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Heat Pump vs Central Air Conditioner: Differences, Costs & More

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At first glance, you may think that a heat pump is a world of difference when compared to a central air conditioner. You’re probably thinking that a heat pump heats a home while a central air conditioner cools it.

Well, a lot of homeowners find out the confusing way that they have a lot of common when it comes to making their home more comfortable. That’s basically their main similarity. They can make your home more comfortable.

For homeowners looking for a more comfortable home, it can be a confusing task to choose between a heat pump and a central air conditioner. This article can help you choose between the two.

Of course, we’ll talk about central air conditioners. What is this system? Why do you need one? How can it help you? We’ll also discuss the same topics for heat pumps.

On this page:

We’ll also talk about the corresponding costs. The cost is a consideration for a lot of homeowners so we’ll include this information.

We highly recommend that you really look into both options. This includes knowing the pros and cons. No system is perfect. Everything has pros and cons. Knowing these can help you with your decision.

Do you have a system installed in your home and you don’t know whether it’s a heat pump or an air conditioner? Maybe you bought the house and you have no idea what’s installed. We can help you determine what you have installed.

So, which system is the right fit for your home? You should be able to decide once and for all once you’ve read this article – the ultimate heat pump vs central air conditioner comparison.

Once you’ve decided, the next thing to consider is whether you’re going to do the installation on your own or you should hire a professional. We’re going to tell you right now that it’s best to hire a professional. Just in case this doesn’t convince you, we’ll list down the reasons why you should hire a professional.

We get it. Hiring a HVAC contractor can get pretty expensive. It doesn’t have to be. Actually, the benefits alone should make hiring a professional and paying for his services worth it. But why say no to a good deal? We’ll tell you how you can find a good deal. We’ll show you how you can have contractors compete for your business. We’ll show you how you can have contractors send you their best quotes. We’ll show you how you can choose from the best available quotes.

What is the Difference Between a Heat Pump and Central Air?

If we’re going by technicality, an air conditioner is also a heat pump because it pumps air from the inside of your home to the outside, essentially cooling your home. This can also be done by a heat pump. The only difference is it can do it in reverse. It can pump heated air from outdoors to indoors.

Basically, a heat pump is an HVAC system that can cool your home by pumping hot air outside and heat your home by pumping hot air inside. On the other hand, an air conditioner can only cool your home by pumping hot air outside. Yes, it doesn’t make your home cooler by pumping cool air indoors.

You can think of it as a heat pump as it pump heat outdoors, but what’s the use if all you’re looking for is to make your home more comfortable?

What is a Central Air Conditioner?

You already know what an AC is. So what makes it central? Basically, the central AC system has a series of ductworks where air that has been cooled in a central location passes through with the help of fans that allow the cool air to reach the other parts of a home.

What are the benefits of this system? Here are some of the benefits:

  • It cools your home.

Can you imagine living through the hot summer months without an AC? An AC unit is heaven-sent during these months. It improves the comfort level of your home and it improves the quality of your life in the process. Without it, everyone in your family will be out the whole day staying at malls or coffee shops where there’s AC.

  • It reduces the level of humidity.

It goes without saying that humid air is uncomfortable air. However, that’s not the worst of the problems that high humidity brings.

It has a lot of negative effects to a body. Your body can actually overheat with the already warm temperature brought upon by the warm weather made warmer because of the moisture in the air inside your home.

Here are the other negative effects of high humidity:

  • You can get dehydrated.
  • It will bring fatigue to your body.
  • You can faint.
  • Your muscles may cramp.
  • It cleans the air.

The way it works is that the unit pulls the air from the inside of your home to the outside. In the process, it also pulls dust along with other minute particles that will pass through filters built in the system. This is why the air that will be supplied to the rooms of your house will be cleaner and healthier.

  • It’s quieter.

This is due to the fact that most of the noise-making parts especially the compressor are installed outside your home.

Two Types of Central Air Conditioners

There are two conventional AC types that you can choose from:

  • Split system

It’s called as such because the system has two cabinets – one located indoors and one located outdoors. The one located indoors has the evaporator. In a lot of cases, this indoor cabinet also houses a furnace or heat pump. This is where the evaporator coil is installed. On the other hand, the one located outdoors houses the compressor and condenser.

Homes that already have a furnace are better off with this type. It’s the better and more economical option.

  • Packaged

For this type, the major parts (compressor, evaporator and condenser) are housed in a single cabinet. Said cabinet is installed either on your roof or concrete slab located near the foundation of your house. This type is also located outdoors. The return ducts along with the air supply are pumped to the said cabinet outdoors.

A lot of models of this type also come with either a natural gas furnace or electric heating coils. This means that it doesn’t require a standalone furnace.

What is a Heat Pump for a House?

Based on its name, you’re probably assuming that it’s a system that pumps heat to a house. It pulls hot air outdoors and pumps it indoors. Obviously, this proves to be very useful during cold days.

Did you also know that it can also provide cooling to your home? It does this by pumping hot air indoors outdoors. Basically, it pumps the hot air in reverse. This technically makes it an air conditioning unit so it’s also accurate to call it a heat pump cooling system.

It’s accurate to say that an AC unit is also a heat pump as it pumps hot air outdoors. It’s just that a heat pump also pumps the hot air in reverse. Basically, a heat pump serves a dual purpose. It can cool or warm your home.

What are the benefits of this system? Here are some of them:

  • You save a lot of money because you don’t need to buy a furnace.
  • It leads to lower energy bills because of its efficiency in heating your home during the winter.
  • It’s a greener option because of its efficiency as compared to burning fossil fuels in heating your home.

If you live in an area where it doesn’t really get too hot or too cold, a heat pump is often the more energy-efficient option for you. You can know more about its advantages in this article on forced air vs central air.

Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner Cost

A lot of homeowners would like to know which the better system is when it comes to a heat pump versus an AC unit when it comes to the cost. It’s not really a surprise that most homeowners don’t know how much they should spend for either. They don’t even know which one is the more affordable option.

You’re probably thinking of the upfront installation cost. How much does each system cost? Which is cheaper?

Let’s start with a heat pump. But first, it’s important to note that there are factors that affect its installation cost including the following:

  • How big is your home? Your home’s size will be a determining factor on the size of heat pump that it needs. Bigger homes may even need multiple units.
  • Is it the peak season? Contractors are usually booked solid right before a cold or hot spell. You can expect to pay more in order to be squeezed in to their busy schedule. If you want to save a lot of money, you can plan ahead and book them during the off-season when they’re just looking to keep their guys busy.
  • What brand is it? A Lennox heat pump is known to be expensive. You can expect to shell out close to $3,000 on average for the unit alone. On the other hand, a Goodman unit costs around just half of that.
  • What is the energy rating? The higher energy rating, the more expensive it’s going to be. It’s one of those things that you should invest on because that can give you great energy savings.
  • Speaking of contractor, your choice of contractor for the installation will also determine the cost. A lot of contractors would try to pull a fast one on you by charging an exorbitant rate. Don’t let this discourage you from hiring one. Later on, we’ll talk about a free service that can help you find an amazing deal.

You should also consider how much it’s going to affect your energy bills. This is something that you’d have to pay regularly so it’s an important consideration.

You can expect to pay $500 at the very least. This is just for a single room only. Obviously, most homeowners would require a house unit. You can expect to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 for one. This already includes the installation. Again, the price will vary based on the factors listed above.

There are some varieties called geothermal pumps that are more expensive. They can go as high as $7,500 and that doesn’t include the installation. They’re more expensive because they’re installed on the ground. This is why they’re also called ground-to-air pumps.

This may seem like expensive but consider the benefits that it brings. Besides, it basically does the job of the AC and furnace. This benefits new home installations since you don’t have to install those two.

How about for a central AC unit? Just like with heat pumps, there are factors that have to be considered. The factors listed above also apply here. To add, another factor to consider is whether there’s existing ductwork for a heating system that can be utilized. If there is, then that will lower the cost significantly.

On average, you can expect to pay a little over $4,500 to install a central AC unit. Although based on the factors listed above, the cost can go as low as around $3,300 to as high as $6,000. If these quotes are out of your range, there are single units that can be installed for as low as a little over $200.

The important thing is you hire a competent installer. First of all, they’ll recommend the right system for you. Choosing the wrong system can increase your energy bills. There’s no point in installing a cheap system if you’d have to pay a lot of money to run it. They’ll also recommend one with a high energy rating for you to enjoy savings.

Do I have a Heat Pump or Air Conditioner?

Knowing what system you have is very important. If you don’t and you need service, you could end up calling the wrong professional. You’d have to pay for the cost of the service call and not end up getting serviced.

You’d think that you can tell simply by looking at it. While a trained professional can say with just one look, most homeowners would have to do some checks in order to determine what unit they have. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Turn on the heat at the thermostat.

Go to the vents and feel if there’s hot air being blown out. Then, go to the cabinet outside and check if it’s currently running and giving off heat. If yes, what you have is a heat pump. Again, it’s capable of providing heat unlike an AC.

What if for some reason you can’t check the outside cabinet? There are other ways.

  • Check the labels of your indoor air handler or condenser.

A lot of times, all it takes is a simple check of labels. You can look for the EnergyGuide label. You can easily find it since it’s yellow in color. If you see figures for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor, then what you have is a heat pump. These two numbers show how efficient they are with cooling and heating, which are two things that it can do.

  • Is there a reversing valve on the condenser?

An AC unit doesn’t have this. So go outside and look into the condenser for this part. It’s a device that looks like brass and has 3 fittings on a side.

Choosing the Right System for your Home

It really depends on what you need. Of course, a heat pump is recommended if you’re looking for a cooling and heating solution. But if you just need cooling or if you already have a furnace, then an AC unit is more recommended.

Here are other tips that can help you choose the right system for your home:

  • How much is your budget for the installation and upfront cost?

Generally speaking, an AC unit is more affordable to install. This is understandable considering that a heat pump can do two things so it has two cabinets. Of course, don’t base your decision on this alone. It’s recommended that you still contact around 4 contractors near you so you can ask them for a quote.

  • How important is energy-efficiency for you?

The answer should be yes, it’s very important. In addition to helping out the environment, energy-efficiency can also help you get monthly savings on your energy bills.

This is because an appliance that’s not efficient with the use of energy will cost higher to run. This will lead to higher energy bills. On the other hand, an energy-efficient appliance will be more affordable to run. This will lead to lower energy bills.

In short, you will get savings each and every month. These savings will add up and will eventually offset the upfront installation cost.

Your choice will be dependent on several things starting with how cold it usually gets outside your home. If it’s about average, then a heat pump will use electricity in an efficient and energy-saving manner. This means that it’s going to be cheaper to run as compared to oil, propane or even natural gas.

The problem with heat pumps is when the temperature drops down to below freezing. This system will have to work double time. In this case, you’d have to complement it with a furnace. What you’ll have is a hybrid heat system. Obviously, this will be expensive upfront so if you haven’t installed these systems yet, you’re better off with a combination of furnace and AC unit.

Another important thing to check is the SEER rating. As a general rule, the higher the rating is, the more efficient it’s going to be. You should also make sure that what you’re looking at has an ENERGY STAR certification.

How to Install a Heat Pump

We don’t recommend installing a heat pump. It’s a complicated installation best reserved for professionals. In case you’re not convinced, here are the general installation steps:

  1. The condenser is installed outdoors.
  2. The air handler is added and mounted.
  3. The air handler is then connected to the condenser.
  4. The lines are covered before making the final installations.

Trust us when we tell you that these steps are harder than they seem.

How to Install a Central Air Conditioner

If you’re thinking that installing a central AC unit is any easier, you’re mistaken. Here are the general steps on how to install a central air conditioner:

  1. Install the ducts. This requires proper planning or it could lead to expensive errors.
  2. The air handler is then positioned by the condensation drain. It’s usually a basement installation. The important thing is it should be able to run to the outdoors away from your home’s foundations.
  3. The compressor is installed. This is where the help of a licensed electrician should be employed. As a general rule, install it around a foot away from the structure.
  4. Drill a hole for the refrigeration tube and another one for the electrical tube.
  5. Connect the mains. Have an electrician check if they’re able to carry the required load.

The fact that you need the help of a licensed electrician should be proof that you should hire a professional installer.

DIY or Hiring a Professional for Installation

You’re probably looking at the labor cost and you’re thinking if you’re better off installing the unit on your own. Generally speaking, it’s not recommended that you do so. First of all, these are massive and heavy units. You wouldn’t be able to install it on your own, let alone carry it.

Besides, these are complicated systems. They’re not something that you just nail into place. They’re not something that you just plug and play. You wouldn’t want to spend several days installing the system, only to find out that you made a mistake somewhere along the way.

Being a complicated system, it’s also important to note that there are a lot of potential dangers involved. First of all, there’s a likely chance that you’ll be working in high places. One wrong step can lead to an expensive trip to the hospital. Of course, there are the known dangers involved in working with electrical and HVAC systems.

If you’re choosing between DIY or hiring a professional for installation, you should ask one simple question – do you want to get things done right? Think about it. If you’re doing it DIY, there’s a good chance that you’ll mess up the installation. After all, you don’t do this for a living. On the other hand, hiring a professional means hiring someone that has been doing this regularly for years. They are doing this for a living. There’s a slimmer chance of them making a mistake than you. Besides if you hire a professional, you can get protection in the form of a guarantee and warranty.

Getting Quotes from Competing Pros

Probably the main reason why you’re considering doing it DIY is you want to save on labor cost. This is understandable. It’s basic for us to grab the best possible deal. The best deal should be the best quote that can lead to the best results.

With this in mind, we have developed a free service that can help you get quotes from competing professionals. This alone should tell you how it can help you. Since these companies will be competing for your business, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be receiving affordable quotes.

It’s basically what homeowners have been doing for decades. They ask several contractors for their best quotes while letting them know that you’re shopping around for the best quote. This free service is just to make this process easier.

All you have to do is to complete the form that you see on this page. Send the completed form and the best licensed contractors in your area that specialize in heat pumps and central air conditioners will receive your details. They’ll put together their best quote because they have this understanding that their competitors will be sending their best quotes as well.

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