What’s the Difference Between Heat Pumps and Conventional Air Conditioners?

By HomeAdvisor

Updated August 17, 2021

Summer brings humidity and sweltering temperatures to many parts of North America. Installing an HVAC system can beat the heat, but which system is right for you? As you browse your options, you’ll be faced with two popular choices: a heat pump or a conventional AC unit. Because these systems both look similar and serve to dehumidify and cool down interiors, they’re often confused. This article aims to point out their differences, pros, and cons so that you can make a confident decision.

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Heat Pump

This unit works both as an air conditioner and heater. When you set the thermostat to “cool” or “heat”, it will adjust its cycle to create cold or hot air. A reversing valve built into the compressor can channel air to be cooled by refrigerant or let it remain hot in a reversed cycle.

Air Source

Air source heat pumps run on electricity. They take heat from the air outside and treat it through a refrigerant cycle. Air source units are more affordable than ground source units. However, they should be installed in temperate climates where the winters aren’t regularly below freezing to save on heating costs.


Geothermal heat pumps also run on electricity. They draw on the heat in the ground, which has a more consistent temperature, and cools it through a refrigerant cycle. They are more expensive than air source units but end up paying for themselves in the savings they bring during the winter. They’re also good for climates that have some cold winters since they won’t try to take heat from the colder temperatures in the air.


Gas heat pumps, which are better known as absorption units, are simply air source systems that are powered by gas instead of electricity. These models have traditionally been used in industrial or commercial buildings. As of late, residential models are being made available for homeowners who find natural gas a more affordable energy source than electricity.

Ductless or Mini-Split Pumps

These models don’t need air ducts. All you need is a small hole that leads to the room you want to keep cool. An attachment is connected to the compressor to an inside unit that’s usually mounted on the wall. Mini splits also employ two cycles to either send cold or hot air into the room.

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Air Conditioners

These function identically to the “cool” setting of a heat pump. The only main difference is that air conditioners can only cool down the air and the cycle can’t be reversed to create heat. For this reason, AC units are often paired with a furnace to meet the home’s heating and cooling needs. ACs are composed of four main parts that work together to cool down and dehumidify the outside air.

  1. Compressor
  2. Condenser
  3. Thermal Expansion Valve
  4. Evaporator coil/core

In a compressor, gas refrigerants are squeezed, which initially raises their temperature. This hot air is then sent to the condenser, where it’s transformed into a liquid when refrigerant travels through it. This liquid then gets filtered and sent through the thermal expansion valve, which regulates how much refrigerant gets sent into the evaporator. The evaporator is where hot air meets the refrigerant, creating cold air that a fan sends into the home.

Conventional Central Air

Conventional central air has a compressor that uses refrigerant to cool down air brought from the outside through a series of steps in which air is sent through a condensing coil and evaporator coil. A fan or blower mother then propels the cold air into the home.

Window Units

Window units are excellent for locations that have mild summers or older homes that don’t have ducts. These relatively inexpensive units simply fit into a window and are plugged in. They can give instant cool air to a single room and are a quick DIY fix for homeowners who need to cool down a room ASAP. AC-only units can be as affordable as $130, while units that can provide both heat and cooling can cost up to $500.

Ductless Mini-Split AC

AC compressors can cool a home without ducts through the mini-split model. The only difference this has from a mini-split heat pump is that it doesn’t also function as a heater. A mini-split AC costs around $4,000 on average.

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Which is Best for Your Home & Location?

In this guide, we’ll explore the differences between electric heat pumps and conventional ACs with ducts.

When Heat Pumps are Better When ACs are Better
Smaller size Affordable maintenance and repairs
Cheaper per unit Cheaper installation
Better in cold climates
Both units are equal in these categories:
  • Safety
  • Operating Price
  • Efficiency
  • Best in the South

Location/ Local Climate

The best one for you will depend on where you live.

Heat Pump

  • They’re more than 100% efficient in temperate climates.
  • Especially suited for higher temperatures; however, they’ll work harder in extreme heat.

Air Conditioner

  • Works the same as a heat pump’s cooling system.

Best in the South, Southwest, California and plains: Tie!
Best in the Northwest, Midwest and New England: A/C

Cost Calculator

How much do these cost before labor and installation?

Heat Pump

Air Conditioner
  • The average cost of an air conditioner ranges between $1,700- $3,300.
  • Note: To have heating capabilities, you’ll have to install a furnace as well.

The Most Affordable: Heat Pump


The energy-efficiency of cooling units is rated using 2 acronyms.

  • SEER stands for “Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio”. This is the more popular scale to measure how efficient a cooling system is. This measures the total cooling output divided by energy that was used to power it. It starts at 1 and increases with the model’s efficiency. Right now, the standard efficiency for cooling systems requires a SEER of 13. There are also ACs that score an 18, which are extremely energy-efficient.
  • EER stands for “Energy Efficiency Ratio”. It’s an older scale that measures cooling efficiency by using a constant outdoor temperature of 95 degrees F, inside temperature of 80 degrees F, and average humidity of 50%. This standard can compare two cooling units without having to figure in regional differences in outdoor temperatures. Essentially, it asks the question “how does this unit perform under these constant parameters”? and then produces a score. This older scale is not as commonly used as SEER, but is useful for buying window units. Like SEER, the scale starts at 1 and increases as with the model’s efficiency.
Heat Pump
  • SEER – Newer models must have a SEER score of 13, but there are models that score higher than 13 as well. Older units are less efficient with SEER scores under 10.
  • EER – To meet new Energy Star standards, new models must have an EER of 11-12 or above.
Air Conditioner:
  • SEER – These systems abide by the same standards as heat pumps. Air conditioners also must meet a minimum 13 SEER, which increases the home’s energy efficiency by 30% compared to older systems.
  • EER – Likewise, scoring an 11-12 or more is desirable for a modern unit.
The Winner: Tie

Operating Price

How much does it cost to operate these systems?

Heat Pump
  • Higher SEER scores mean that your unit will use less energy. If you use an efficient model, you can expect to pay around $850 for heating and cooling each year in a temperate climate.
  • Average cost of cooling per year is around $300 with a 13-SEER system.

Air Conditioner
  • Costs also depend on the SEER score. If it’s an efficient 13-SEER system, expect to also pay around $300 for a standard cooling season.
  • If you live in a generally hot climate, expect your cooling season to last longer, therefore costs will be higher than $300.

Cheapest to Run: Tie

Installation/ DIY-able

How much does it cost to install either system? Can you install them yourself?

Heat Pump
  • The average cost to install a heat pump is around $5,000-$8,200. Some installations can be expensive as $9,000.
  • Due to the presence of refrigerants, a complicated system of conduits and other potential hazards, this job is best left to the professionals.
Air Conditioner
  • The average cost to install an air conditioner ranges between $3,700-$7,200. Some installations can reach $8,000.
  • There are many delicate parts and components that should be installed correctly the first time, making installing one a tough DIY job.
  • On the other hand, window units are easy to install as a DIY job. They’re ideal for emergencies when you need to cool down quickly.
Lowest Install Price + Easiest to DIY: Air Conditioner Window Units

Maintenance & Repairs

Which system is more affordable to fix when something breaks down?

Heat Pump
  • Cost to repair a heat pump: $150 to $550.
  • Standard units last about 12-15 years with proper maintenance.
  • Air filters ($10) should be replaced every season and ducts should be cleaned every year, for an average of $300.

Air conditioner
  • Average cost to repair an air conditioner: $160- $520.
  • Quality models last on average 15-20 years with proper maintenance.
  • These systems also need their air filters replaced every season and perform the best when air ducts are cleaned annually.

Cheapest Maintenance & Repairs: Air Conditioners


Which one takes up more space in your home?

Heat Pump
  • They are considered a double-duty system since they can take on heating and cooling.
  • The majority of the system is composed of the outdoor unit, but the backup furnace and interior coils need a space inside your basement, crawl space, or mechanical room.

Air Conditioner
  • These are also composed of indoor and outdoor components, but don’t contain a backup furnace.
  • Many decide to install a full-sized furnace to provide heat to their home, which takes up more space than a heat pump alone.

Most compact size: Heat Pump


How safe are these systems for your family, home, and pets?

Heat Pump

  • Most of them run on electricity, which means they don’t come with the risk of harmful malfunction with gases.


  • They can sometimes leak refrigerants. This situation should never be handled alone as refrigerants can be dangerous to your health. The tell-tale sign of a leak is when it isn’t working well and losing efficiency.

Air Conditioner

  • They also run on electricity so they don’t pose any gas risks.


  • These systems can also leak refrigerants that professionals need to handle.

The Safest: Tie
Need to talk to a Pro about Heating Installation?

Do I have a Heat Pump or Air Conditioner?

It can be difficult to tell which one you have since the outside units look extremely similar. The easiest way to tell is to look at your thermostat. If you have an emergency heat option, you have a heat pump. You can also check the label of the unit you have outside. It’ll have its model number and brand, which you can easily search for online to find out which one it is, unless it’s otherwise labeled.

Individual Units versus Dual Fuel Combo Systems

Combo units work well in temperate climates or any zone that’s “borderline” between the south and the north. These “dual fuel” or “hybrid” systems are composed of a heat pump and backup furnace. They can keep your home cool in the summer but also efficiently heat your home when temperatures fall below freezing without triggering expensive auxiliary heat.

  • Traditional heat pumps lose heating efficiency when temperatures fall below 40. Combo units are great for homes in temperate and cold areas.
  • Backup heat comes in gas, propane, or electric resistance furnace.
  • Helps you reach warm temperatures more efficiently and affordably than auxiliary heat.
Looking for an HVAC Professional?

Best Brands & Models

Heat Pump Air Conditioner Combo Units
Trane Trane Trane
Carrier American Standard Armstrong
American Standard Carrier Carrier
Lennox Lennox Lennox
Bryant Ruud Maytag
Coleman York Goodman


  1. Rocco Liogghio, January 30:

    This is a very good page with very useful information. I would add something about the variety of filtering systems and air handlers that each may/can use. My last house had conventional AC with a gas furnace and was just obnoxious… My current house has a combo heat pump/gas furnace with the ionic filter system and is silent (comes on slow/tappers up and down…) and keeps my whole house warm/cool on each floor from wall to wall (3500+ sq feet). Also, maybe some discussion about humidifiers and de-humidifiers (mine has both features) so my indoor humidity stays constant. The filtering and humidity systems options are especially interesting for folks with children, elderly, and respiratory challenged (ie. COPD and Allergies)… Basically…just expend on your original topics so people understand all the options/capabilities in environmental systems for residential. I even have a smoke detection system integrated into mine and remote and locally wireless controlled… Thanks for the great comparison…

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