In a world where the use of fossil fuels is at an all-time high, electric heat pumps are changing the game of home heating and cooling. According to the EIA, over 12 million households in the United States use heat pumps to keep their homes at a comfortable temperature. More homeowners are adopting heat pumps because they provide a way to reduce the reliance on fossil fuel sources. What was once an inefficient substitute is now becoming a viable alternative to traditional gas, oil, or propane heating. So, what exactly is a heat pump and how does it work?

What Is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is a standalone appliance that moves heat from the outdoors to the indoors, or vice versa. It can either heat or cool your home and provide significant energy savings in the process. The heat pump uses electricity and a unique refrigerant to maximize heat transferability. Heat pumps are extremely efficient, and work in homes without ductwork.

A standalone appliance that moves heat from the outdoors to the indoors, or vice versa

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

Heat pumps move heat rather than generate it, which makes them significantly less expensive to operate. They are also best used in mild climates. To provide heat, a heat pump starts working at an outdoor unit that takes in the air outside and transfers it using refrigeration coolant. The refrigerant is compressed, which increases the temperature of the air significantly before moving the air to the indoor unit. There, it passes over the hot coolant, increasing temperature again, and then blowing hot air through a “wall cassette”. In cooling mode, the process is reversed transferring heat out of your home and returning cool air to the inside.

How to system works in different seasons.

Want a more thorough explanation? Check out our article that really dives into how a heat pump works.

Types of Heat Pumps

There are three main types of heat pumps. Each one uses a slightly different, but equally environmentally friendly source of heat to create a comfortable temperature in the home.

  • Air source – This is the most common type of heat pump. They look like an air conditioner, with an outdoor unit (called the heat pump) and an indoor unit (called an air handler). They are inexpensive to install and work well in mild climates.
  • Water source – These heat pumps dissipate heat by way of water, instead of air. They require a lake, well or other water source nearby. Because of their unique function, water source heat pumps are significantly less common.

How a water source unit works.

  • Ground source – A ground source heat pump (also known as geothermal heat pump) uses the heat stored underground. It requires a series of pipes buried 4-6 ft. deep. While a geothermal system is incredibly quiet, extremely efficient, and can last over 25 years, the installation cost and complications make these systems rare.

How a ground source unit works.

There are also some sub-types of heat pumps you can use to customize your system including:

  • Hybrid Heat Pump – If you live in an area with hot summers and cold winters, a traditional heat pump may not be enough to maintain comfortable temperatures. For those areas, a hybrid heat pump allows you more power when you need it most.
    • Ground and air source combo – This combination allows air sources to be used first when it’s warm outside, but switches to ground sources when the temperatures drop.
    • Heat pump and gas/oil boiler combo – If you need more warmth in the winter, you can combine a heat pump with a boiler that kicks in when it dips below freezing.
  • Solar – A solar heat pump is often used in conjunction with either air or geothermal heat pumps. The solar panels work as a power supply for the system allowing you to heat and cool your entire home with renewable energy.
  • Absorption or gas-fired – For industrial locations, this system is driven by another heat source, not just electricity.

What Size Heat Pump Do I Need?

Heat pump sizes are measured the same way an air conditioner is measured, by the amount of air they can move. They are rated in tons. Most heat pumps range between 1.5 to 5 tons.

In general, a heat pump system requires 1 ton for every 400 square feet of your home. A 2,000 square foot home, then, would require a 5-ton heat pump. If you have high-performance insulation or other energy efficient features, you may be able to use a smaller-sized pump.

Both an undersized and an oversized can end up costing you more money. The best way to determine what size of heat pump you need is to hire a professional installer and allow them to complete the calculation based on your climate, the size of your home, the energy efficiency of your home, level of insulation, and other home considerations.How to determine what size unit you need.

Benefits of a Heat Pump

Heat pumps can be a fantastic choice for your home. In addition to saving you money, they can completely transform your home with renewable energy.

  • Lower Running Costs – This is one of the most popular reasons why more homeowners are choosing heat pumps. They are cheaper to run than other systems because they don’t require as much energy. Because heat pumps can provide more than 3 units of heat for every unit of electricity used, their efficiency rates are over 300%.  This means lower electricity bills for a comfortable home.
  • Less Maintenance – Heat pumps are extremely low maintenance. They don’t have many of the complicated components of other systems, so they require little upkeep. Most technicians will recommend checking on your system once a year and having a professional inspection every 3-5 years. They are an extremely reliable system that doesn’t require any upkeep.
  • Better Safety – Heat pumps are considerably safer than combustion-based heating systems because they rely on electricity and do not need to burn fuel to generate heat. This means you don’t have any pilot light, propane tank, oil reserve or risk of Carbon Monoxide in the home.
  • Reduces Carbon Emissions – Heat pump system significantly reduces your carbon emissions. The efficiency of a heat pump system is unmatched by any other heating/cooling unit. They carry efficiency ratings that can’t be beat and therefore, reduce your carbon emissions significantly. In addition, one heat pump can offset up to 300 gallons of oil in a typical home, reducing your carbon footprint significantly.
  • Provides Cooling – With a heat pump, you don’t need a separate air conditioning unit. The one system can provide both heating and cooling. During the warm periods, heat pumps can reverse and act like an ac unit, giving you more bang for your buck.

Provides heating and cooling with low maintenance and efficiency.

  • Long Lifespan – The lifespan of heat pumps can be up to 25 years, which is significantly longer than split HVAC systems which typically have a lifespan of 10-15 years.
  • Eligible for RHI Scheme – The installation of a heat pump is less expensive, but still not cheap. However, because it is a good source of renewable energy, the government provides two different types of programs to assist with costs. You can receive a rebate and/or stipend to cover the installation of these heat systems for both homeowners and small businesses.

How Much Does a Heat Pump Cost?

You can expect to pay somewhere in the ballpark of $3800 – $7625. What makes the biggest difference in your heat pump cost? There are several factors that play into the final cost of a heat pump, including:

  • Labor
  • Ductwork
  • Brand
  • Size

The nationwide average cost of heat pump installation is around $6900. This is at the low end of heating and cooling options. The cost of a traditional HVAC system is around $10,000 and geothermal options can cost over $20,000 to install.

Boosting Your Heat Pump’s Efficiency

A heat pump won’t work as well or provide as much annual energy savings as it should, unless the rest of your home is efficient, too. It is recommended to make the rest of your home as energy efficient as possible before you buy a heat pump. Following these steps to boost your home’s efficiency will allow you to buy a smaller, less expensive system. Before you buy a heat pump, complete the following checklist:

  • Add quality insulation to your attic and walls including around the ducts in crawl spaces. Don’t skimp on insulation, go for the highest quality materials in your area.
  • Add weather stripping around doors and caulk around windows. The goal is to create a strong seal around your home to keep warm air in and cold air out (or vice versa).
  • Properly seal the ductwork throughout your home so you don’t lose unused air through the ducts.
  • Install and set programmable thermostats. Use these smart thermostats to automatically adjust the temperature at night and while you are away to save even more on your energy bills.

Don't skimp on proper installation.

FAQs about Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are becoming more efficient and effective. Some units are effective down to 25°C (-13°F). However, it is a good idea to have a secondary source of heat in your home if you live in an area where temperatures go below 30°F. This may be a simple wood stove, fireplace, or baseboard heating for especially cold winters.

A well-maintained heat pump can last 15-20 years. Most heat pump manufacturers offer warranty programs protecting your unit for up to ten years.

You won’t need your heat pump to run constantly in the winter, but most heat pumps are designed to run 24/7 during cold weather. If your heat pump is continuously running in cooling mode, your heat pump may require service with a local heating and cooling expert.

New Kids on the Block

New heat pumps work to provide heating, cooling, and humidity control in many parts of the country. They work especially well in places without wide temperature swings and moderate heating and cooling needs like the southern U.S. However, heat pumps can also be combined in a hybrid system to work almost anywhere in the country. They are also gaining popularity in the UK and around the world. It’s easy to see why heat pumps are becoming more widely used. With a focus on efficiency and renewable energy, today’s heat pumps can reduce heating costs by 50% compared to electric furnaces and baseboard heaters. The advantages of heat pumps can be a smart investment in the long run if you live in the right area and your home is ready.