Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner: What's the Difference (And Which One Should I Get)?

July 18, 2018

When it comes to cooling, a heat pump and an air conditioner are the exact same thing. The only difference is that a heat pump, unlike an AC, can also provide heating.

For that reason, you should really only focus on your heating needs—particularly what fuel source you use to heat your home—when choosing between a heat pump or an AC.

In this article, we’ll go into:

  • How a heat pump works

  • Why an AC is the popular choice in Denver

  • When you should choose a heat pump

How heat pumps work

Simply put, heat pumps use electricity to move heat either into or out of your home (depending on the season).

In the summer, a heat pump works just like a central AC and:

  1. Absorbs heat from the air inside your house

  2. Dumps that heat outside

During winter, the heat pump basically works like an AC in reverse and:

  1. Absorbs heat from the air outside

  2. Transfers that heat into your house  

Because heat pumps only transfer heat (instead of generating it like a gas furnace), they have limited efficiency in super cold weather.

For example, most heat pumps can effectively heat your home when temperatures are above 30° or 35° F. When temperatures drop below 30°-35°, heat pumps work best when they’re paired with a furnace or boiler, also known as a “dual-fuel” system. This system essentially uses the furnace or boiler as a backup heat source when it’s too cold for the heat pump to run efficiently.

So while a heat pump can efficiently heat your home even in very cold weather (with the help of a furnace), most Denver homeowners still choose an air conditioner.

Here's why...

Why an AC is the popular choice (if you have access to natural gas)

As efficient as dual-fuel systems are, natural gas is significantly cheaper than electricity rates in Denver.

That means it’s more cost-effective to use natural gas heating (i.e. a gas furnace) throughout the entire winter than it is to use a combination of electric (i.e. a heat pump) in mild temperatures and gas for very cold days.

For that reason, many Denver homeowners opt for an air conditioner over a heat pump to cool their homes.

However, an AC is isn’t always the best option.

Have an all-electric or propane home? Consider a heat pump.

If you have an all-electric or propane home, a heat pump is definitely a more efficient option than an AC paired with either an electric or propane furnace.

See, a heat pump will use electric resistance heating (via heat strips in the indoor unit) when it reaches its “balance point” (the point at which there’s not enough heat in the air outside for the unit to pull from to heat your home).

However, until it reaches that point (below 30° or 35° F), the heat pump will use roughly 50% less electricity than an electric furnace or any other form of electric resistance heating. This makes a heat pump a cheaper form of heating than an electric furnace.

And since propane prices are higher than electricity rates in Denver, a heat pump combined with a propane furnace (i.e. a dual-fuel system) is more cost-effective than a propane furnace alone.

Plus, converting your home to natural gas is a huge upfront cost—more so than using just a heat pump all winter.

Have more AC or heat pump questions? Ask a Denver tech.

We’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.

For more information about our services, you can check out our heat pump and air conditioner service pages.

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