Differences between a heat pump and an air conditioner

Our experts at Canada Furnace get asked this question a lot; what is a heat pump and is it different from an air conditioner?

In reality, from a functional standpoint a central air conditioner and a heat pump are pretty much the same thing. In warm weather a heat pump is air conditioner. Thanks to a device called a reversing valve though, in the cooler weather a heat pump is able to absorb any available heat from the outside air and bring it into the home. The principle is the same as a refrigerator. If you put your hand behind the fridge in your kitchen, you will find that area to be quite warm. What you feel is the heat that the refrigerant is absorbing from inside the appliance (it has to go somewhere).

When it comes to choosing between an air conditioner and a heat pump, the majority of people who do install a heat pump are primarily interested in its capability as an air conditioner. The side bonus is the resulting savings on utility bills, particularly in cooler weather, but the main benefit is the air conditioning component. Keep in mind that you still require a furnace to work in conjunction with a heat pump. When the outside air no longer maintains enough heat to absorb, the heat pump passes the job of home heating to the furnace.

The choice is frequently enhanced by the availability of rebates for heat pumps. Air conditioners do not qualify for rebate programs.

From the standpoint of installation, it doesn’t matter if it is a heat pump or an air conditioner. Both require essentially identical amounts of labour and material. The benefit to the consumer comes in the form of some energy cost savings.

There is a lot of conflicting information about heat pumps and the amount of money one can save on utilities, but realistically one could consider them to be 30 — 40 percent more efficient than a high efficiency gas fired furnace — factoring in the difference in cost between natural gas and electricity rates.

To sum it up, if you’re mainly interested in a heat pump for its ability to provide air conditioning, that would generally be considered a wise choice. If however you’re looking at it from an energy savings standpoint, be prepared for a very long payback interval.