Heat pumps are a big trend currently. Most homeowners who are either looking for complementary heating systems or ways to heat additions and unconventional spaces are opting for heat pumps. In fact, a few people have completely switched to heat pumps for whole-home heating.
So, should you hop on the bandwagon? Should you also consider a heat pump when you decide to install a new heating system? Below, we discuss the pros and cons of heat pumps to help you make an informed decision. We also answer common heat pump questions to help you better understand this novel way of heating.
What is a Heat Pump?
The term “heat pump” refers to HVAC systems that transfer heat (or warmth) from one location, known as a heat source, to a destination, known as a heat sink.” Thus, the primary identifier of heat pumps is that they don’t “create” new heat.
Instead, they merely transfer existing heat from one location to another, thus heat “pump.” The only unique thing about heat pumps is that they transfer heat in the opposite direction on natural heat flow.
Whereas heat naturally flows from warmer areas to colder areas through convection and particle diffusion, heat pumps move air from colder regions to warmer areas.
How Does a Heat Pump Work?
Heat pumps absorb warmth outside the house and dump it inside to raise indoor temperatures. It’s the reverse of air conditioners. Whereas the air conditioner extracts heat from indoor air and dumps it outside, a heat pump takes air from outdoor air and dumps it inside the house. Thus, heat pumps raise indoor temperatures while air conditioners lower indoor temperatures.
So, how does the process work exactly?
It’s simple. A heat pump comprises two components (like a mini-split air conditioner) – an indoor air handler and an outdoor evaporator. A refrigerant line connects the two components. Of course, the two components also have electric wires running between them.
The entire heating process begins indoors. Indoor air handlers connect to thermostats (wall-mounted or built-in). When temperature drop below a specified setting, the thermostat calls for heat, and the condenser fan begins running right away, drawing outdoor air into the condenser.
Inside the outdoor unit, the air blows over an evaporator coil that transfers heat energy from air to a special refrigerant. The heat-laden refrigerant then travels through the walls of your home into the indoor air handler, which houses condenser coils.
The indoor air handler has a fan too. This fan extracts heat from the refrigerant in the condenser coils as it blows. This heat is then blown out of the air handler and dispersed throughout your home to keep you and your family and guests warm and toasty.
Heat Pumps vs. Standard Furnaces
Heat pumps are different from furnaces and standard heaters in many ways. The following are just the two main distinctions;
- Comprise two distinct parts: Heat pumps, like mini-split air conditioners, have two distinct components, an air handler installed inside the house and an outdoor evaporator installed outside. Meanwhile, furnaces and other heaters come in a single unit.
- Don’t create “new” heat: Whereas furnaces and other heaters generate heat energy using either electricity or fossil fuels (gas, propane, etc.), heat pumps merely transfer existing heat from one location to another.
Advantages of Heat Pumps
Heat pumps are advantageous for many reasons. Below are common advantages over furnaces and space heaters.
- Lower running costs
The biggest upside to heat pumps is lower operating costs. Heat pumps are, by far, the most efficient heating systems as they don’t burn any fuel or draw electricity to generate heat. Thus, the cost of running a heat pump isn’t too different from that of running the refrigerator. Many studies show that a standard heat pump consumes just 33.6 cents/hour, translating to about $322/heating season. This is about half the cost of furnace heating ($660/year).
- Minimal maintenance
Here too, you can compare the heat pump to the refrigerator in your kitchen. How often do you repair or perform maintenance on the refrigerator? How often does it break down? It’s once in a long while for relatively new units – and the same applies for heat pumps. Unlike furnaces that encounter countless issues over the heating season, the heat pump can go the entire season without significant problems.
- Reduced carbon emissions
Furnaces run on fossil fuels such as natural gas, propane, and heating oil, which produce significant amounts of carbon emissions. For instance, if you hear that a furnace is 85% efficient, it means that about 15% of the gas ends up as carbon emissions. Heat pumps don’t burn fuels nor generate power from electricity. Therefore, they’re highly environment-friendly.
- Heat pumps are safer
How often do you feel at risk just by getting too close to the furnace or red-hot electric heater? Unfortunately, it happens far too often. Indeed, many people have been burned or scalded by furnaces, boilers, and electric heaters. Heat pumps have no hot parts, thus are incredibly safe. You don’t have to worry about burns or scalding. Additionally, they don’t produce poisonous gases as gas and oil furnaces do.
- Can double up as air conditioners
Heat pumps are essentially air conditioners working in reverse. Therefore, most models are designed to reverse operation to work as air conditioners during the scorching summer months. The reversion process is simple. The outdoor unit becomes the condenser and the indoor unit the evaporator, thus allowing the pump to extract hot, stale indoor air and dump it outside the house.
- A long lifespan
Finally, heat pumps can last many years. Whereas the average furnace lasts 15-30 years, with an average lifespan of 20 years, heat pumps can last up to 50 years. Even better, heat pumps can last so long with minimal maintenance and few repairs. These qualities make them the perfect long-term investment for home heating.
Disadvantages of Heat Pumps
Unfortunately, heat pumps aren’t without fault. The following are four common drawbacks of a heat pump;
- High upfront cost
Heat pumps aren’t cheap. It costs $4,500 to $9,000, on average, to install a new heat pump. The indoor air handler alone can cost a staggering $3,000 to $6,000. Then, you need to factor in installation costs, which typically cost half the price of the appliance. It means that you need $8,000 to $14,000 upfront to install a large heat pump. That’s enough to purchase and install a high-efficiency furnace.
- Difficult to install
Besides being expensive, heat pump installation is incredibly complex. In fact, you’re almost sure to get it wrong if you DIY-install your pump. The reason is that you need to carefully analyze heat movement in the location and understand local geology to trap maximum heat during winter. Otherwise, you may not extract enough heat to keep your home warm enough.
- Issues in cold weather
Finally, heat pumps can present several challenges during cold weather. First, many heat pumps struggle to generate heat on extremely cold days. Some may even go off when it’s too cold outside. Additionally, internal freezing is a common challenge. It’s actually why heat pumps sometimes go off in icy conditions. They instead use the little heat to keep the internal components from freezing.
Which are Some of the Best Heat Pump Brands?
- Lennox International
How Do You Tell if your Heat Pump is Working Properly?
The easiest way to tell that your heat pump is working efficiently is to listen for several seconds whenever you start the pump. Specifically, listen for the following;
- Can you hear the unit start?
- Can you hear the fan turning?
- Can you hear air flowing through the ducts?
Above all, listen out for strange noises. The heat pump should only produce a low hum if it’s working correctly. Loud banding sounds and strange squealing noises are telltale signs of internal issues.
- Is a Heat Pump Worth It? Yes, though expensive upfront, heat pumps are worth the investment in the long run. They can save you significant energy costs and are both environment-friendly and long-lasting.
- Should I upgrade to a heat pump? Yes, you should strongly consider upgrading to a heat pump if you can. You’ll benefit from fewer repairs and significant energy savings. Also, you’ll only need a replacement after 30-45 years.
- How much money can you save with a heat pump? Some studies show that you can save up to $810/year by switching from an electric furnace to a heat pump. Meanwhile, switching to a heat pump from a baseboard heater can save you up to $1,287/year.
- Can a heat pump pay for itself? Yes, heat pumps generally pay for themselves. Studies show that the average heat pump pays for itself within 8-10 years. This means that the heat pump can pay for itself up to four times over its lifespan.
- Does a heat pump need a drain? Yes, heat pumps need a drain. It’s one of the main reasons heat pump air handlers are installed on an exterior wall. The units double up as dehumidifiers, thus needing the means to drain the condensate. Fortunately, you can install a condensate pump to remove the condensate water easily.
There you go! Now you know better about heat pumps. Remember that you can now install a heat pump for whole-home heating. It can be a little expensive upfront. However, the long-term benefits are worth it.