How can my AC unit heat my home?

It’s a question that we hear from a lot of homeowners. “How can an AC unit heat my home?” This question often comes up after the homeowner hears that their neighbor, friend, or family member has upgraded to a new “air conditioner” that is capable of winter heating.

The short answer is that it can’t—provided that what you actually have in your home is an air conditioner. A traditional air conditioner can only provide cooling through the refrigeration process. While some air conditioners and furnaces may share equipment, the AC unit itself plays no role in heating the home during the winter.

When people say that their AC unit heats their home in the winter months, what they’re likely saying is that their home has a heat pump. In this article, we’ll explore why this mix-up occurs, what a heat pump is, and whether or not this type of system might be right for your home.

Related: What are the best air conditioning systems of 2022?

Why are air conditioners and heat pumps often confused for one another?

There’s a reason for this common mix-up. Both air conditioners and heat pumps have a similar looking condenser unit outside or on the roof. Since this is the part of the system that is most visible to homeowners, many of them see the unit and assume that it’s part of an air conditioning system. However, if there’s no corresponding furnace, it’s far more likely to be part of a heat pump.

Most homeowners—especially here in the Southwest where heat pumps are increasingly prevalent—tend to refer to their heat pump as their “air conditioner.” After all—in the summer—air conditioners and heat pumps work exactly the same, using the refrigeration process to remove heat energy from the inside of your home and release it into the outside air. Due to this similarity, many people don’t distinguish between an AC unit and a heat pump. They just call it “AC.”

This casual use of terminology even extends to HVAC service providers, like us. While we’ll want to know whether a system is an air conditioner or heat pump before we come out to maintain or repair it, we market our “air conditioning” and “AC” services during the summer, knowing that most homeowners don’t really see a difference between what they have and a traditional, cooling-only air conditioner. When their system stops working, a vast majority of homeowners are likely to tell us that their “AC is out,” even when the system in their home is technically a heat pump.

How do heat pumps work?

So, given the similarities between heat pumps and air conditioners during the summer, what is it that makes them different? The answer can be found in the other half of the year. As we’ve already discussed, air conditioners don’t do much for your home in the winter. Heat pumps are a much different story. These systems are fully capable of heating your home during the colder months, all without a furnace unit.

It all comes down to the refrigeration process. In layman’s terms, refrigeration—whether on a smaller scale with your refrigerator or on a larger scale in your home—works by moving heat energy from one place (inside) to another (outside), which then drops the temperature in the place that no longer has that energy. To accomplish this, an air conditioner / heat pump uses a special liquid known as refrigerant to move heat. As this refrigerant is circulated through a closed-loop system, it is subjected to pressure changes, which then changes its physical form and causes it to either absorb heat or release it. This is the secret to air conditioning, an innovation that, since its invention in the early twentieth century, has revolutionized the world.

In the summer, air conditioners and heat pumps absorb heat energy inside the home and then release it outside, cooling your indoor temperatures. However, heat pumps have an additional feature that traditional air conditioners do not. In the winter, they can reverse direction, inverting the process. Instead of releasing heat energy inside, they pull residual heat out of the outside air, move it inside and then release it. This warms inside air, which is then pushed through the registers and vents of your home to change the temperature to something a little more comfortable.

Heat pumps are growing more popular by the year, and it has a lot to do with how convenient it is to have one system (a heat pump) that can handle year-round comfort, as opposed to two (an air conditioner for the summer and a furnace for the winter). These systems are perfect for mild winter climates—like ours here in Albuquerque—but new advances in technology have made it so any home in the United States can get by with a heat pump.

Watch: Learn how heat pumps work

Want to see a heat pump in action? Check out this video from This Old House to get even more information on how heat pumps operate—and how, in some ways, they really are “AC units that heat your home.”

Are heat pumps better than furnaces?

For many homeowners, this is a matter of subjective opinion. If you live in a truly cold winter climate (think Minnesota), you might prefer the performance that a gas or electric furnaces offers.

Heat pumps, however, have several advantages over furnaces:

One system: As previously mentioned, you only need a heat pump, not the combination of an air conditioner and a furnace. In effect, you get the effectiveness of two systems for the price of one. You also get to benefit from space savings, since you’ll no longer need a furnace in your garage.

Energy savings: If your home doesn’t have a gas connection, you should definitely consider installing a heat pump (which runs on electricity) over an electric furnace. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps can be up to 50% more energy-efficient than electric furnaces or baseboard heaters.

Easy installation: Since heat pumps work just like air conditioners in the summer, they are compatible with your home’s current forced-air ductwork. You’ll want to talk to your friends at Wagner to learn more about what it will take to get a new heat pump installed in your home, but the process generally does not require major changes.

Call Wagner to learn more about “AC units that heat your home.”

Now that you’ve learned more about heat pumps, you know just how versatile they can be. If you’re considering upgrading to a new heat pump, you’ll want to call our team here at Wagner. We’re proud to be Albuquerque’s top choice for cooling and heating services—as well as your local heat pump experts!

When you call us for a free in-home estimate, we’ll send out one of our experienced, friendly technicians to meet with you and discuss your options. We can help you determine if one of these “AC units that provide heating” is right for you and your home. And, if a heat pump isn’t the right fit, we have several other options available, including traditional air conditioners and furnaces.

Just give us a call to get started, and you’ll learn why Wagner is your home’s best friend!