Heat pumps vs. AC — Why Upfront Costs Can Be Misleading
By Kevin Purdy
Table of contents
Why We Recommend a Heat Pump vs. AC
Why We Recommend a Heat Pump vs. AC
If you’re looking at replacing an air conditioning system, or upgrading a home with central air, you might be wondering how heat pumps compare with traditional A/C.
The main advantage of traditional air conditioners is their lower upfront cost. Installing a basic A/C system is a few thousand dollars cheaper than installing a heat pump. But this lower upfront cost has a few major drawbacks.
With the exception of their higher upfront cost, heat pumps are better in almost every way. They can typically replace both an air conditioner and a furnace, which means two major appliances for the price of one. Heat pumps also provide more comfortable heating and cooling than basic air conditioners and furnaces. And they can save the average U.S. homeowner $10,000 over the lifespan of the unit. Because they run on electricity, installing a heat pump also frees your home from relying on heating fuels, which can fluctuate in price.
In this article, we’ll walk through each of the ways a heat pump improves on the air conditioning we’re all familiar with: costs, installation, and comfort. We’ll also cover the environmental benefits of heat pumps vs. A/C units, and argue that heat pumps are worth the higher upfront cost.
Upfront and operating cost
Two systems for the price of one
A heat pump can both heat and cool a home, compared to an air conditioner which only provides cooling. In other words it’s a replacement for both your air conditioner and your furnace or boiler.
That means when you install a heat pump you’re getting two major appliances for the price of one. According to a recent study by RMI, it’s cheaper to install a heat pump than a furnace+AC.
Heat pumps can save you $10,000 over 15 years
According to our recent analysis of heat pump costs and savings, the average American homeowner can save $670 per year by switching to a heat pump. Over 15 years that adds up to total savings of $10,000.
If your home uses electric resistance heat (i.e. baseboards or an electric furnace), propane, or fuel oil, the savings will be closer to $1,000 a year.
Heat pumps cost a few thousand dollars more than traditional A/C systems, but they often pay for themselves, and quickly. If you were due to replace your heating system, soon? That’s even more incentive. Heat pumps also tend to have newer technology in them, like variable speed motors and inverters. We’ll get to those in the comfort section.
If you use a heat pump for both heat and cooling, it may lack longevity, compared to an A/C unit that only works part of the year. HVAC installers cite a 15-year lifespan for a year-round heat pump. The average U.S. heat pump pays for itself in about eight years, but it may not last as long as two separate appliances serving half the time.
Heat pumps don’t require ducts
Many older homes don’t have ductwork. Traditional air conditioner units don’t work in these homes, forcing homeowners to make do with inefficient, ugly window A/C units. But ductless mini-splits — a common type of heat pump — are easier and more flexible to install than ducted HVAC systems.
Heat pumps don’t have to work alone
Heat pumps work efficiently in almost every climate, even cold ones. For the coldest reaches of the country, though, a heat pump can be used in a dual-fuel, or hybrid, setup to reduce energy bills. With a smart thermostat, your home can switch from your heat pump to your oil, propane or gas furnace depending on the temperature.
Most heat pumps provide better comfort
Many heat pumps come with variable-speed or dual-speed motors. These can make the heating and cooling process more gradual, and energy-efficient, than a traditional system. They don’t simply have “on” and “off” modes, so they don’t blast you with air or make a noise throughout the house when they “kick on.”
Heat pumps can cool your home too
The way that air conditioning lowers the temperature and humidity of your home when it’s beastly outside? Heat pumps do that, too. The biggest difference is that a heat pump can also provide heat and utility bill savings.
Installing a heat pump is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint
Replacing your traditional fuel-burning furnace with a highly efficient heat pump is the easiest way to make a big difference, personally, in our fight against climate change. Boring, but big.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Home energy use is 20% of the carbon emissions in America.
- Heating and cooling are 60% of those home emissions.
- Switching to a heat pump would save the average homeowner $557 on home energy bills (and far more for homes heated by baseboard heaters or fuel oil).
- If everyone in America made their heating and cooling efficient and electric, and the electricity came from renewable sources, America could cut emissions by 600 million tons per year.
Is there any reason to go with traditional A/C?
The notable downside to heat pumps is that they cost a few thousand dollars more upfront to install than traditional air conditioners. That’s to be expected for advanced technology that does twice as much work.
But we realize that for many households, a few thousand dollars is a lot of money. Fortunately many states across the U.S. offer incentives, rebates, and financing for homeowners who install heat pumps versus a/c units, so it’s worth checking to see if they can even out the cost.
The DSIRE database of incentives and rebates is a great place to start.
Installing a heat pump provides air conditioning, lowers your heating costs, gives you more installation options, and future-proofs your home for a fuel-free, cheaper future. That’s why we recommend them whenever possible to people in need of a new A/C system.