Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner | What’s the Difference?

A quality cooling system is essential for escaping the heat in California during the summer, but which is the best? Though they have similar functions, when comparing Heat pumps vs. AC systems, there are notable differences to consider.

Learn about the difference between heat pumps and air conditioning systems, the pros and cons of each system, and how to pick the right one for your home.

What is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is a type of HVAC unit that can heat and cool your home. To drive the heat exchange process, heat pumps add and remove heat as needed using the same principles as air conditioners and refrigerators.

Most heat pumps operate using a source and sink process — the electronically-driven pump extracts heat from a low temperature source and transfers it to a higher temperature sink. Most heat pumps use air sources, but others less commonly use earth or ground water as a source.

Heat pumps feature a reversing valve that allow you to switch this process and direct cool or warm air to your home as needed. For example, heat pumps draw warm air from outside during winter to heat your home, even in frigid temperatures. In warm months, they pull hot air outside to cool the air inside your home.

How Does a Heat Pump Compare to an AC?

Both heat pumps and air conditioners use electricity to circulate air and cool your home. Air conditioners use the same principles as heat pumps, but they can only work in one direction and don’t provide heating.

Air conditioners draw heat into your ductwork from your home’s rooms and use a pressure system to send the air through an evaporator coil in the unit. Refrigerant in the coils absorbs the air’s heat and turns to gas before moving outdoors to expel excess heat, and the blower fan pushes the cooled air back through the ductwork and throughout your home.


On average, heat pumps and AC systems both last about 15 years. In a moderate climate, heat pumps operate year-round since they provide heating and cooling, but AC systems only operate for about half the year. The lifespan of both depends on various factors, such as usage and proper maintenance. Climate can also affect lifespan — AC units and heat pumps work hardest in warm and humid environments.


Seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) measures the efficiency of an AC or heat pump during an average cooling season to represent how much energy the unit requires each operating year — the higher the SEER rating, the lower your energy consumption and running costs.

Climate, home design, and the unit’s location can affect its efficiency, but heat pumps typically condition air more efficiently than AC units and use significantly less energy. They can also save up to 50% on energy consumption in the winter compared to baseboard heaters and furnaces.

Benefits of Heat Pumps

Heat pumps offer distinct advantages, such as:

  • Versatility: Heat pumps can provide cold and warm air, making them an all-in-one HVAC system.

  • Efficiency: Compared to other systems, heat pumps generally operate at significantly higher efficiency.

  • Savings: Improved energy efficiency can translate to lower utility bills. Your actual savings may depend on the efficiency of your existing system, the size and condition of your home, your local climate, and other factors.

  • Incentives: The Department of Energy and various California organizations offer several grants, tax rebates, and other incentives for high-efficiency heat pump installation.

Drawbacks of Heat Pumps

Some drawbacks of heat pumps include:

  • Installation cost: Depending on your home, the heat pump unit and installation may present high costs.

  • Extreme weather: Heat pumps can struggle with frigid conditions, and their efficiency steadily declines at temperatures below 40 degrees.

Who Should Consider a Heat Pump?

A heat pump can be an all-in-one HVAC solution in California and other areas with moderate climates and mild winters, and they perform efficiently and typically don’t require a lot of retrofitting. Installing a heat pump may be additionally advantageous if your AC and furnace system are both due for replacement, especially since homeowners may be eligible for a variety of tax credits and other financial incentives for heat pump upgrades, such as the Tech Clean California incentives or programs through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Who Might Stick With a Traditional AC?

Although heat pumps perform well in cold environments, homes in regions with exceptionally cold winters may need to operate a hybrid heating system. Heat pumps in extremely cold areas may work in conjunction with baseboards or furnaces, and they may not be cost-effective.

Although less efficient over their lifetime, AC systems present comparable and sometimes less expensive upfront installation costs compared to heat pumps. If your AC is due for replacement but your furnace still has lots of life left, installing a replacement AC system instead of a heat pump might present better cost benefits. Upgrading to a heat pump system may also require an upgraded electrical panel, which will add to the installation cost.

Heat Pump Installation and Other Cooling Services in California

Heat pumps and AC systems carry distinct differences, but choosing between a heat pump vs. HVAC depends on your individual circumstances. Whether you need a heat pump installation, AC system replacement, routine maintenance, or emergency service, our licensed technicians at Service Champions can help.

Customers in Sacramento, the Bay Area, and other California areas recognize Service Champions for our expert services, 24/7 availability, and great financing options. Contact us today or book online to get started.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are heat pump installations more complex?

Heat pump installations can be more complex than traditional HVAC systems. Expert technicians can plan and install your heat pump depending on your needs to minimize inconveniences.

How long does a heat pump installation take?

Depending on your home and other factors, a heat pump installation takes between three and four hours. New ductwork installation or electrical upgrades may lengthen the installation time.

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