How Do I Know What Kind of HVAC I Have?
Depending on the time of year, you will either need to cool or heat your home. To achieve that, you will either need to install a heat pump or a conventional air conditioner paired up with a furnace.
Both of these systems have an indoor unit and an outdoor unit which looks the exact same way and is therefore not easy to tell them apart unless you know where to look.
So, how can you tell if you have a heat pump or a standard air conditioner? It is actually very easy.
If there is an emergency heat setting on your thermostat labeled “EM”, “EMER” or “EMERGENCY”, you have a heat pump. Alternatively, if you turn the thermostat to HEAT mode and the outside unit starts running, you have a heat pump and not a standard AC.
The presence of a furnace in your house does not necessarily mean that you have a central air conditioner. You could very well have a heat pump. How so you ask?
You see, air conditioners can only cool the house but cannot heat it and that is why they need to be paired with a furnace. Heat pumps on the other hand can cool the house in summer and heat it during winter by extracting heat from the outside.
However, heat pumps work well as long as the temperature outside does not dip below 30 degrees. If it does, the heat pump’s auxiliary electric heater kicks in, which is not very energy-efficient.
For that reason, we have hybrid heat pumps. Hybrid heat pumps use electricity as their primary source of energy but when the temperature falls below freezing point a furnace automatically kicks in.
As you can see, the presence of a furnace in your house should not make you think that you have a conventional air conditioner. You could very well be having a hybrid heat pump.
Related article: Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner
The 5 Ways to Tell if You Have a Heat Pump or Air Conditioner
The following are the 4 ways to tell if you have a conventional air conditioner and furnace or a heat pump in your home:
1. Is there an Emergency Heat Setting on the Thermostat?
The emergency heat setting on your thermostat, commonly referred as “EM heat” provides secondary heating to your house when your primary heating source fails.
As I mentioned earlier, heat pumps can extract heat from the outside temperature easily, but when the temperature falls below 30 degrees then they are bound to fail. And that is where the emergency heat setting comes in.
Standard air conditioners do not need a secondary source of heat. They use a furnace as their primary source of energy which heats the house regardless of the temperature outside.
If your thermostat therefore has an emergency heat button/setting, you indeed have a heat pump. This setting allows you to switch to an electric heater or furnace when the heat pump fails to get heat from the outside temperature.
Head over to your thermostat and look for a button labelled “EM”, “EMER” or “EMERGENCY”. If you have a digital thermostat, this setting will appear on the screen.
The lack of the emergency heat setting on your thermostat is a sign that you have a standard air conditioner and not a heat pump.
2. Is the Outside Unit Running When You Turn on the Heat?
As I have already explained, heat pumps use the outside unit to remove heat during the summer and to extract heat during winter. This means that the outside unit of a heat pump will be running whether it is cooling or heating.
With a standard air conditioner, the outside unit will only be running during the months of summer when it is cooling. During winter, the unit will stay quiet as the furnace takes over to heat the house.
As such, when you turn the thermostat to its heating mode and the outside unit kicks in, you without a doubt have a heat pump.
Just turn the thermostat to its heating mode and wait until heat starts being supplied to the house then dash outside where the condenser unit is. If it is running, it is a confirmatory test that you indeed have a heat pump.
3. Is the Manufacturer Label Indicated as Such?
The outside/condenser unit will have a manufacture label/plate on the side. That label can help you to know if you have a heat pump or conventional air conditioner. The information can also be found on the unit’s user manual.
The manufacturer label will contain all the unit’s specifications, but importantly it will have its model number. As a matter of fact, some units will clearly be indicated if they are heat pumps or standard air conditioners.
If the model number contains a “HP” at the beginning, it means that you have a heat pump and not an air conditioner.
If you don’t find the above 2 clues, you can write the model number down and search it online. Sometimes you may need to include the brand name. A search engine like Google will give you the results promptly.
4. Does the EnergyGuide Label Have SEER and HSPF Ratings?
The outside unit’s EnergyGuide label (yellow in color) can also help you determine if you have a heat pump or air conditioner.
You see, an air conditioner will only have the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating while a heat pump will have that and also the Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF).
The SEER rating indicates the efficiency of a heat pump or air conditioner while cooling while the HSPF rating indicates the efficiency of the heat pump when heating. Since air conditioners do not heat, they do not have an HSPF rating.
If you therefore see an HSPF rating on your condenser unit’s EnergyGuide label, you without a doubt have a heat pump.
5. Is there a Reversing Valve inside the Condenser Unit?
The main difference between an air conditioner’s condenser unit and that of a heat pump is that the heat pump’s unit has a reversing valve inside.
As its name suggests, the reversing valve reverses the direction of flow of the refrigerant so that the superheated refrigerant from the compressor flows to the evaporator and not condenser coil. That way, the cold air inside the house can absorb heat from the refrigerant.
Therefore, if your outside unit has a reversing valve you can be sure that you have a heat pump. Otherwise you have a conventional air conditioner.
To check if the unit has a reversing valve, you will first need to turn off the system. You cannot see the inside of the unit with the motor spinning.
From the top of the condenser unit, look through the grill for a horizontal brass pipe with 3 fittings on one side. If you see it, that is the reversing valve and you therefore have a heat pump.
And basically those are the 5 ways to tell if you have a heat pump or conventional air conditioner. I hope you found this guide helpful.
While there are many types of air conditioners, the air conditioners referenced in this post are central air conditioners. Central air conditioners and heat pumps are so similar in how they look and function and that is why it is not easy telling them apart.