Thinking of Buying an Air Conditioner? Consider a Heat Pump.

Do you, like so many, live somewhere being wracked by unusual heatwaves? Are you facing the summer heat without air conditioning (AC)? Or maybe your AC went belly up this year at the worst possible time, and now you need a replacement.

With this year’s extreme heat leaving a worrisome trail of health emergencies and deaths, keeping cool is a matter of health and safety like never before.

Before you buy a new air conditioner, for any of these reasons, take a moment to read this so you don’t miss out on a major climate opportunity.

Whether you need a window unit for your apartment, central air for your single-family house, or additional equipment for your manufactured home, there’s a better type of AC on the market that also offers the ability to heat your home in a more comfortable, safer, and environmentally friendly way: a ‘heat pump.’ There is no better time to buy one than when you’re replacing your (or buying a first) AC system, and it’ll help you join the fight against climate change.

What Are Heat Pump Air Conditioners?

Heat pumps are a special type of AC. Just like the regular type, heat pumps keep things cool when it’s hot outside by removing unwanted heat from your house or apartment and “pumping” it outdoors.

Unlike regular ACs, however, heat pumps can work their magic not just to provide cooling when it’s hot out, but also to provide heating when it’s cold out. It’s the same process, just reversed: heat pumps can pick up heat from outside (even when it’s cold) and pump it into your house to keep it toasty and warm.

This magic happens by way of ‘refrigerant’ gases that are expanded and compressed inside the heat pump system. Refrigerant gases have their own environmental impact, so we’re working to replace those with better ones, too. Keep an eye out for models with lower “global warming potential” refrigerants, which should be coming soon to shelves and distributors near you.

Why a heat pump?

ACs use lots of energy, which jacks up your utility bills and contributes to climate change. Sadly, learning to live with climate change—by buying an AC in a place you never needed one before, for example—often means contributing a little bit more climate change. It’s a vicious cycle!

By buying a heat pump in place of an AC, you can do something to fight back. Heating your home or apartment with a heat pump in the winter means you won’t need to burn fossil fuels. And the fastest way to halt climate change is to get off of fossil fuels.

As the electric grid gets cleaner and cleaner, heat pumps will enable us to cool and heat our homes sustainably. Rather than egging climate change on, heat pumps can help us stop it in its tracks.

Heat pump heating can also be very wallet-friendly. Because heat pumps don’t “create” heat by burning fuels—rather, they “move” heat from cold outdoors to warm indoors—they can be very energy efficient. Per unit of energy, “moving” heat with electricity is several times more efficient (2-5x or better depending on the conditions) than “making” it by burning fuel. That improvement most likely will result in heating bill savings at the end of the day.

Modern heat pumps are super-efficient and can deliver heat efficiently down to -15 degrees F and use electric resistance backup below that, so they work in all U.S. climates. In fact, one of the leaders in adoption of heat pumps in the U.S. is the state of Maine, which is not known for mild winters.

The Best Time to Switch to Heat Pumps Is When You Need a New AC

So, what’s the special trick to getting a heat pump without breaking the bank? The trick is to think about heating even when you’re thinking about cooling. As we teased earlier, the best time to buy a heat pump is when you’re thinking about replacing or adding an AC. A central heat pump, for example, takes the place of a central AC; it sits in the same spot, uses the same air ducts and thermostats, and more. So too for other types of ACs and heat pumps. And heat pumps only cost a few hundred dollars more than equivalent-size air conditioners, so buying a heat pump instead of an air conditioner means getting a brand-new heating system on the cheap.

If you wait to think about your next heating system until your gas furnace or boiler goes out, you’ll face the prospect of either replacing the old gas heater with a new one—and forgoing all the benefits of getting off of gas heat—or ripping out a perfectly working AC to replace it with a heat pump.

What About Those Who Can’t Afford New Equipment?

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap between those who can and those who can’t make ends meet in America. While home cooling is now matter of life or death in more areas of the country, many families in those areas still cannot afford any AC equipment at all. This is unacceptable.

NRDC and partners continue to advocate for programs that make the healthiest and most climate-friendly technologies available to all. Heat pump incentives and deployment programs can reduce the price of new heat pump ACs by providing rebates to families with lower incomes. They can also reduce the cost of electricity for families to keep their homes at a healthy temperature.

While there are an increasing number of programs around the country—including California’s longstanding Low-Income Weatherization program and recent utility debt forgiveness law, Maine’s trailblazing effort to put a heat pump in every home, and similar programs that will be launching next year in Colorado—many more are still needed. Check out NRDC’s healthy and efficient buildings page to learn more about how you can support these types of policies in your state.

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