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What Is a Heat Pump and Is One Right for Me?

HVAC Logo IconBy Tom MoorMarch 10, 2024
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The popularity of heat pumps has skyrocketed as homeowners and business owners actively search for more efficient and eco-friendly alternatives to traditional HVAC systems.

Aside from the convenience of providing both heating and cooling, heat pumps are remarkably efficient, capable of transferring over 300% of the energy they consume in heating mode. In comparison, a high-efficiency gas furnace typically has a rating of 95%. This means that a heat pump can deliver impressive energy savings while keeping your home comfortable throughout the year.

If you’re considering installing a heat pump system, you have plenty of options to explore. This article will simplify the heat pump buying process by explaining what a heat pump is, how it operates, its benefits, and what factors to consider when purchasing and installing a heat pump system for your home comfort needs.

What Is a Heat Pump?

Heat pumps are now found in more than 10% of U.S. homes – and for good reason. Heat pumps are a versatile, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly heating and cooling option.

Despite their name, heat pumps can also provide cooling for year-round comfort, unlike traditional HVAC systems. In warmer areas of the country, a heat pump can completely eliminate the need for buying separate HVAC systems such as a central air conditioner and gas furnace. In cooler climates in the North, you may require a dual-fuel HVAC system, which pairs an electric heat pump with a gas furnace. Electric-resistant heating is also commonly installed to provide supplemental heating. Heat pumps become less efficient once the temperature dips far below freezing. However, newer, energy-efficient models can operate effectively in temperatures as low as single digits.

Heat pumps have many of the same parts as a central air conditioner. They consist of an outdoor condenser (a large box that resembles an air conditioner); an indoor unit, also referred to as an air handler; refrigerant; a compressor that pressurizes the refrigerant and moves it through the system; and a reversing valve that reverses the flow of refrigerant to seamlessly switch between cooling and heating mode.

Although this article focuses primarily on air-source heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps (also called ground-source heat pumps) and ductless mini-split heat pumps are also popular choices for heating and cooling homes and businesses. We’ll touch on those two options in a bit.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

As their name suggests, heat pumps "pump" warm air inside and outside of homes and businesses depending on the season. In the summer, heat pumps operate similarly to central air conditioning systems. They use refrigerant to extract warmth from the inside and expel it outdoors through the compressor to cool your home effectively.

What truly sets heat pumps apart from traditional heating and cooling systems, though, is how they operate in winter. Unlike a traditional furnace or boiler heating system, heat pumps don’t require a fuel source such as natural gas or oil to generate heat. Instead, heat pumps use electricity and refrigerant to extract warm air from outside to heat your home. Even when the air outside is cold, there is still enough warmth to efficiently heat homes.

We just described how air-source heat pumps operate. Geothermal heat pumps, meanwhile, utilize the constant temperature underground to heat and cool homes or commercial spaces. Even during extreme weather, the temperature 6 feet underground remains consistent, typically about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, although it can vary slightly depending on your climate. In the summer, the system’s heat exchanger removes heat from indoors and transfers it into the ground to provide cooling. During the winter, the process is reversed; geothermal heat pumps take heat from the ground and transfer it indoors for heating.

Benefits of Installing a Heat Pump

Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the benefits of installing a heat pump to help you decide if it’s the right choice for your family and home.

Energy Efficiency

Both air-source and geothermal heat pumps are highly efficient because they don’t burn fossil fuels to create heat. This keeps more of your hard-earned money in your wallet through lower energy costs. Homeowners can save as much as 20 to 40% on their energy bills throughout the year with the installation of a heat pump system.

Year-Round Comfort

Heat pumps provide both heating and cooling to keep you and your family cozy and comfortable in every season. In the South and Southwest portions of the country, a heat pump eliminates the need for buying separate heating and cooling systems.

Environmental Friendliness

Since heat pumps don’t rely on fuel to produce heat, they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional heating systems, making them a greener choice for eco-conscious individuals. By using electricity to transfer heat, heat pumps eliminate the dependence on fossil fuels like oil or natural gas for heating, contributing to energy diversification.

Long Lifespan

Despite operating throughout the year, heat pumps are still known for their durability and can provide reliable heating and cooling for 15 to 20 years with proper maintenance.

Versatility

Heat pumps are incredibly versatile and are used for heating and cooling in various settings, including residential homes, offices, and commercial spaces.

What to Consider When Buying a Heat Pump

Buying a new heating and cooling system can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’ve never owned this type of unique HVAC system. Unless you’re an experienced home contractor, do not attempt to install a heat pump yourself. Hire a reputable heating and cooling contractor to help you determine the right type of heat pump system for your home and professionally install it for you.

A certified HVAC technician will determine several factors during the heat pump installation process, including the climate you live in, the size of the system you require, the make and model of the heat pump, and available tax credits.

Let’s explore the different factors to consider when shopping for a heat pump system to give you the peace of mind you deserve.

Is a Heat Pump Compatible With Your Home?

The good news is heat pumps are incredibly flexible and can be installed just about anywhere – including on the ground, the roof, a leveling stand, or a wall. A savvy HVAC contractor can find the best location to install your heat pump, whether you live in an older home or need an HVAC system installed in a recently constructed house.

If your home doesn’t have ductwork or it’s leaky and inefficient, consider installing a ductless mini-split heat pump. Instead of ductwork, mini-split heat pumps use one or more indoor air handling units mounted on walls or ceilings to distribute conditioned air into living areas. They can be installed in just one room or area, or throughout your home to create temperature zones. Mini-splits are commonly used to cool and heat areas such as garages, attics, and basements that are converted to livable or workable spaces.

The Heat Pump’s Size

Choosing the right sized heat pump is critical in ensuring the system runs efficiently and keeps your home comfortable on even the chilliest or balmiest of days.

For example, a system that’s too small will struggle to keep up with your home’s heating and cooling demands. It will stay on longer to reach the desired temperature which can lead to higher energy costs, breakdowns, and premature system replacement. Conversely, a system that is too big will cycle on and off too frequently which can also cause wear and tear on key system components as well as reduced efficiency.

It’s crucial to work with a professional HVAC contractor who will perform a Manual J load calculation to determine the correct size of equipment needed to effectively heat and cool a home or building. During a Manual J calculation, the HVAC contractor will consider several factors, including the size of your home, the number of occupants, the level of insulation, and the number and size of your windows and doors. Based on these factors and others, your HVAC technician will install the indoor and outdoor heat pump components in the most ideal location.

What Brand of Heat Pump Is the Best?

The answer to this question is a bit subjective, as several HVAC manufacturers offer reliable and energy-efficient heat pump systems. Research the various makes and models of heat pumps to find one that fits your efficiency, home comfort, and budgetary needs.

Choose a manufacturer that offers warranties of at least 10 years coupled with outstanding customer service. A few of the most reputable brands include Trane, Carrier, Daikin, Mitsubishi, and Lennox, which all offer 10-plus-year warranties.

When you find the perfect heat pump system for your home, hire a reputable contractor in your area who has experience installing that specific make and model. Some HVAC companies are factory-authorized dealers for specific brands and do not install other brands.

Energy Efficiency

Homeowners often install heat pumps because of their stellar energy-efficiency ratings. But no two heat pumps are exactly alike, and not all come with high-efficiency ratings. It’s imperative to consider the unit’s SEER and HSPF ratings.

SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, determines how efficient a heat pump is at cooling a space. A SEER rating is determined by dividing the unit’s cooling output by its electric energy input during a typical cooling season. The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the system is. Generally, look for a heat pump system with at least a 15 SEER rating.

Meanwhile, HSPF, or Heating Seasonal Performance Factor, determines how efficient the heat pump is while in heating mode. Search for a heat pump system with an HSPF of 9 or higher for increased efficiency.

Tax Credits and Rebates

As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government is offering tax credits that cover 30% of the cost and installation of a heat pump, up to $2,000. Click here to learn if your state has applied or received the funding.

Additional Features and Technology

You’ll want to consider additional features when shopping for a heat pump. Modern heat pumps come with a wide range of advanced system features and technology that enhance their performance and convenience. For example, variable-speed compressors allow the heat pump to adjust its speed based on the heating or cooling demands, providing precise temperature control and optimal energy efficiency.

Smart thermostats, meanwhile, allow homeowners to pre-set the temperature based on when they’re home or away for increased energy savings. They can also be controlled remotely, which is incredibly convenient if you forgot to adjust the temperature before leaving for work or vacation. Additionally, advanced filtration systems improve indoor air quality by capturing and removing allergens, dust, and pollutants. These features and technologies contribute to the overall comfort, energy efficiency, and convenience of heat pump systems.

Hiring a Reputable HVAC Contractor

You get what you pay for, as the old saying goes. When searching for a local heating and cooling company to install your heat pump, select one with stellar online reviews, a long history of serving your local area, certified technicians, and extensive knowledge of installing heat pumps to ensure a flawless installation. Hiring subpar or inexperienced technicians can cause efficiency issues, breakdowns, and a shorter expected lifespan.

How Much Does a Heat Pump Cost?

The cost of a heat pump can vary significantly depending on several factors such as the type of heat pump, its size, efficiency rating, installation requirements, and the region you live in. Generally, the price range for a heat pump can be between $2,500 and $10,000, including installation. However, it is important to note that these figures are approximate and can differ based on individual circumstances.

The type of heat pump plays a crucial role in determining its cost. Air-source heat pumps tend to be more affordable compared to geothermal heat pumps. Additionally, the size of the heat pump is determined by factors like the square footage of the area to be heated or cooled and the desired energy efficiency. Larger heat pumps capable of serving bigger spaces tend to cost more.

Heat Pump Maintenance and Repair

To keep your heat pump system humming along throughout the year, it’s critical to ensure regular maintenance is performed and repairs are made in a timely fashion.

If you use your heat pump for cooling and heating, have the system tuned up twice per year, once before the heating season and again before the cooling season. Regular maintenance ensures efficient and proper operation, reduces untimely breakdowns, and extends its lifespan. During a maintenance visit, a technician will inspect, clean, and adjust necessary components and will look for any minor issues and recommend needed heat pump repairs before they balloon into bigger, more expensive issues.

FAQs on Buying a Heat Pump

Can I buy my own heat pump?

Yes, you can buy your own heat pump at big-box stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s or online. However, unless you’re a knowledgeable home contractor, enlist the services of a certified HVAC technician to install the unit. Subpar installation can lead to issues such as poor performance, higher energy costs, breakdowns, and a shorter lifespan.

What is the lifespan of a heat pump?

Heat pumps typically last an average of 15 to 20 years, although several factors affect their longevity. Some of the most common include the quality of installation, maintenance, the climate you live in, and the type of heat pump.

What is the downside of a heat pump?

Although heat pumps offer plenty of advantages over traditional heating and cooling systems, there are a couple of disadvantages to consider. Firstly, the upfront cost of a heat pump system is often more expensive than a traditional unit, although homeowners can help offset the additional expense through lower energy costs and available tax credits. Also, depending on the type of heat pump system you buy, it may not be as efficient once the temperature drops below freezing.

Do you really save money with a heat pump?

Yes, heat pumps can lead to significant cost savings due to their high energy efficiency and ability to provide both heating and cooling functions. Some homeowners save about $1,000 per year switching to a heat pump, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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