A Guide To Understanding Heat Pumps

Table of Contents

What is a heat pump?

In its most basic form, a heat pump acts very much like a refrigerator. When it’s cold outside, a heat pump pulls exterior heat inside. When it’s warm outside, it reverses directions and acts like an air conditioner, removing heat from your home. A compressor circulates refrigerant that absorbs and releases heat as it travels between the indoor and outdoor units. The indoor unit is called an air handler and the outdoor unit is very similar to a central air conditioner, but is called a heat pump.

How It Works

A heat pump is simply an AC unit with additional components built-in to allow the refrigeration to flow in the opposite direction and transfer heat to the home. Unlike a furnace, a heat pump does not generate heated air. Instead, it transfers heat from one location to another. The two types of residential heat pumps are air-source and geothermal. An air-source pump moves heat between the air inside your home and the outside air. A geothermal pump, also referred to as a ground-source pump, moves heat between the ground and the inside air.

When cooling, a heat pump functions more like a traditional air conditioning unit. It absorbs heat from the indoor air and releases it via an outdoor unit. A model with a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) of 16 or higher can cool the interior of a home just as well as a central AC system.

heat pump

Is there more than one type?

  • Air/air collects energy from outdoor air and converts it into hot air. This type of heat pump does not work at low temperatures and cannot produce hot water. Because of this, it’s more of a supplemental heat than a primary form of heat.
  • Air/water converts the energy in outdoor air into heating for a water-based heating system, like a radiator or floor heating. There are a few models that will continue to function when the outdoor temperature is as low as -4°F. This type of system will produce hot water and is considered a primary heat source.
  • Liquid/water collects energy from the bedrock, ground, or water. Other than that, it functions just like an air/water heat pump, but is more efficient at low temperatures. This type of heat pump is called geothermal heat.
  • Exhaust air recycles energy from the home’s ventilation air and returns it to the heating system. This type uses the air that’s already in the home. It can be extremely cost-effective, but it can’t be the main supplier of heat and hot water.

Benefits of a Heat Pump

Adding a heat pump to your home has several potential benefits. A heat pump:

  • Lowers your utility bills: A heat pump is a long-term investment — though they cost money to install initially, eventually, they deliver a return via an ongoing reduction in your utility bills. With a heat pump running, your air conditioner and heater need to run less frequently.
  • Extends the lifespan of your HVAC equipment: When your HVAC systems have to work less to heat and cool your home, they incur less wear and tear. As a result, using a heat pump alongside your heater and A/C will help these expensive appliances last longer with less maintenance.
  • Makes your home more comfortable: Heat pumps work because they make the temperature of your home more stable year round. This means that even when you’re not running your HVAC system, you’ll feel more comfortable, no matter what the weather’s like outside.
  • Reduces your environmental impact: Finally, because a heat pump uses considerably less electricity than an HVAC system, you’ll be less reliant on power from the grid, lowering your carbon footprint.

How Long Do Heat Pumps Last?

A typical residential heat pump can last 15 years or longer with proper maintenance. Older units can begin to show signs of wear after a decade or so, while newer models typically have an extended lifespan. Factors that can shorten the lifecycle of a heat pump include:

  • Ice or frost on the compressor coils that can limit the pump’s ability to produce heat
  • Dirty or clogged air filters
  • Dirty fins on the outside of the condenser unit
  • Dirty compressor coils
  • Plant growth that’s too close to the unit (plant roots should be at least 18 inches away)

Adding a heat pump to your home can often save you from 25-75% on your monthly utility bills. Heat pumps can work with your existing HVAC appliance or replace them completely, so you’ll always have reliable heating and cooling whenever you need it. Heat pumps can also be less expensive to operate than oil boilers or gas furnaces and generally require less maintenance.

Lifespan, Upkeep and Efficiency

As with all products, the lifespan will vary. However, an air/water or liquid/water heat pump from a reputable manufacturer should last between 20 and 30 years. Heat pumps, if correctly installed, require little maintenance.

An advantage of a heat pump is that instead of generating heat, it moves heat which greatly increases your energy efficiency. Another thing to keep in mind is that heat pumps are powered by electricity; you can save quite a bit of money on annual fuel consumption. With all of these positives, it is no wonder that heat pumps are rapidly becoming the most common choice for new and existing homes!

Learn More about Heat Pumps!

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