Heat Pumps vs Air Conditioners

Family on laptop researching which cooling system is better - heat pumps or air conditioners

To battle those hot, humid Toronto summers, you might be looking for an HVAC system to help cool your home. Either an air source heat pump system or air conditioning system will do the job, as both systems use compressed refrigerant and move heat away from your living areas.

Save for a few technicalities, installing heat pumps and installing air conditioners essentially operate the same way to cool your home—they both remove heat energy from the inside of your home and pump it outside.

How Does an Air Conditioner Work?

Air conditioners provide cold air inside your home by removing heat and humidity from the indoor air. They function on a continuous cycle, described below, to achieve the desired temperature in your home.

A compressor raises the pressure and temperature of the refrigerant gas (a specialized chemical), sending it to a condenser coil where it is then converted to a liquid. The liquid refrigerant goes back into the evaporator coil, where it evaporates and cools the indoor coil. A fan blows air across this cold coil, and the heat inside the home is absorbed into the refrigerant. Then, the cooled air is circulated throughout the home, while the heated evaporated gasses are sent back outside to the compressor. The heat is released into the outside air as the refrigerant returns back to a liquid state. 

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An air conditioner is usually paired with a furnace or other heating system to provide heat during the winter months. One of the many benefits of an air conditioner is they’re great for helping maintain good indoor air quality.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

There are two common types of heat pumps: air-source heat pumps, and ground-source (or geothermal) heat pumps. The air-source heat pumps are more easily comparable to an air conditioning system, because the ground-source heat pumps use the ground temperature to exchange heat rather than the outside air.

Heat pumps move heat between your home’s indoor air to the outside, and are capable of warming AND cooling your home’s temperature (unlike air conditioners, which can only cool). They’re becoming more popular with homeowners looking to either purchase a new system or retrofit an existing one.

Whereas a furnace generates heat to distribute through your home, a heat pump simply absorbs existing heat from the outside air (even when outdoor temperatures drop, there is always heat to be found!), and transfer it to your indoor air.

What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference between a heat pump and air conditioner is that while both a heat pump and a central air conditioner use the same general “cooling mode” principles to get cool air into your home, heat pump systems are capable of reversing the process, and can deliver warm air back inside your home when it’s too cold. Central air conditioners can only pump hot air outside of your house, but don’t have a heating mode. 


Heat pumps will tend to cost more than the base cost of air conditioners, and that includes the installation. Both systems will require an indoor and outdoor unit to be installed, as well as ductwork.

Dr HVAC has a great selection of heat pump brands like Napoleon Heat Pumps and Napoleon air conditioners, and will help you install them.

Energy Efficiency

Which system is more efficient? Heat pumps offer energy-efficient heating in moderately cold outdoor temperatures, since they provide electricity-only heating as opposed to natural gas, oil, or propane heating systems. As temperatures go down, the heat pump will have to work harder and use more energy to maintain your home’s comfort, reducing its efficiency.

Both heat pumps and air conditioners are rated on energy efficiency by their SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio), which measures the cooling output over a typical summer. If you’re looking to get to Net Zero, or want to take advantage of the Canada Greener Homes Grant and Canada Greener Homes Loan, a heat pump is a great option to help you get there.

[ Read about the most energy efficient heating and cooling systems ]

Home Comfort

The biggest difference between one cooling system and the other is that an air conditioner doesn’t provide any additional heating capabilities, whereas heat pumps do. Heat pump heating can work during the shoulder seasons when it’s too chilly for air conditioning but not cold enough for your furnace.


A heat pump system will likely have a lower cost indoor unit, but the outdoor unit can be a higher upfront cost than central air conditioning systems’ price point. However, because a heat pump can both heat and cool, it’s important to consider the cost of a furnace as well as an air conditioner, since you’ll need both systems to do the same job as a heat pump.


During the summer, the two systems will be comparable to operate, but during winter the heat pump will still be working while the air conditioner is shut down. This means that air conditioners will have a longer lifespan due to not being in use year-round.

However, because you’re only paying for the electricity to run the heat pump (the heat in the air is free, as opposed to the heat generated by natural gas or oil furnaces), heat pumps can maintain a comfortable temperature during the shoulder seasons and mild winters. If you only need to use your furnace during a few cold months during the year, your furnace will also see some increased longevity thanks to the heat pump.

If you need some guidance on buying a new central air conditioner, ask the experts at Dr HVAC!

Trust Dr HVAC With Your Cooling System Installation

Whether you’re replacing an existing heating or cooling system in your home, or are purchasing one for the first time, it’s important to consider all the factors that go into choosing an HVAC system. Other than choosing the system itself, you also have to consider the size of the unit and ensure its capacity matches your home and family’s needs.

The experts at Dr HVAC will give you a proper evaluation of your situation, and provide you with all the information you need to know in order to make your decision.

[ Request a quote today ]


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