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Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner: What’s Best For Your Home?

If you’re looking to keep your home cool and comfortable during the summer, you have two main options: a central air conditioner or a heat pump. But how are these two systems different? Which one is the right choice for your home? This guide will help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of both so you can make an informed choice about which home cooling system is most suitable for your needs.

What Is a Heat Pump and How Does It Work?

Heat pumps are an energy-efficient way to provide both heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. They work by exploiting the fact that heat naturally wants to go from locations of higher temperatures to locations of lower temperatures.

Specifically, the pump extracts heat from a source (the low-temperature location) and transfers it to a “sink” (the high-temperature location). In cooling mode, your home is the source: thermal energy is extracted from it and transferred to the outside, the sink. The reverse takes place during heating mode: thermal energy is extracted from the source, the outside air, and transferred to inside your home. This may sound surprising, but even at -18°C outside, the air contains enough thermal energy to generate 85% of the energy required to produce 21°C heat inside.

In Canada, the following two sources of thermal energy are most common:

  • Air source: The heat pump absorbs heat from the outside air in heating mode and removes heat and humidity in cooling mode.
  • Ground source: The earth or groundwater (or both) function as a source of heat in the winter and as a “sink” for heat in the summer. Ground source heat pumps have the advantage of not being subjected to high-temperature fluctuations in the air and are more energy-efficient than air source pumps.

What’s the Difference Between a Heat Pump and Air Conditioner?

Air conditioners and heat pumps use more or less the same technique when operating in the cooling mode. Using fans to circulate air, both systems use compressed refrigerant to extract heat from the air and then transfer it outside of the home. Although heat pumps cost more upfront than an air conditioner, their efficiency will reduce your energy consumption in the long run.

The big difference between the two is that a heat pump can also generate heat in the winter. In a place like Canada, where the temperature difference between the source and the sink can be huge during the winter, the heat pump has to work harder and becomes less efficient. That is why, in cold climate regions, heat pumps are often installed as part of a hybrid heating system, working together with a furnace. Of course, if you choose an air conditioner over a heat pump, you’ll have to also install a furnace or other heat source to address your heating needs.

How to Choose the Right Heat Pump or Central AC

When deciding between a heat pump and an AC unit, you may want to consider the following factors:

Size

Whether you purchase a heat pump or a central AC unit, choosing the right size is crucial to ensuring it runs efficiently.

Heat pump and air conditioner sizes are determined by their cooling capacity, which is measured in tons based on how many British thermal units (BTU) they can remove within an hour. For example, a one-ton unit can remove 12,000 BTU, a two-ton unit can remove 24,000 BTU, and so on. When deciding which size to buy, the square footage of your space, insulation factors, size of windows, skylights and property’s exposure to sun will determine the capacity required. The larger the area, the higher the capacity that is required.

Both systems also rely on appropriately sized ductwork. Without adequate airflow and well-designed ducts that match your system, you could end up with significantly reduced home comfort and much higher operating costs.

Cost

In Ontario, air-source heat pumps and central air conditioners are similarly priced. A new high-efficiency central AC typically costs between $3,500 and $6,000. Heat pumps start at around $4,000 — but can go as high as $10,000 to $30,000 if you add options such as geothermal heating.

In the end, the cost of a heat pump or central AC will be influenced by:

  • Type of system
  • The technical specifications of your home, including its size, room layout, number of storeys, and the existing heating equipment and ductwork
  • Your personal preferences for energy efficiency, sound output and air filtration levels (which may be important of people in your home have allergies or other sensitivities)
  • Extended warranties, maintenance plans and guarantees
  • Building code requirements in your area
  • Electrical requirements

Energy Efficiency

HVAC systems are not only a big upfront investment, but they also account for the largest portion of your monthly energy bills. In general, the more efficient your HVAC unit, the less energy it will consume in order to keep your house cool and comfortable.

Both heat pumps and air conditioners use seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) ratings to assess their cooling efficiency. SEER is calculated by dividing the system’s cooling capacity by the energy it requires to operate. A typical SEER rating falls between 13 and 21; the higher the rating, the more efficient your system. In addition, heat pumps use the heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) to measure their heating efficiency.

Heat pumps and AC units with the same SEER rating will use about the same energy during the summer months to cool your home. During the winter, the cost is largely affected by which secondary heating option you have set up in your home.

While heat pumps are very efficient in their use of electricity and generally produce a greater amount of cool and warm air by volume than the amount of energy it takes to run them, they may not be as efficient if outdoor temperatures are very low. Also, if you are operating a heat pump only (without a furnace), if a power outage occurs, you will lose your heating as well as cooling ability.

Ask Enercare’s Experts for Help

Installing an HVAC system in your home is a big undertaking and there are many cooling solutions to explore. Speak to one of our experts today and we can help you size, install and maintain your systems — so you can relax and enjoy your home year-round.