What Is the Difference Between a Traditional HVAC and a Heat Pump?

November 8, 2022

When summer is bearing down in all its muggy glory, you're probably not thinking about how your home stays cool – you only care that it does. If you're buying or installing new HVAC systems, knowing which are right for you and your family's needs is good. One of the main decisions you have as a purchaser is: Heat Pump or an Air Conditioner? If you're not sure, you're not alone. We've got all the basics of heat pumps and air conditioning right here.

Air Conditioning and Heat Pumps: The Basics

Heat pumps and air conditioning do the same primary job: cool your home by transferring hot air from inside to outside. In the world of HVAC, we consider these two systems different. The air conditioner is probably a system you are somewhat familiar with. The heat pump can cool, but it has another hidden talent. Let's take a look at how each system typically works.

What Is a Heat Pump?

It's easier to move warmth around than to make it cool. That's the philosophy of the heat pump. Heat pumps have been used for years to cool homes by removing heat from the inside and transferring it outside. Heat pumps can also do the same thing in reverse, transferring warmth indoors.

What Makes a Heat Pump?

Typically, an air source heat pump comprises two components, or a split system, with one indoor and one outdoor unit each. The whole system has a few main components:

  • A compressor to move pressurized refrigerant throughout the system
  • Condenser coils that release warm air outside
  • Evaporator coils that absorb warm air inside
  • Reversing valve that changes refrigerant flow
  • Thermostatic expansion valves that regulate the refrigerant flow
  • Accumulator to prevent refrigerant from entering the compressor
  • Refrigerant lines to connect split components
  • Heat strips to maximize heating on cold days
  • Air ducts to move warm/cool air around a home as needed

Refrigerant goes quickly from a liquid state to a gas state, which absorbs heat from the environment. Heat exchange is the process of transferring that environmental heat elsewhere.

How Do Heat Pumps Heat Homes?

A heat pump has a reversing valve that flips the whole system from warm to cool or vice versa. A heat pump can keep a home at 70 degrees in the cooler months as long as the outdoor temperature stays above 30.

When temps drop below 30, the heat pump will need the auxiliary heat because there isn't enough heat for the pump to move. Another heat source will help the heat pump keep things comfortable while saving the homeowner a little money, because heating the home will still be quicker and faster.

Now that you've got some idea of what a heat pump does and what it's made of let's talk about some pros and cons of living the Pump Life.

Heat Pump Pros

Is natural gas expensive in your area? Do you loathe keeping a propane tank? A heat pump could be a significant asset. Heat Pumps use electricity and, through the duct system, distribute heat evenly in your house. There usually aren't many drafty spots with a heat pump!

Heat Pumps are very efficient, especially geothermal heat pumps. Generally, Heat Pumps put out more cooled or warmed air than the energy it takes to run them, making them cost-effective. Heat pumps are also suitable to maintain because, during the typical two-times-per-year maintenance, pump technicians will look at both the indoor and outdoor parts of the system to keep things as comfortable as possible inside.

Air Heat Pump for Heating and hot Water in Front of an Residential Building

Heat Pump Cons

Heat pumps are a fantastic way to go if you're lucky enough to live in a moderate climate. You'll see the full benefit and cost savings while keeping cozy all year. A heat pump might not be the most comfortable option if your town always drops below freezing in the winter. If your area often loses power in winter storms, a home warmed by a heat pump might not be for you. The building would get cold in power outages because heat pumps rely on electricity. 

Heat pumps usually cost more than furnaces in terms of price and installation. Because Heat pumps are used all year round, they tend to wear out a little sooner because they're in use so often. Heat pumps usually last around 15 years.

What Size of Heat Pump Do I Need?

Choosing the right heat pump size will ensure you get the most out of the heating and cooling for your home. You don't want to buy a giant heat pump you can afford. You want it to be the right size. If it's too small, it will struggle to keep things comfortable. If it's too big, it will kick on and off frequently, which adds stress to the whole system, including the motor. There are some things to think about when it comes to getting the right size heat pump:

  • Area Climatology
  • Square Footage of home
  • Age/condition of windows/doors
  • Age/condition of insulation
  • How many people live in the home
  • What temperature your family prefers
  • Other appliances that can generate heat indoors

A home evaluation by an expert technician is probably the best way to see if a heat pump makes sense for you and your family.

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Central Air Conditioning: What is it?

Central A/C uses hidden ducts to move cold air throughout a home. Air conditioning works much like a heat pump; it takes heat away from the inside and throws it outdoors. The main difference is that central air conditioning is a bit of a one-trick pony: it's good at cooling your home, and that's it. There's no reversing the system for Winter warmth.

How Does an A/C Unit Get So Cold?

Like in the example of a heat pump, a central air conditioner is also a split unit containing:

  • A compressor & condenser that live outside
  • Evaporator coils inside the home
  • Refrigeration lines that connect inside and outside components
  • Refrigeration that circulates throughout
  • Air ducts that circulate air via a fan
  • An air intake
  • A thermostat to control temperatures

Air Conditioners de-humidity the air, which makes the air easier to cool and makes the air feel cooler on our skin. Like the heat pump, air conditioners rely on refrigerant to pull heat out of the air.

Central A/C moves air throughout the home via a system of ducts. This allows fresh, cool air to be delivered to each room in the home. There's nothing better than feeling that crisp central A/C coming through the vents. But are there any downsides?

Central A/C Pros:

Central A/C allows even the far corners of your home to be cooked perfectly — even if the room is not close to the cooling unit. If you have any size home and have previously relied on window units, you know how huge it is to have that home-consistent cool. Central A/C is also quiet and filters the air to improve air quality and reduce allergens and particulates in the air.

Central A/C Cons:

Unlike a heat pump, Central A/C can't be used for heating. If you live in a cold-weather climate, your system will most likely need to be paired with a heater/furnace, which is a whole different cost. This can get expensive.

HVAC units connected to residential house

Which System Type Is Best?

A heat pump and a central air conditioning system can cool your home. Both use electricity, require a split system, and can do a great job cooling your home. So which one is right for you?

Cost Considerations

Everyone's got a different situation regarding cost, but for many, the cost is one of the most significant considerations. Home Advisor says a normal range for an A/C install might be $3,800-$7500. A heat pump might cost $7,000-$13,000.

If your building already has ductwork, you might be in luck. An inspection might reveal that only repairs are needed. Repairs can run $1500-$5000.

Energy Efficiency Comparisons

There are two main ways air pumps and air conditioners' efficiency are rated. One standard is called SEER – or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. SEER measures the cooling efficiency over a "typical" summer. The other standard is called HSPF – or Heating Seasonal Performance Factor. HSPF is like the "miles-per-gallon" rating on your car. It measures the efficiency of a heat pump while in heating mode. Like a car's MPG, your HSPF can vary depending on how aggressively or conservatively you heat your home. 

SEER ratings are the maximum cooling efficiency your unit can achieve. If you have abundant sunlight, are in warmer climates, or change the thermostat in your home frequently, you're bound to take the efficiency down a notch or two. Typically, heat pumps do well with mild winters, and costs stay lower than heating the same space with a furnace. But the colder it gets, the harder your home's supplemental heat source will have to work. 

Heating and air conditioning units on the side

Lifespan Considerations

Heat pumps work all year round, which reduces their longevity. Because A/C units only work seasonally, they typically outlast their heat pump counterparts. However, your heat pump's efficiency might counteract those costs if you have mild winters where you live. Regular maintenance checks with a professional will go a long way to keep your home's systems humming. 

Let TradePros Help!

TradePros expert technicians are ready to help you maintain and care for your heat pumps and air conditioning systems. Our passion is to help your family stay comfortable all year long. Our technicians know how to help you understand your decisions on heating systems so you can have peace of mind that your home has the best possible heating and cooling solutions. Call TradePros today to learn more!