Comfort Clash: Air Conditioners vs. Heat Pumps

As the summer temperatures reach record highs, air conditioners and heat pumps have become essential to our daily lives. But is one option really superior to the other? Before you get cozy in your home, let’s make sure you’re comfortable with the differences between these two options.

Without getting too obsessive about their inner workings, air conditioners cool a building by transferring heat from its interior to its exterior. Since they can only cool a building’s interior, and not heat it, they are typically paired with a furnace, which generates heat during colder months.

Heat pumps, on the other hand, can either cool or heat the inside of a building. When it’s hot outside, a heat pump can remove heat from an interior and pump it outdoors. Conversely, they can also pull in heat from the outdoors (even in cold weather) and pump it into a building to keep it warm.

In the summertime, air conditioners and heat pumps do pretty much the same thing. It’s only in the wintertime that the differences between the two technologies become apparent. And for buildings with air conditioners, how great those differences are will depend on what kind of furnace is being used for heat.

Comfort has a price. And you can find it at the bottom of your utility bill.

Both air conditioners and heat pumps can make you physically comfortable. But financially comfortable? That’s another conversation. And for buildings equipped with air conditioners, it’s the heating source paired with the A/C that determines whether a heat pump is a better alternative.

Is your air conditioner paired with an electric furnace? When the weather turns cold, that’s not the most cost-effective solution, and you should definitely consider the long-term advantages a heat pump could offer.

If your A/C is partnered with a liquid propane (LP) furnace, that’s typically more affordable than an electric furnace. But upgrading to a dual fuel heat pump could make more sense for you in the long run. A dual fuel heat pump is a hybrid system that combines the efficiency of an electric heat pump with the reliability of a gas or propane furnace. In particular, the combination of an air source heat pump and a propane furnace could work exceptionally well (with the air source heat pump handling the cooler fall and spring days, and the propane furnace coming into play during the coldest winter temperatures).

And if your air conditioner is complemented by a natural gas furnace? Well, even though natural gas is a pretty inexpensive heating method, you might still be able to benefit from a dual fuel heat pump (such as the one mentioned above).

We should note that heat pumps typically still cost more to buy and install than air conditioners do. But remember: heat pumps can cool and heat—and in the long term, heat pumps generally cost less to operate.

Both options are effective. But which one is right for you?

Cue the dramatic drum roll, followed by…a shoulder shrug. It really depends on your existing system, and the additional cost of upgrading to a heat pump.

Just as the best practice for getting a new HVAC system is sourcing three or more estimates, we suggest you ask every contractor you consult to include options for a heat pump or dual fuel heat pump in their estimate (and also to estimate the annual cost of heating and cooling with each different system).

You may pay a little more for a heat pump now, but that investment can pay off with more affordable heating and cooling costs, year after year. And you may be able to get help with your initial costs. Check out possible POWER MOVES REBATES for heat pumps and dual fuel heat pumps.

Long story short: You should probably learn more about getting a heat pump.

Overall, when you consider the long-term cost savings, the potential for Power Moves rebates, and the likelihood of reducing your environmental impact, it’s easy to see why more people are getting comfortable with the idea of replacing their old air conditioner with a new heat pump.

If you’d like to know more, contact YOUR LOCAL CO-OP ENERGY ADVISOR. We’ll gladly tell you more about the benefits of heat pumps, and help you find the coolest (or hottest) option for your situation.

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