in Central Washington. You know your climate the best, but based on averages you would be using the cooling feature about 4 months of the year, part time in June and Sept and a lot of the time in July and August. But that’s only 4 months. The rest of the year, at least at night, you can expect temps below 45 and you might want some heat. While each person’s preferences are different, the value for heating might make a heat pump a better choice. The AC may have a slightly lower initial cost, but depending on how you currently heat your home, the heat pump should be able to pay you back for the difference over the life of the product (or sooner). Hope that helps. We do not provide service over there, but there are some good service providers who can help you. Thanks!

  36. I live in Oregon, not WA. I wanted to give props to whoever is continually replying to these random questions, 3 years later, with many people outside your service area.

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