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Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioning - What Are The Facts?

All residential and commercial building owners want to find the most efficient, cost-effective means of cooling and heating their buildings. Today's consumers can choose between air conditioning units and heat pumps to take care of their indoor cooling needs. The type of system that each individual should purchase depends on a number of factors. Understanding the facts about these two types of cooling systems will help consumers make educated purchasing decisions. Remember that it is also important to keep your personal preferences in mind when choosing a cooling system. 

The Facts About Heat Pump vs Air Conditioning Systems

It's difficult to sort out fact and fiction when talking about air cooling units. Many consumers are wary of manufacturer-issued information because they feel that it might be biased. Thankfully, it's easy to understand the difference between heat-transfer pumps and A/C units with a little bit of education. After you've read up about the difference between these two systems, you can make a great decision based on your needs and climate. 

Understanding Heat Pumps

Also known as heat-transfer pumps, these devices work by moving hot air from one area or room to another area or room. These pumps can be integrated with a home's heating and A/C ventilation system to ensure even distribution of air. In warm months, they work by attracting the hot air inside a building and drawing it outside. Drawing the air outside leads to cooler temperatures inside. During cold months, they draw air in from outside of the house and warm it using a water- or coolant-based system, often contained underneath the house or in an insulated tank. 

Understanding Air Conditioning Units

Air conditioners use a method of cooling very similar to that used by heat-transfer pumps. However, they can cool air to significantly lower temperatures thanks to an electrically or propane-driven process. Much like pumps, A/C units draw in warm air and cool it using a system of coils. These units then push the cooled air into a building via a ventilation system or built-in fan. Unlike heat-transfer pumps, A/C units cannot provide warmth for a building during the winter. 

Important Factors to Consider Before Choosing a Cooling System

Choosing between a heat pump vs air conditioning unit requires weighing several different factors. Prospective buyers should be sure to evaluate a building's existing heating and cooling systems before deciding whether they would like to go with an A/C or pump system. In addition to evaluating the building, it's important to pay attention to the following factors. 


In general, A/C units are suited to all climates. While they are often dormant during the winter, they can provide for instant cooling in the summer. Heat-transfer pumps, however, are best suited to temperate climates. They offer the best heating in areas that rarely see temperatures below 40 degrees. While some heat-transfer pumps are designed to function in below-freezing temperatures, most building owners who use such pumps for cooling in extreme climates will need to use a furnace system as their main winter heat source. It's also important to remember that heat pumps will provide some relief in very hot climates but may not cool a building as thoroughly and quickly as an A/C unit. 

Energy Efficiency

Most building and energy experts agree that heat-transfer pumps can lead to a 30 to 40 percent decrease in utility bills on a yearly basis. The cost to run pumps and A/C units during hot months may be similar due to a need to operate fans and to draw air through cooling coils. When choosing an A/C unit, consumers should pay particular attention to the device's seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). The SEER rating describes how much energy an A/C unit will use per cooling season. These ratings are based on operating efficiency as expressed in British thermal units, or BTUs. The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the unit. 

Purchase and Operating Costs for Cooling Systems

The different between purchase costs for heat-transfer pumps and air conditioners can be substantial. In general, pumps tend to cost more than standard A/C units. However, pumps have lower year-round operating costs and have the added advantage of functioning as heating units. Consumers in temperate climates may find that it is actually cheaper to buy a pump than to buy separate A/C and heating units for a building. 

Maintenance costs for heat-transfer pumps and A/C units must also be weighed before making a purchase. It is best to speak with a professional about maintenance costs as different types of heat-transfer pumps have different maintenance needs. Remember that regular, professional maintenance will improve the lifespan and efficiency of both pumps and A/C units. 

Cooling System Lifespan

Consumers must also weigh the lifespan of the equipment before making a purchasing decision. In climates where heat-transfer pumps will be used year-round, the lifespan of these systems is roughly half that of A/C units. In climates where pumps will only be used during warm months, their lifespan is generally equal to that of A/C units. Both residential and commercial building owners can extend the lifespan of a heat-transfer pump by connecting it to a dual-fuel split system, which automatically decides when it is cold enough to switch from heating with a pump to heating with a furnace. 

Both heat transfer pumps and A/C units offer significant economic value to consumers. New units in both categories have been designed to offer optimal energy efficiency while keeping indoor spaces pleasantly cooled. Remember that choosing between a pump and an A/C unit is a matter of weighing the differences between the two and evaluating your climate. You'll also want to carefully consider your own comfort preferences in terms of heating and cooling levels before making a final purchasing decision. 

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