The hot, humid weather in Charleston makes having adequate cooling in your home almost a necessity. The extreme heat and humidity can quickly make being inside unbearable, and this can potentially even be deadly if there are elderly people or young children in the home. When it comes to cooling your home, you have numerous options from central air conditioning to portable and window AC units. Nonetheless, if your home has an existing central air system and ductwork, either an air conditioner or a heat pump will be your best and most effective option. Still, the question is whether an air conditioner or a heat pump is a better choice, and the answer to that depends on what your specific needs are. We’ve compiled this guide to help you understand the differences between air conditioners and heat pumps so that you can more easily decide which is the better option for your home.

How Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps Provide Cooling

In terms of cooling your home, both air conditioners and heat pumps will function in the same way. Both units use an extremely cold refrigerant that absorbs heat from inside the building and then releases the heat back outside the home. The compressor unit outside the home is responsible for providing the refrigerant to the evaporator coil located within the air handler unit inside the home. As hot air travels across the evaporator coil, the refrigerant captures the heat due to the process of heat transfer. Essentially, if the refrigerant is colder than the air, heat will always naturally flow from the hot air to the cold refrigerant.

This process causes the refrigerant to heat up and turn from a liquid into a gas. This heated gas is then transferred back out to the compressor so it can be released outside. After the heat has been released, the unit then compresses the gas back into a liquid which further cools the refrigerant so that it can then absorb more heat from inside the home.

Differences Between Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps

The cooling process works the same for both heat pumps and air conditioners. The only difference is that a heat pump can also provide heating for the home in addition to cooling. When a heat pump is set to heating mode, the process reverses, and heat is captured from the air outside and transferred indoors to warm the home. Due to the principle of heat transfer, the process can continue to work if the refrigerant is colder than the outdoor air temperature. In fact, most heat pumps can continue to provide heating even if the temperature outside is a few degrees below zero. Heat pumps are much more efficient when the temperature outside is above freezing.

The fact that heat pumps can provide both heating and cooling makes them a much cheaper option compared to having a separate air conditioner or furnace. Furthermore, heat pumps do tend to cost more than air conditioners alone. They also tend to have a shorter lifespan since they are used throughout much of the year instead of only during the summer.

Are Heat Pumps Effective in Charleston?

Heat pumps can be one of the most efficient and effective ways of heating and cooling your home. In terms of overall cooling efficiency, there really isn’t a difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner. However, heat pumps are far more energy efficient than gas furnaces or most other heat sources.

Even the best gas furnace will still have a maximum of around 98% efficiency. This means that for every one unit of energy it consumes, it converts 98% of it into heat energy. Heat pumps, on the other hand, can have as high as 300% efficiency, meaning they convert every one unit of electrical energy into three units of heat energy. Part of the reason for this is that heat pumps only require electricity to work, but the main reason is down to the principles of heat transfer.

The fact that heat pumps work so efficiently in milder climates makes them a fantastic choice for heating and cooling your Charleston home. In fact, using a heat pump instead of a separate air conditioner and furnace can drastically reduce your heating costs. Heat pumps generally aren’t recommended in colder climates since electricity usually costs more than natural gas, but they are usually always the most efficient choice for anywhere that typically experiences milder winter weather.

Choosing the Right Unit for Your Home

If you’re trying to decide between a heat pump and an air conditioner, the first thing is to consider what your needs are and the condition of your current HVAC system. If your home has a relatively new furnace, it probably won’t make much sense to spend the extra money on a heat pump since your home already has a working heating system. On the other hand, if your furnace is more than 10 or 15 years old or your home doesn’t currently have an adequate heating system, then a heat pump is the best option.

Once you’ve decided whether a heat pump or AC unit is the best choice, the next step is to consider energy-efficiency ratings. The energy efficiency of heat pumps, ACs, and all other cooling equipment is measured in SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio). This rating essentially shows how much energy the unit will use over the course of an entire cooling season to allow you to compare different models.

Currently, 14 SEER is the minimum efficiency required by law for South Carolina and all other southern states, but the minimum is set to rise to 15 SEER in 2023. Basically, the higher the SEER number is, the more efficient the unit is. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should always choose the most efficient model available. As you might expect, the more efficient the unit is, the more it will cost. For this reason, it is always a good idea to calculate your estimated energy savings on the higher SEER model and then compare this to how much extra that model costs. With the highest-rated units, the additional energy savings will usually never be enough to offset the added purchase cost, and this is precisely why most people opt for a model at the lower to middle end of the SEER scale.

If you’re still having issues deciding between a heat pump or an air conditioner, the professional HVAC technicians at Charleston Heating and Air can evaluate your home and your existing HVAC system to help you determine what is the best option. We carry a range of energy-efficient cooling and heating equipment from top brands, and we always offer free estimates on all equipment replacements and installations. Our technicians can also repair and maintain your existing equipment no matter what type or brand it is. We also have a team of professional plumbers and electricians that can handle any aspect of your home’s electrical and plumbing systems. We are proud to be one of the top-rated HVAC contractors in the area. Contact us today for more information or to schedule an appointment.

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