Heat Pumps Vs. Air Conditioners: 2024 Guide (2024)

There's a ton of hype around heat pumps because they make it easy to heat your home with clean, sustainable energy.

It's such a big deal that a heat pump's other major upside gets lost in the mix: It can cool your home, too—often better than a typical central AC can.

Heat pumps are actually so similar to air conditioners that if you need to replace your AC, you should probably just get a heat pump instead—whether or not you also need a new furnace. You might even save some money.

Heat pumps and air conditioners work exactly the same way in cooling mode—there’s no meaningful technical difference. Most brands that sell ACs also sell heat pumps, often with the same SEER efficiency rating and basically all of the same components. The installation process is similar, too. So if you want to cool your house with an air conditioner, you can cool it with a heat pump instead.

HVAC contractors and clean-energy advocates don’t always agree with each other, but this is one situation where everyone basically sees eye to eye.

In a 2022 guest post for Canary Media, climate researcher Alexander Gard-Murray and HVAC pro Nate Adams co-argued in favor of a bill that would have incentivized manufacturers to focus on heat pumps while phasing out central ACs.

“Think of them as two cars of the same make, except only one of them has a reverse gear,” Adams and Gard-Murray wrote for Canary. “For manufacturers, the main difference between the two technologies is just a few hundred dollars’ worth of parts to make the heat move in two directions.”

Tim De Stasio, owner of Comfort Science Solutions in North Carolina and an influential HVAC trainer, still recommends that most of his clients keep a traditional heater—but is generally in favor of heat pumps, too. “I think every AC replacement proposal should include a dual fuel heat pump conversion option,” he told EnergySage.

So the cooling side is covered, no problem. After incentives, heat pumps typically shouldn’t even cost much more (if anything) than a cooling-only AC. It’s also easier to convert your home to a heat pump during warmer months, because a broken cooling system in the summer isn’t quite as urgent of a problem as a broken heater during the winter.

What about heating?

The question is how you want to handle the heating: Will the heat pump completely replace your old heater? Or will you use the heat pump and that heater in combination? We’ll cover the finer details in another article, but here’s the gist of it:

  • All electric: You can absolutely rely exclusively on a heat pump for your heating and cooling. There’s a chance it will actually save you some money, especially if you live in an area with big rebates for heat pumps, or you’d be switching away from an expensive heating fuel like oil or propane. So even if you only intended to replace your AC, stay open to the possibility of also ditching your old heater.

  • Hybrid or dual-fuel: If an all-electric setup isn’t practical or cost-effective, or you’re just not comfortable with that, you can get a hybrid or dual fuel setup. Plenty of heat pumps can work well in combination with an existing furnace, for example. You’ll plop the heat pump’s indoor coil on top of the furnace, just like you would with an AC. Then you’ll set the heat pump to handle your heating down to a certain temperature, before switching over to the secondary heater.

The key is to find a thoughtful, honest HVAC contractor who passes along all the cost savings from tax credits and rebates, while also tweaking the system to best suit your home, your budget, and your goals.

Wholesale prices

In terms of raw equipment costs, heat pumps do generally cost more than central air conditioners. There are plenty of exceptions, though—especially after tax credits and rebates. To illustrate the point, here are a few examples of wholesale prices for common 3-ton ACs and heat pumps.

So, yes, you can get a cheap AC for less than a big-name, top-rated, high-performance heat pump—but some excellent heat pumps actually cost less than a cheap AC (or low-end heat pump) after incentives. And in the context of total installation costs, for something as important as a home HVAC system, the price gap between the most basic and most advanced models isn’t very dramatic at all.

Installation costs

With rebates, the cost of equipment is clearly no barrier to picking a heat pump over an AC. Once you roll in the extra labor and accessory parts that whole-house installations sometimes require, does the math look any different?

Through our Marketplace, we have plenty of data on installation costs specifically for heat pumps—the average is about $16,000 after incentives. But we don’t have first-hand data about AC installation costs, and haven’t found a great third-party source either. Anecdotally,

A heat pump can legitimately cost more to install than an AC, because there’s some extra labor and sometimes a few extra accessory parts involved (more on that below.)

But some contractors seem to charge a lot more for a heat pump than an AC, all else being equal. So what gives? Experts in the clean energy and HVAC industries have quietly acknowledged to us that heat pump install costs are likely being inflated by big rebate programs, hype, and a lack of transparency throughout the industry.

Our advice? Shop around until you can get a price close to the industry average, based on the system you’ll need for your specific home.

Energy use

Since ACs and heat pumps work identically in cooling mode, just compare the SEER ratings. A higher rating means you’ll pay less for energy. We have a guide on what to expect in terms of energy use in cooling mode.

In cold climates, the heat pumps that you would need to heat your home all winter also tend to have high SEER ratings for cooling. It’s a happy side effect of the all-around design. They’ll almost always cost less to run than basic single-speed ACs or heat pumps.


Since a heat pump and air conditioner rely on the same technology and most of the same parts, the maintenance is essentially the same for both appliances.

There’s some evidence that heat pumps need more maintenance than either central ACs or furnaces, as Consumer Reports has found in their reader survey. But the context is important here: Heat pumps run more often than either of those appliances, and it’s not likely that they need more total maintenance than ACs and furnaces combined. There’s no evidence to suggest that they’re inherently less reliable per hour of heating and cooling that they deliver.

The story could be slightly different for high-performance heat pumps, but we doubt it. These variable-speed, inverter-driven models are a bit more complicated than basic ACs or heat pumps because the electronic controls are so sophisticated. That could mean higher maintenance costs per service call, but there’s no good data on that. Those sophisticated controls could also mean fewer service calls total, since they keep the machine operating within its comfort zone more often.


Like maintenance, it’s hard to come by reliable estimates for heat pump longevity. The rule of thumb we’ve heard from around the industry is about 15 years, which is in the same ballpark as a furnace or air conditioner. It’s also more or less how long most HVAC manufacturers tend to keep making spare parts for old systems, according to Victor Hyman, executive director at ClimateCare Canada.

Since modern heat pumps run nearly constantly year-round, do those long hours at work mean fewer calendar years of service? Probably not. Most of the pros we’ve asked about this believe that wear-and-tear mostly actually comes from frequent starts and stops, rather than long periods of consistent, moderate power use.

All that said, the latest generation of cold-climate inverter heat pumps haven’t been available in America for long enough to really get an accurate read on what to expect.

Installing a heat pump is usually a little trickier and more labor intensive than simply replacing an old central AC with a new one. Here’s what to expect, and what could drive up the cost of installation to some extent.

  • Outdoor space. Depending on the particulars, a new heat pump outdoor unit might be slightly larger than the old AC condenser. If you’re upgrading to a cold-climate inverter model, the dimensions will be much different than your old AC—taller but much thinner. This could create some placement challenges. In many parts of the country, heat pumps also need to be installed on snow stands, while central ACs do not.

  • Existing air handler. A heat pump’s indoor coil can technically work with your existing system, according to De Stasio. “As long as the airflow volume is correct, you can use an existing air handler or furnace,” he said. The downside, though, is that these systems might not be efficient enough to qualify for financial incentives, and could void the warranty on your new equipment. So sometimes, it’s just not practical to Frankenstein a new heat pump coil onto an old air handler or furnace. There’s often some kind of workaround, but it’ll cost extra.

  • Refrigerant lineset. It’s sometimes possible to reuse the existing refrigerant lineset, “if it’s the correct size…and does not leak,” De Stasio said. But if you’re upgrading from an AC to an inverter heat pump, you’ll need new refrigerant lines. If you want to hide the new lineset behind drywall, that’s an additional challenge and expense.

  • Wiring. If you take your thermostat off the wall, you’ll see a handful of wires attached to the back. Some of those run to the indoor unit, some connect to the outdoor unit. The same is true for heat pumps—but heat pumps often need more wires to enable more precise controls than central ACs, De Stasio said. That means you might not be able to simply reuse the existing wires, which means pulling new wires, which in turn adds some time, difficulty, and some expense to the project.

  • Ductwork, insulation, and electrical upgrades. These are the Big Three potential roadblocks to a smooth, affordable heat pump upgrade, which we cover in greater depth here. But they’re much more likely to pose a challenge if you want to go all-electric. With a hybrid heat pump setup, you can often avoid these costly infrastructure upgrades. (At least until the next time you need to replace a portion of your HVAC system.)

  • Contractors. If your HVAC contractor tries to talk you out of getting a heat pump instead of an AC, you’re not alone. Unfortunately it’s still very common (though to be fair the situation seems to be improving as of 2024). Some of the installers actually don’t know any better, because they haven’t been trained on the new tech. Others work for HVAC companies with business models that aren’t really suited to thoughtful, customized system designs—they’re incentivized to sell what’s easy and in stock, regardless of whether it’s what the customer wants or needs. Make sure to shop around.

If the math looks right for heat pumps and you're ready to jump in, the EnergySage Marketplace makes it easy to get quotes from experienced, vetted heat pump contractors (in select areas).

When you sign-up (free of charge!) for the marketplace, we'll connect you with an EnergySage Energy Advisor—one of our in-house heat pump experts who can help guide you through the installation process.

If the economics don't make a ton of sense for a heat pump right now, the EnergySage Marketplace can help you find another home electrification project to check off your list. If the high cost of electricity put you off of heat pumps, you might find that rooftop solar makes a ton of sense. We can help you find a top-quality solar installer in your area.

Image: iStock

Heat Pumps Vs. Air Conditioners: 2024 Guide (2024)
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