What's the Difference Between an AC and a Heat Pump?

With summer temperatures heating up, Indianapolis homeowners wonder which is the better cooling system option: air conditioner vs. heat pump? With different options available for home cooling, how are you to know the right solution for your family, your home, and your budget?

The air conditioner vs. heat pump debate is a topic we tackle today. As your trusted Indianapolis HVAC company, you look to us for information and we are here to inform you of the different cooling system types available for residential use. Let’s take a look at the air conditioner vs. heat pump dilemma to help you learn more about the options and how they impact factors such as comfort and cost.

No matter what side of the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate you end up on, Williams Comfort Air is here to assist you. If it’s time to upgrade your existing cooling equipment, we help you decide air conditioner vs. heat pump, provide high-quality equipment, and perform the expert installation services you need to start enjoying your new cooling unit.

About Air Conditioners

Many Indianapolis homeowners believe air conditioners create cooling. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception, but it is easy to see where it stems from in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate. Because air conditioners are commonly installed in homes that also use furnaces for heating, the way an air conditioner operates is often lumped in with the way a furnace works.

Furnaces create heat through burning fuel, which is added to the air to bring up temperatures in your Indianapolis area home. So, some homeowners believe air conditioners operate in a similar manner – by creating coolness and adding it to a home’s air.

The fact of the matter is that air conditioners do not create cooling. They actually transfer heat from your home to the outdoors. The air conditioner’s evaporator coils are filled with refrigerant, which absorbs excess heat from the air that cycles through your AC system. The refrigerant carries this heat energy to the outdoor compressor and condenser coils, where it is let off into the outdoor atmosphere.

The key takeaway here is that air conditioners MOVE heat – they do not CREATE cooling.

About Heat Pumps

So, in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate, you must be expecting some major differences in the operation of an air conditioner vs. heat pump. Sorry to spoil the mood, but heat pumps operate in the same way!

Heat pumps also keep your Indianapolis area home cool through the transfer of heat from the indoors to the outside of your house. They use the same components as an air conditioner, and cool homes in the same manner.

This process is for an air source heat pump – heat is exchanged between air sources. Geothermal heat pumps also exist, which exchange heat energy between the air in your home and a below-ground or below-water source. These systems have an additional component called a ground loop, which is a network of fluid-filled piping laid below ground. Heat extracted from your home is deposited into the earth during the cooling process.

For cooling, the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate is more difficult, as both systems essentially function in the same manner! They both work to move heat from the home to the outdoors, which creates a cooler indoor environment.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump

So, why is there even an air conditioner vs. heat pump debate if they both cool your home in the same way? It’s because their similarities essentially stop with the cooling process. Let’s compare an air conditioner vs. heat pump side by side on several of the issues that matter most to Indianapolis homeowners.


With an air conditioner, you get cool comfort in your Indianapolis home during the hot spring, summer, and fall seasons across Central Indiana. Once temperatures fall, your air conditioner is turned off and your heating system takes over. Air conditioners do not provide heating.

Heat pumps, on the other hand, DO provide heating. They’re essentially two systems in one: cooling and heating. How could a system that cools possibly provide heating? The answer is simple: by working in reverse!

To heat a home, a heat pump runs in reverse. Instead of the way the system functions for cooling, the condenser coils extract heat from the air, transporting it through refrigerant lines to the evaporator coil, where it mixes with indoor air and is circulated back into the home. Instead of having an air conditioner and a furnace, one heat pump does the job of both.

A geothermal heat pump extracts heat from its below-ground or below-water source, which is transported into your home to create warmer temperatures. It’s simply a moving of heat though – there is no heat created with an air source or geothermal heat pump, unlike a furnace.

For home heating needs, the heat pump is a clear winner in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate. One system provides heating in addition to cooling, while the other one simply doesn’t.

Energy Consumption and Efficiency

When homeowners make the choice between air conditioner vs. heat pump, energy consumption and energy efficiency are factors important to many. Why? Because the cooling system’s energy consumption and efficiency are directly tied to the cost you pay for cooling. Higher energy efficiency means less energy consumption by the system, which is reflected with lower utility bills in the summertime.

Both air conditioners and heat pumps have their energy efficiency measured in SEER, which stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. Between an air conditioner vs. heat pump, the SEER rating means the same. A 14 SEER air conditioner uses the same amount of energy as a 14 SEER heat pump.

For cooling savings, the answer for air conditioner vs. heat pump is they’re both equal. The big energy savings with heat pumps comes during heating mode.

Both air source and geothermal heat pumps are much more efficient than a furnace for heating under the right temperatures. Air source heat pumps deliver approximately 175 to 300% energy efficiency in heating, which means they output more units of heat than the units of energy they consume. Geothermal heat pumps on the other hand deliver between 300 and 600% energy efficiency and do not have problems operating in low temperatures.

The Hoosier Climate

The Central Indiana area experiences hot and muggy summers most years. In these conditions, an air conditioner vs. heat pump is an important comfort question. Sometimes, it seems as if your air conditioner just cannot keep up when outdoor temperatures are in the extremes. This is because air conditioning systems are only designed to provide adequate cooling at temperature differentials of up to about 20 degrees.

What does this mean? When outdoor temperatures are more than 20 degrees higher than the temperature you want to achieve in your home, air conditioners struggle.

On the other hand, heat pumps don’t really struggle with cooling in high temperatures. In fact, they’re often the preferred cooling option in areas of the country with extreme temperatures, such as Arizona. For cooling, heat pumps win the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate when it comes to keeping up with cooling demand.

However, there are some disadvantages to using a heat pump for heating in Central Indiana. It’s not unusual for our winter temperatures to dip below freezing and stay there for many days in a row. Heat pumps start to struggle when outdoor temperatures hit between 25 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s simply not enough heat in the air to adequately heat your home.

Geothermal heat pumps are an entirely different story – the struggles in heating really only plague air-source heat pumps. The temperatures below ground stay at a consistent temperature around 55 degrees throughout the year, which provides plenty of heat energy for your home.

When it comes to heating, geothermal heat pumps are superior in the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate. Air source heat pumps may have a problem on those bitterly cold Indiana days during the winter. Many Indianapolis area homes with heat pumps utilize a backup heating system, such as a furnace or electric heating coils.


In the air conditioner vs. heat pump debate as well as any other HVAC system upgrade, cost is an important concern to Indianapolis homeowners. Both the price of the unit and the price of operation are factors.

Where cost is concerned, heat pumps are typically less expensive to purchase and install. Air conditioners often have a higher upfront cost. Before you decide between an air conditioner vs. heat pump, consider that with an air conditioner, you need to install a heating system as well. In Indiana, it’s important to have a backup heat source installed with an air source heat pump system in the event of extremely low temperatures.

For cooling, the air conditioner vs. heat pump race is dead even. As long as the units have the same SEER rating, your electricity bills run the same no matter which cooling system you choose. A heat pump lowers heating bills for a good chunk of the winter, but if you rely on your backup heating system more days than not, an air-source heat pump may not be the most efficient choice.

Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump: Which Is Right for You?

The answer to your air conditioner vs. heat pump debate is highly personal. It depends on factors such as temperature preferences, budget, and energy efficiency goals. No matter what way you lean, our comfort experts are here to help you make an informed decision regarding an air conditioner vs. heat pump.

Get Air Conditioner vs. Heat Pump Help Today

For help deciding between an air conditioner vs. heat pump, the NATE-certified professionals of Williams Comfort Air help you choose. Let us introduce you to amazing Carrier cooling systems, no matter the outcome of your air conditioner vs. heat pump choice. Call Williams Comfort Air today for quality air conditioner or heat pump installation in and around the Indianapolis area.

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