What Is a Heat Pump?

A picture showing an air heat pump with a blue background

Certainly, you’ve heard the term “heat pump” thrown around in conversations about HVAC systems, but what is it, exactly? In simple terms, heat pumps can do the job of both cooling and heating without the need to install multiple systems, and they encourage energy efficiency with their ability to move heat rather than create it.

A heat pump uses less energy than traditional HVAC systems. It takes heat from the air or ground and transfers it to the space you want to be heated. A heat pump reverses its cycle in the summer months by removing heat from your space and moving it to the outside environment. 

Heat pumps are often placed outside or on the roof of a building and can be used in both residential and commercial settings. On average, the cost for a new heat pump, including the unit and labor, is typically around $4,000 to $8,000.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the mechanics of heat pumps for better comprehension. 

How Heat Pumps Work

Unlike traditional HVAC systems, heat pumps do not require burning fuel to create heat. Though the process is complex, the basic concept behind a heat pump is relatively straightforward. The heat pump works by taking advantage of what’s known as the “refrigeration cycle.” You can think of it like an air conditioning system in reverse. 

A heat pump circulates a refrigerant material between two coils, an outdoor unit and an indoor one. The outdoor unit collects heat from the environment and transports it to the indoor coil via a compressor. The indoor coil then releases the heat into your home. In the summer months, the process is reversed. 

The process is then repeated over and over again, enabling your space to remain at a comfortable temperature throughout the year.

Heat Pump Main Components

Here is a brief summary of the main components of a heat pump:

  • Outdoor Unit – Collects heat and transfers it to the indoor coil via a compressor, serving as both a condenser for cooling and an evaporator for heating.
  • Compressor – Moves the refrigerant material between the indoor and outdoor coils.
  • Indoor Unit– Releases heat into the building in the winter and absorbs heat from the building in the summer. 
  • Refrigerant – The material that circulates between the coils, collecting and releasing heat. 
  • Valve – There are two valves in a heat pump: an expansion valve and a reversing valve. The expansion valve regulates the amount of refrigerant that goes into the indoor coil, while the reversing valve switches between heating and cooling modes. 

Heat Pump’s Operation in Summer

Infographic of How An Air Conditioner Works
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

In the summer, a heat pump acts similarly to an air conditioner in terms of cooling the home. Here are the steps of how a heat pump operates in cooling mode:

  1. The air handler (indoor unit) pulls out the warm air inside your home through air ducts.
  2. The hot air passes over the evaporator coil and gets cooled down in the process.
  3. The chilled air is forced back inside your room.
  4. At the same time, the warm indoor air heats up the refrigerant, turning it from a liquid into a vapor. 
  5. The refrigerant, now a vapor, is sent to the outdoor compressor. In the compressor, the cool vapor is pressurized into a hot gas.
  6. The hot refrigerant travels to the outdoor condenser coils where it releases heat into the surrounding outdoor air. As it releases heat, it cools down and condenses into a medium-temperature, high-pressure liquid.
  7. Next, the expansion valve transforms the refrigerant back into a low-temperature, low-pressure liquid/vapor mix to be sent back into the indoor unit, completing the cooling process.
  8. The cycle repeats until you reach your desired temperature.

Heat Pump’s Operation in Winter 

Graphic Showing How an Air Source Heat Pump Works
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

During winter, a heat pump works like magic to bring warmth from the outside into your home. In heating mode, the cycle is reversed with the help of the reversing valve. Now, the outside unit plays the role of an evaporator while the indoor air handler acts as a condenser. Here is how it works:

  1. The outside unit extracts heat from the air outdoors. 
  2. This heat is then transferred to the refrigerant, turning it into a vapor. 
  3. Next, the compressor squeezes the vaporous refrigerant into a hot gas. 
  4. The hot refrigerant gas travels to the indoor air handler. As it cools down and condenses into a liquid, it releases heat into your home. 
  5. The warm air is then forced through air ducts and into your home, providing warmth during the winter.
  6. Finally, the liquid refrigerant travels through the expansion valve to undergo further cooling. Once cold enough, it can absorb outdoor heat again. 

*Note: Even in cold weather, a heat pump can still bring some of the outside warmth into your home. However, if the conditions are too freezing, it might be better to couple a heat pump with a regular furnace for extra warmth. A heat pump’s effectiveness is best in mild climates, particularly those with not-so-cold winters.

Types of Heat Pumps

All heat pumps operate on the same fundamental principle: transfer energy from one source to another. But, depending on what energy source is used – air or ground – heat pumps are divided into different categories.

Air-source units have outdoor fans that carry air over refrigerant-filled coils, which brings the heat in, while ground-source systems absorb heat from the ground or underground water and pump it inside. For homes without ducts, some mini-splits connect outside units to indoor machines.

Air-Source Heat Pump

An air-source heat pump is the most cost-effective solution for homeowners in areas with milder climates. It pulls heat from the outside air and warms up your home. Additionally, it is an energy-efficient choice that can help reduce your carbon footprint. 

However, you should bear in mind that if you’re using an air-source heat pump in place of a gas-fired heating system, you will lose some efficiency in extremely cold temperatures.

Typically, an air-source heat pump system costs between $4,500 and $10,000 in total.

Dual Fuel/Hybrid Heat Pump

If you’re living in a colder climate, you should consider a dual-fuel or a hybrid heat pump. This type of system combines the best of both worlds – an air-source heat pump for easy heating and cooling plus a backup furnace for extra heat in the winter months.

A dual-fuel heat pump can start at around $3,000 and reach up to $7,000 in total, on average.

Ground Source Heat Pumps (Geothermal)

Rather than relying on air temperature to keep you comfortable, a ground source or geothermal heat pump uses the consistent warmth of the earth or an underground source of water to heat and cool your home. Although this type may cost more upfront, it could end up being a lot more efficient in colder climates, since the underground temperature isn’t as likely to fluctuate

On average, a geothermal heat pump system costs around $7,000 and $25,000, including installation.

Ductless Mini-Split Heat Pumps

If you don’t have any ductwork in your home, a ductless mini-split heat pump is right for you. This system consists of an outdoor unit with a compressor and evaporator, plus one or even several air handlers. The indoor units are mounted on walls or ceilings and used to cool individual rooms. 

Generally, the price of a mini-split heat pump ranges from $1,500 to $10,000 in total.

Solar Heat Pumps

Solar heat pumps are becoming more and more popular these days, as they’re an excellent way to save big on energy bills. Solar heat pumps are worth considering if you live in an area with a lot of sunshine, even though they tend to be slightly pricier than the standard version.

If you thin solar panels might be the way to go, it’s best to get in touch with an expert installer and ask them for a detailed quote.

On average, a solar heat pump system can range from $18,000 to $35,000 in total.

Heat Pump System Vs. Traditional HVAC System

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Deciding between a heat pump and a traditional HVAC system for your home can be tough. But it helps to weigh the pros and cons of each choice.

Heat Pump System ProsHeat Pump System Cons
✓ Can reduce electricity use by 50% compared to furnaces and baseboard heaters, according to the U.S. Department of Energy
✓ Greener than gas-burning heater systems
✓ Versatile, able to heat and cool a home
✓ Produce less noise than traditional HVAC systems
✓ Heat is distributed evenly throughout the house, meaning no cold spots
✓ Turn on and off less often than a gas furnace
✓ Better dehumidification capabilities than air conditioners
✗ Fairly ineffective in extremely cold climates
✗ Heat produced isn’t as intense as natural gas or oil-burning furnace
✗ More expensive than other options
✗ May need additional heating systems for backup in cold climates
Furnace System ProsFurnace System Cons
✓ Effective in all climates
✓ Heat produced is more intense than a heat pump
✓ Low upfront costs compared to other options
✓ Reliable, proven technology
✗ Not as energy efficient as a heat pump, resulting in higher energy costs
✗ Produces more noise than a heat pump
✗ May require supplemental cooling in hot climates
✗ Not an eco-friendly option compared to a heat pump
AC System ProsAC System Cons
✓ Low upfront costs compared to other options
✓Effective in hot climates
✗ Higher costs than a heat pump to run and maintain
✗ Not able to provide consistent levels of heating throughout the home
✗ Not an eco-friendly option compared to a heat pump
✗ Will need supplemental heating system

When it comes to deciding between a heat pump and another HVAC system for your home, different factors come into play. Whether you’re working with a tight budget, dealing with a hot climate, or just don’t know what to do, a professional can be helpful in getting you the right system.

It’s all about what works best for your needs, so be sure to weigh all the options before settling on a choice. As a general rule of thumb, heat pumps can be a great choice if you need to keep costs down, but if the weather is too cold, you might want to consider a traditional system.

​Heat Pump Efficiency Rating

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If you’re looking to maximize energy savings, getting a heat pump with a high SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) and HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor) rating is key. Aim to get a heat pump with at least a 14 SEER and 7.5 HSPF for the most cost-efficient setup.

The table below shows the available heat pump efficiency ratings:

SEER RatingHSPF Rating
3 – 14 SEER 7 – 8 HSPF
15 – 16 SEER 8 – 9 HSPF
17 – 18 SEER 9 – 10 HSPF
19+ SEER 10+ HSPF

It might cost you more initially if you decide to invest in a higher-rated heat pump system, but the long-term energy savings may make up for that expense. Before you commit to a particular model, ensure it’s the right fit for your home and climate.

The BTU rating of a heat pump system is essential in selecting the right one for your home. If you select a system that’s too small, it won’t be able to keep your living space comfy, and if you choose something too large, you’ll end up paying too much in electricity bills. An experienced technician can help you out with finding the perfect unit size for your home.

Here is a table with the typical range of BTUs and ton capacities in heat pumps that are required for different home sizes:

Home Size (Square Footage)Heat Pump Size (Capacity in Tons)BTUs Needed
900 – 1,500 sq. ft.2 Tons24,000
1,200 – 1,600 sq. ft.2.5 Tons30,000
1,600 – 2,000 sq. ft.3 Tons36,000
1,800 – 2,300 sq. ft.3.5 Tons42,000
2,000 – 2,4004 Tons48,000
2,400 – 3,3005 Tons60,000

*Note: BTU stands for British Thermal Unit and is a measure of the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. One ton of air conditioning equals 12,000 BTU, meaning that a one-ton heat pump can provide up to 12,000 BTUs of cooling power.

Professional HVAC Services

A heat pump is a great way to keep your home warm and cozy, but not everyone knows how to maintain one properly. To get the most out of your heat pump and ensure it’s always running smoothly, you might want to consider getting a little extra help. From installation to repair, many professional heat pump services are available to ensure your home stays comfortable all year round.

HVAC System Replacement

Homeowners looking to install a new heat pump system might need a little help. A professional HVAC contractor can provide the right solution and ensure it’s set up correctly. They can also take care of future maintenance and any needed repairs along the way. They’ll help pick the best system for your home, set it up correctly, and keep it up and running. 

When buying a heat pump, make sure to choose an Energy Star-certified system for maximum efficiency and cost savings. Most heat pumps are already high-efficiency, but it is best to confirm with your contractor before purchasing.

On average, a new HVAC installation can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000, depending on the size of your home and the type of system.

HVAC Maintenance

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Keeping your heat pump in tip-top shape is easy as pie with regular maintenance from a professional. Timely tune-ups of your HVAC system prevent any hitch in its get-along, making sure that your home stays nice and cozy, no matter the season.

Typically, a heat pump’s annual maintenance includes cleaning or replacing filters, checking wiring and component connections, checking refrigerant levels and pressure, and calibrating the thermostat.

A standard HVAC maintenance service call costs around $110 per visit. 

HVAC Repair

When it comes to heating and cooling systems, you never know when a repair may be needed. Even though heat pumps are usually reliable, they can run into issues that require costly repairs. If you ever detect any strange noises or smells coming from your unit, don’t hesitate to call in a professional HVAC technician for their expertise.

Repairs can range from minor tune-ups to more complicated replacements, depending on the problem. On average, basic HVAC repairs cost between $180 and $580.

HVAC Inspection

An HVAC inspection from a heat pump service can really save the day. Not only will it prevent future issues from cropping up, but it’s also great for making sure everything is running like clockwork. Generally, these inspections include a meticulous examination of all the components: air filters, ducts, and motors.

The cost of an HVAC inspection will typically range from $250 to $450, depending on the size of the home.

New Ductwork Installation

If you’re considering a new heat pump that isn’t ductless, you might have to replace or upgrade the air ducts in your house. Air ducts play a crucial role in an HVAC system, as they are responsible for delivering heated and cooled air to the various rooms in your home.

On average, a new ductwork installation costs between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the size and layout of your home.

Thermostat

A thermostat plays a big role in keeping your home comfortable. It is like the brain of your heat pump. It controls when your system turns on and off, making sure that your home is always at the temperature you like.

Additionally, modern thermostats are designed for energy efficiency and offer programmable temperature settings for convenience. A new thermostat installation will typically range from  $120 to $330.

FAQ

1) What is the downside to a heat pump?

The main drawback of a heat pump is that installing one may cost more than other HVAC systems. Plus, it can be less efficient when temperatures drop below freezing. In other words, it might not be the best option for frigid climates.

2) Is a heat pump better than a central air conditioner?

Generally, heat pumps are high-efficiency solutions and more cost-effective than AC units. Heat pumps also offer both heating and cooling in one unit, which can provide additional savings.

3) Do heat pumps use a lot of electricity?

No, heat pumps are designed to be energy-efficient and typically don’t use a lot of electricity. On average, the cost of operating a heat pump can range from $0.25 to $0.50 per hour, depending on the type of heat pump and its efficiency rating.

4) What federal taxes or local rebates are available for installing a heat pump?

Incentives and rebates for installing a heat pump vary by state and local utility company. Check with your local utility company for details, or visit the Energy Star website.

5) Can I use radiators with a heat pump?

Yes, radiators can be used with a heat pump. Heat pumps are designed to work with different heating systems, including radiators. Remember that your old radiators may not be compatible with the new system. Check with your HVAC contractor for more information.

6) Do heat pumps heat water?

Yes, some heat pumps are designed to provide hot water, making them a great addition to a regular hot water system. Keep in mind that heat pumps can help warm up your tank, but they aren’t as effective as boilers.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to reduce your energy bills and carbon footprint, heat pumps are an excellent choice. Not only do they provide a sustainable source of heating and cooling, but they can also help save money in the long run due to their lower maintenance costs. Make sure to speak with an experienced HVAC technician who can help you determine the best system size and type for your home.

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Luminita Toma

Luminita Toma is a nature-loving writer who simply adores anything pretty, from colorful flower gardens to chic interior design. After plenty of research on landscaping and home improvement, she’s got a keen eye for what makes a home beautiful. When she’s not sharing what she’s learned, there’s nothing she enjoys more than chilling with her friends, hitting the theatre, or traveling.