What exactly is a heat pump and how is it different from an air conditioner? The main difference is that a heat pump can cool a home just like an air conditioner, but it can also function as a furnace to heat the home. Heat pumps and air conditioners function in a very similar way. An air conditioner transfers heat from the home to the AC unit where it is dissipated into the air. What happens is the refrigerant is pumped into a compressor where the molecules are pushed together causing the temperature of the gas to rise (as well as the pressure). When the refrigerant gets pushed into the condenser, it is changed into a liquid and cools significantly. When the cool liquid enters the evaporator inside your home, it uses the heat in your home to convert itself back into a gas. When it leaves to go to the compressor, it takes the heat from the home with it, thus, cooling the home.
A heat pump does basically the same thing to cool your home, but it is also designed to reverse the process and take heat from outside the home and move it inside. So in warm weather you can run your heat pump like an air conditioner and when the weather turns cold, you can change it over to run like a heater. The refrigerant liquid is converted into a gas outside the home and as it completes the conversion, it pulls any heat from the outside and brings it into the home.
So why hasn’t everyone switched to heat pumps? Heat pumps are most efficient around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As the temperature drops, the heat pump has to work harder to keep your home warm. By the time the temperature drops to 37 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat pump has to work nonstop. Air-source heat pumps aren’t efficient enough in climates with temperatures below 30 degrees. Heat pumps cannot heat a house sufficiently in those extremely cold temperatures. You will find that heat pumps are more popular and make more sense in milder parts of the country where the winters don’t get so cold. Because heat pumps simply transfer heat, rather than burn fuel to create it, you’ll save money on your energy bills each month. They are also more environmentally friendly than a gas burning furnace. But up north, like here in the Omaha area, the furnace/air conditioner combination makes more sense.