How Heat Pumps Work

By: Laura Cowan & Talon Homer  | 

heat pump
Air source heat pumps, like these seen here, might be an alternative to typical HVAC units. But whether a heat pump is right for you depends on many variables. Nimur/Shutterstock

When you think about cooling a hot building, you probably don't think of heat pumps. In fact, you likely think of using an air conditioner instead. But as it turns out, a heat pump can both heat and cool, and in some applications, it's preferred to separate heating and cooling systems.

Simply put, a heat pump is a device that uses a small amount of energy to move heat from one location to another. Not too difficult, right? Heat pumps are typically used to pull heat out of the air or ground to heat a home or office building, but they can be reversed to cool a building. In a way, if you know how an air conditioner works, then you already know a lot about how a heat pump works. This is because heat pumps and air conditioners operate in very similar ways.

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One of the biggest advantages of a heat pump over a standard heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) unit is that there's no need to install separate systems to heat and cool your home. Heat pumps also work extremely efficiently, because they simply transfer heat rather than burn fuel to create it. This makes them a little greener than a gas-burning furnace.

And they don't just heat and cool buildings. They work best in moderate climates, so if you don't experience extreme heat and cold in your neck of the woods, then using a heat pump could help you save a little money each month.

Read on to understand more about how one of the most common types of heat pumps works.

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Heat Transfer and Air-source Heat Pumps

air-source heat pump
This illustration shows how an air-source heat pump takes heat from the air outside your home and pumps it inside through refrigerant-filled coils. Slave SPB/Shutterstock

There are many kinds of heat pumps, but they all operate on the same basic principle: heat transfer. This means that rather than burning fuel to create heat, the device moves heat from one place to another. There's a key to making this all happen. According to thermodynamics, heat naturally flows from high temperature areas to those with lower temperatures.

What a heat pump does is use a small amount of energy to switch that process into reverse, thereby pulling heat out of a relatively low temperature area, and pumping it into a higher temperature area. So, heat is transferred from a "heat source," like the ground or air, into a "heat sink," like your home.

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One of the most common types of heat pumps is the air-source heat pump. These take heat from the air outside your home and pump it inside through refrigerant-filled coils, not too different from what's on the back of your fridge. The air source variety is pretty basic, and you'll find two fans, the refrigerator coils, a reversing valve and a compressor inside to make it work.

The key to allowing the air-source heat pump to also cool is the reversing valve. This versatile part changes the flow of the refrigerant so the system can operate in the opposite direction. So instead of pumping heat inside your home, the heat pump releases it, just like your air conditioner does. When the refrigerant is reversed, it absorbs heat on the indoor side of the unit and flows to the outside. It's here that the heat is released, allowing the refrigerant to cool down again and flow back inside to pick up more heat. This process repeats itself until you're nice and cool.

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Ground-Source and Absorption Heat Pumps

geothermal heat pump
Geothermal heat pumps like this illustration shows absorb heat from the ground or an underground body of water and transfer it indoors. Studio Harmony/Shutterstock

By now, you've learned that air-source heat pumps use an outdoor fan to bring air over refrigerant-filled coils. Two sets of these coils transfer this heat indoors where it's then blown away from the coils by a second fan, and distributed through your home as cool goodness. Some air-source heat pump systems consist of a single packaged unit containing both sets of coils in one box. This box is then installed on the roof of a building with the ductwork extending through the wall. A lot of larger systems for commercial buildings installed in this way.

Home heat pumps are usually split systems with an outdoor and an indoor component installed through the wall. Depending on the type of system, it may be one or more indoor components to distribute heat.

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Ground-source heat pumps (also known as geothermal heat pumps) are a little different. They absorb heat from the ground or an underground body of water and transfer it indoors, or vice versa. The most common type of ground-source heat pump transfers heat directly from the ground by absorbing it through buried pipes filled with water or a refrigerant.

These liquid-pumping pipes can be either closed-loop or open-loop systems, and they operate pretty much exactly how they sound. In a closed-loop system, the same refrigerant or water circulates through the pipes repeatedly. In an open-loop system, water is pumped out of the underground water source, like a well or a man-made lake. From there, the heat is extracted from the water, and that water returns to the well or surface lake. More water is then pumped from the well to extract more heat in a continuous open loop.

If that's not enough to blow your mind, consider the absorption heat pump — air-source pumps that are powered by natural gas, solar power, propane or geothermal-heated water, rather than by electricity. Absorption pumps can be used for large-scale applications but are now available for homes. The main difference between a standard air-source heat pump and an absorption pump is that instead of compressing a refrigerant, an absorption pump absorbs ammonia into water, and then a low-power pump pressurizes it. The heat source then boils the ammonia out of the water, and the process starts all over again.

When you go to check out an absorption heat pump, it helps to know how they're rated. Manufacturers rate them using a measurement called a coefficient of performance (COP), which sounds pretty complicated. But all you need to know is to look for a COP above 1.2 for heating and above 0.7 for cooling. And don't worry, we'll discuss ratings for standard heat pumps a little later.

Air-source, ground-source and absorption heat pumps are the most common kinds of heat pumps, but they won't work in every situation. Read on to learn about other types of heat pumps.

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Other Types of Heat Pumps

mini split heat pump
Mini-split heat pumps like this one are good for houses that may not already have duct systems. Instead, the outside unit connects to multiple indoor units. Lincoln Barbour/Energy.gov

If your home doesn't have air ducts to distribute heat, don't fear. You could potentially use a special kind of heat pump called a mini-split heat pump. It connects an outdoor air-source unit to multiple indoor units. These indoor units connect to water heater or space heaters. These ductless mini-split systems are useful for retrofitting a home with a heat pump system because their locations outside and inside the home are flexible.

Another plus is that the installation only requires a 3-inch (7.6 centimeter) conduit to come through the wall, which is pretty unobtrusive. They're also versatile. The indoor air handlers can be installed in walls, ceilings or on the floor, and they're small to boot. One disadvantage, though, is that the installation must also take up some indoor space to function. They also won't move as much air as larger heat pumps, so are best for small living and commercial spaces.

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While most heat pumps rely on air, the reverse cycle chiller (RCC) design instead pumps water, allowing it to operate more efficiently in freezing temperatures. In an RCC system, the heat pump connects to an insulated water tank that it either heats or cools. Then, a fan and coil system pumps heated or cooled air away from the tank and through the ductwork to one or more heating zones. An RCC system can also pump hot water through a radiant floor heating system, so when those bare feet are comfy on a toasty tile floor this winter, you can thank your RCC.

In a typical air-source heat pump, there's the need for a backup burner to supply temporary heat when the system switches into reverse to defrost the coils. This backup burner prevents the system from blowing cold air through the registers while the coils defrost, which is key if your goal is to stay warm.

Some might say that the RCC system is superior in that it uses the hot water from the tank to defrost the coils, so no backup burner is needed. This also means the system never blows cold air when it shouldn't, and the result is that you stay nice and warm.

A more recent addition is the cold climate heat pump, so named because it can efficiently handle colder weather than most other designs — even below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). The cold climate heat pump detects the minimum amount of energy needed to provide the desired level of heating or cooling and adjusts its output up or down, so it never wastes energy.

In the cold winters of Minnesota, these heat pumps have been shown to be about twice as energy efficient as the typical natural gas furnace, making them an extremely green alternative. As of November 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy is hoping to install these pumps into buildings as part of the Biden administration's greater infrastructure plan.

Even special heat pumps have limitations. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of heat pumps, and what you need to know before buying one.

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Pros and Cons of Heat Pumps

Heat pumps can help consumers save on utilities, but they have limitations. First, they tend to be somewhat ineffective in cold climates where the outdoor air temperature falls near or below freezing on a regular basis, although innovators are working to improve upon this. This is because moving heat from a very cold area to a hotter one takes more energy than moving heat between two areas with a more moderate temperature difference.

There's also more heat available outside in a moderate climate than in a cold climate. It's important to note that even in a cold climate, there's still heat in the outside air to be pumped indoors, but the unit needs to work harder to extract the heat that's available. Supplemental energy may be required to make the heat pump produce enough warmth to comfortably heat your home when the temperature falls below freezing, and that's no good.

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The heat produced by heat pumps isn't as intense as the heat produced by a gas or oil-burning furnace. People who are used to traditional furnaces can be uncomfortable with the milder heat produced by these systems. Other people prefer the warmth produced by heat pumps, because heat pumps distribute heat evenly throughout the house, meaning there are no cold spots. A heat pump will also turn on and off less often than a gas furnace, and most systems have eliminated the blowing of cold air through the vents that used to occur when the system temporarily switched into reverse to defrost the coils.

Before you install a heat pump, you'll need to consider what kind of supplemental or backup heating you may need to use when the heat pump can't work efficiently. Many heat pumps use supplemental electrical heating, but you might also use an oil burner or an adapted gas furnace. Whatever type of heating system is common in your area is likely the most efficient and cost-effective backup method. You can always call your local utility company for information.

Ground-source heat pumps are better dehumidifiers than normal air conditioners, because these systems typically have larger, flat return coils that condition and dehumidify more air than the corresponding coil in an air conditioning system. Air-source heat pumps have about the same dehumidifying capabilities as air conditioning systems. If you have any humidifying or dehumidifying needs, take this into consideration.

Now that you know the pros and the cons of heat pumps, read on to learn what to look for when you buy a heat pump.

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What to Look for in a Heat Pump

When you start shopping for a heat pump, there are a few things you need to look for. First, manufacturers rate the efficiency of most heat pumps in two ways: SEER and HSPF ratings. Higher SEER and HSPF ratings indicate a more efficient unit.

  • SEER stands for seasonal energy efficiency rating, and is a ratio of how much energy (measured in BTUs) is pumped outside in cooling mode divided by the electricity used (in watts) for cooling. Look for a SEER rating between 14 and 18.
  • HSPF stands for heating seasonal performance factor. It calculates the ratio of energy pumped indoors for heating to energy used for heating, but it's a more complicated equation than the SEER rating because it also takes into account supplemental heating needs and the energy used to defrost the unit. Look for an HSPF rating between eight and 10.

Heat pumps often feature options that make them more efficient. These include:

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  • A desuperheater coil that heats water by recycling waste heat (or on an RCC system, a refrigerant heat reclaimer that also uses the pump's extra capacity to heat water during mild winter weather).
  • Dual-mode compressors and motors that save energy by adjusting up or down according to the level of heating or cooling needed.
  • Scroll compressors that are quieter, more efficient and last longer than traditional compressors.

Though many of these features can only be found on more expensive heat pumps, they make up for the initial expense by helping heat pumps work more efficiently and save more energy throughout the pump's life.

So you now know how to buy a heat pump, but will it really save you money?

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Do Heat Pumps Save You Money?

The cost to install and run different kinds of heat pumps varies quite a bit. Ground-source heat pumps are more expensive to install than air-source heat pumps, possibly two to three times as much, because ground-source pumps require you to dig down to a heat source and involve more complex heat transfer systems. That can get a little pricy depending on the terrain on your property. The added efficiency of a ground-source pump can, however, save money on energy costs down the line.

Expect to pay as much as $5,000 to $7,500 for a ground-source heat pump system. Air-source heat pumps can be found for much cheaper, averaging around $1,500 to $5,000, because the units tend to be simpler, and installation is easier. After tallying up labor and additional hardware, the total price can exceed $20,000, and go up from there for larger buildings. There are, however, tax credits for high-efficiency climate control available in many regions of the United States , which can partially cover the cost of parts and installation.

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The cost required to run and repair a heat pump varies with the type of system. It's less expensive to run a ground-source heat pump because the ground and water have a relatively constant temperature that allows the heat pump to operate efficiently. Ground-source systems also have the advantage of not being exposed to the outdoor weather, which prevents a lot of wear and tear. On the downside, they can be costly to repair if you need to access an underground portion of the system.

Air-source systems are easy to access and service, but they may need more regular maintenance because they're exposed to the elements. Also, air-source heat pumps may use more supplemental energy to run, especially in colder climates, and this will cost you more on your utility bill.

Heat pumps may save you anywhere between 30 and 40 percent or more on your utility bill, but neglect will reduce a heat pump's efficiency over time. It's important to factor in the climate where you'll be using the heat pump to make sure you select a system that can run efficiently in your area. In the end, heat pumps can save you a lot of money on utilities if you're a good candidate and you install the right kind of pump for your area.

Read on to find out the cost of running and repairing your new heat pump.

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Heat Pump Maintenance

maintaining heat pump
Heat pumps are complex and contain hazardous chemicals, so it's best to leave regular maintenance and repairs to the professionals. I AM NIKOM/Shutterstock

If you use your heat pump on a regular basis, you should change the filter about once a month. You could probably get away with only changing the filter once every three months if you only run the unit periodically. Keep fans and coils clean and free from debris, and have your heat pump inspected twice a year by a professional: once before the heating season and once before the cooling season.

Common problems with heat pumps include low airflow, leaky or noisy ducts, temperature problems, using the wrong refrigerant charge, rattles, squeaks and grinding noises. If you can, try to isolate the location of the problem. Is the airflow only low coming out of one register, or do all registers have low airflow? Is the offending noise coming from the air ducts or within the heat pump unit itself?

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There are a few things you can do to identify and possibly fix a heat pump problem before calling for professional help. First, if the unit isn't working, try resetting its motor. Check the pump ignition system for problems, and make sure you don't have a tripped circuit breaker or blown fuse. Check the thermostat to make sure it's working properly. Change the filter if it's dirty, and make sure there are no airflow blockages.

If the air ducts are making noise when they expand and contract, considering installing rubber pads around them for added noise insulation. Rattles may be fixed by fastening loose parts, and if you're hearing squeaks inside the unit, you may need to replace or adjust the fan belt connecting the motor and the fan. A grinding noise may indicate that the bearings on the motor are worn-out, which will require the help of a professional to fix.

Keep in mind that if you aren't mechanically inclined then you probably shouldn't attempt to do this kind of repair work. And because heat pumps can contain hazardous materials, that's another good reason to get some professional assistance. A chemical leak is bad news and you can easily injure yourself handling a broken device.

A heat pump should last between 10 and 25 years. Regular inspection and maintenance is the most important factor to pump longevity. Those in more moderate climates will also tend to last longer. Keep in mind that technology may change before your heat pump has worn-out, so you may find your heat pump outlasts a technician's ability to service it. New technologies may make heat pumps safer or more efficient, so you may wish to keep an eye out for new kinds of heat pumps.

To learn more about heat pumps, check out the links below for lots more information.

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Originally Published: May 13, 2009

Heat Pump FAQs

How does a heat pump work in the winter?
A heat pump absorbs heat from outside air and blows it inside to warm your home up. They are much less expensive to run than a gas furnace because they use a very small amount of electricity.
Does a heat pump cool as well as an air conditioner?
Heat pumps can heat AND cool the air unlike air conditioners. Even when it comes to cooling your house down, heat pumps are more efficient compared to A/Cs.
What temperature is a heat pump not effective?
Although heat pumps are more efficient than A/C normally, they aren't able to retain their efficiency between 25 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat pumps are much better for temperatures above 40 degrees. Anything below and they start using more energy, making furnaces more efficient at that point.
How do you reset your heat pump?
To reset your heat pump, turn the thermostat and the pump off first. Turn off any associated breakers and let the refrigerant settle for at least three to five minutes. You can clean out the filters or ducts while you wait. Then, turn the system back on in reverse order.
What is the average life expectancy of a heat pump?
On average, heat pumps last for 10 to 15 years depending on your use and maintenance. Some have also reported their systems remaining operational for up to 50 years, but that is rare.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Ask the Builder. "Heat Pump Facts." Aug. 21, 2008. http://www.askthebuilder.com/B294_Heat_Pump_Facts.shtml
  • Carrier. "How Does a Heat Pump Work?" (Nov. 23, 2021) https://www.carrier.com/residential/en/us/products/heat-pumps/how-does-a-heat-pump-work/
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