Year-Round Comfort: Why Heat Pumps Outperform Traditional Air Conditioners (2024)

Another hot summer is on its way, and the familiar hum of air conditioners might soon be filling your home. But could there be a moreenergy-efficientway to cool down your living space? There isn't a clear-cut answer to that question just yet, but there is one option that can work year-round to keep you both warm and cool.

Heat pumps are rapidly gaining popularity, with global sales increasing by double digits in both 2021 and 2022. Despite their warm-sounding name, they could be the technology that eventually makes air conditioners obsolete. Their advantage is their dual purpose: They can both cool and heat. When it comes to year-round climate control, there's no question that a heat pump is the more versatile option.

We took a look at these two devices. Here are the key differences.

Read more:Best Portable Air Conditioners for 2024

What is an air conditioner?

A traditional air conditioning unit cools the air in your home by blowing it over a coil filled with a cold refrigerant.

Air conditioners come in a variety of forms, but the central air system used to cool many single-family homes typically comes with a "box" outside the house with a fan that you can see. That fan is part of a system that moves heat from the inside of your home to the outside via a system that circulates a refrigerant between indoors and out. It's similar to the process that cools a refrigerator.

Air conditioners don't heat houses and are typically paired with some kind of furnace.

"The air conditioner is just moving heat from the inside of the house and rejecting it outside the house," said Jeff Goss, director of residential product management for Rheem. "That's how it cools down your home and makes it feel comfortable in the summer."

What is a heat pump?

To oversimplify: A heat pump is the same as an air conditioner, but can reverse the process too.

When it's hot out, the heat pump extracts the heat from the air inside your house and pushes that heat outside, cooling the inside of your home just like an air conditioner. In the cold, a heat pump extracts heat out of the air (even at low temperatures) and moves it into your home.

"Over time, these heat pumps have become better and better at capturing that available heat energy, even when we would consider the air to be very cold outside, to use it to provide heating for the home," Goss said. "But that's what's been exciting and has led to some of this heat pump revolution that's going on right now."

Heat pumps fall into two main categories: ducted and ductless. Ducted heat pumps push cooled or heated air through the ventilation ducts running through many homes. Ductless heat pumps rely on wall-mounted units inside your house, which cool or heat the air and circulate it around the room.

Heat pump vs. air conditioner

A "heat pump revolution" sounds pretty interesting, but does it make sense for your home? Here are some key differences and similarities between air conditioning systems and heat pumps to consider before deciding which is best for you.


Goss said a heat pump undoubtedly "has more technology inside of it," and for years, heat pumps were a noticeably more expensive option than traditional central air. But those prices have been dropping. And perhaps more importantly, when you buy a heat pump, you're buying a system that both heats and cools.

Rather than needing a furnace in addition to an air conditioning unit, many homes can be heated and cooled by a heat pump, meaning one fewer system to purchase, install, maintain and more. Ultimately, cost will depend greatly on your home, climate and even local incentives and tax credits.


In most climates, an air conditioner will be running for only part of the year, while a heat pump will be in operation no matter whether it's February or August. That means Goss recommends maintenance twice as often, both ahead of the winter and ahead of the summer, so you can ensure the system is functioning well. That's more often than the recommended annual maintenance for an air conditioning unit, but the same number of annual maintenance visits if you include an annual check-up for your furnace.

A heat pump will likely be a bit more intricate and complex than an air conditioner, so you'll want to ensure that a qualified professional does your maintenance. But Goss said the differences aren't extreme.


The system that will give you the best performance will largely depend on your climate. Those who will battle extreme low temperatures may not be the best fit for a heat pump, but Goss said the heat pump in his own home was perfectly able to heat the house with temperatures well into the 20s and below.

In some cases, heat pumps can better cool a home. Given their flexibility and efficiency, they may be the preferred option for some.

Energy usage

When it comes to cooling, air conditioners and heat pumps have comparable efficiency but vary slightly by model. Goss said the two types of units are close in two US energy standards -- the seasonal energy efficiency ratio known as SEER and the heating seasonal performance factor known as HSPF.

Where heat pumps have an edge is in their heating abilities. Typically, heat pumps are much more efficient than traditional furnaces, which would likely be paired with an air conditioning unit. That means in winter months, your heat pump would pull ahead.

"On a heat pump, you can actually achieve what we call a coefficient of performance that is greater than the heat energy that's inserted or the energy that's inserted," Goss said. "A COP of 1 means basically you put 1 kilowatt in and you get 1 kilowatt out. And with heat pumps, you oftentimes see COPs north of 2, so you put 1 kilowatt in and you get 2 kilowatts out. That's the benefit of the refrigerant cycle and the compression cycle and the way that the system operates and the ability to capture that heat energy from the outside air. You're getting kind of a boost of bonus in doing so."

Expected lifespan

Modern air conditioners and heat pumps should have comparable lifespans.

Goss said he would expect either system to last at least a decade, but lifespans of both air conditioners and heat pumps can vary greatly depending on how well the system is maintained.


Both an air conditioning unit and a heat pump are going to give you the "box" outside your home that you've seen many times before.

One small difference is that air conditioning units tend to have their fan at the top of the square or rectangle, whereas some heat pumps are being built taller and thinner, with side-facing fans to discharge air. Goss said that style is becoming more popular because they can be easier to fit into some areas with neighbors close by.


Installation for either product will depend greatly on your specific living situation, from your climate and the space around your house to your vents and the layout of your home. And if you're switching from a furnace to a heat pump, there could be utility changes required. For that reason, Goss recommends always working with professionals.

"It's really important to work with a trusted contractor who can come out and assess your situation," he said. "If you're converting from a gas furnace to a heat pump, there can be implications on the electrical service to the house. The electrical panel and amperage and breaker size that's available can dictate whether or not the contractor can just set up the pump easily or if they may have to make some electrical upgrades to the home."

Year-Round Comfort: Why Heat Pumps Outperform Traditional Air Conditioners (2)

Tax incentives

It's unlikely that you'll find anyone giving you money to install air conditioning, but the energy efficiency of a heat pump means that government funds are available to help. Different states and municipalities have their own programs, but Goss highlighted the federal Inflation Reduction Act's heat pump rebate program as one of many options for those interested in saving money on heat pump installation.

Goss said some utility companies have their own, Energy Star will help you find rebates, and there are likely more that he hasn't heard of, including some that are expected to start in 2025 and beyond.

"The federal government approved a large portion of money…to be allocated to the states, at which point the states create their own program to incentivize the installation of heat pumps," he said. "And there are different tiers available based on income, so it's somewhat need-based. It's really targeted to help middle- and low-income families, but there are different rebate tiers available to help families based on where they land on that income scale."

The bottom line: Which is better for you?

Ultimately, there's no one answer to whether air conditioners or heat pumps are better. But depending on your home, the climate you live in, the tax incentives available to you and other factors, you may have a clear decision.

There was a time when heat pumps didn't work as well in extreme temperatures, but Goss said that time has passed. And as he looks to the future, heat pumps are the method he sees coming.

"Over time, new technology in these systems has improved our heating capabilities," he said. Incentives for heat pumps and regulation are encouraging adoption as the United States works to achieve climate and decarbonization goals.

So for residents in Alaska, a heat pump still may not be the answer. But for much of the rest of America, anyone taking the long-term view will likely want to look toward heat pumps.

Frequently asked questions

Does a heat pump cool too?

Yes, a heat pump is able to both cool and heat a home using the same technology. It is approximately as efficient at cooling as traditional air conditioning systems.

Should I replace my air conditioner with a heat pump?

Depending on your climate, budget and home layout, a heat pump may be a more efficient way to heat and cool your home.

What are the differences between a heat pump and an air conditioner?

A heat pump and an air conditioner cool air in similar ways, by removing heat and returning cooled air back into the home. But a heat pump can reverse the process, pulling heat out of cold air and amplifying it to warm a home.

Is a heat pump more efficient than a furnace?

Yes, a heat pump will bemore efficient at heating than a traditional furnace. In fact, that added efficiency leads to governments and other entities offering tax incentives, rebates and more for those who switch to a heat pump.

Year-Round Comfort: Why Heat Pumps Outperform Traditional Air Conditioners (2024)
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