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What's a Heat Pump? They're Hot...and Cool!

“A heat pump is no different than an air conditioner”. Well…yes…and no. As the name implies, a heat pump pumps heat…outside to cool your home, and inside to heat your home. In fact, heat pumps generally provide much more efficient heating than a typical oil, natural gas, propane, or electric furnace, or strip heat like an electric baseboard or electric wall heater. And it’s done by employing the same principles that an air conditioner uses, to collect and move heat.

A typical air-to-air air conditioner works by transferring heat in the air inside of the home to outside of the structure. The air is cooled as it is blown over the coils of refrigerant lines that are collecting the heat. The refrigerant moves the heat to a coil outside the building, where another fan blows outside air through that coil, and transfers the heat in the refrigerant to the outside ambient air. This process provides air conditioning.

A heat pump works in exactly the opposite way to heat a home, taking heat that exists naturally in the air outside, and transferring it to the air inside. By the way, there is no such thing as “cold,” just the absence of heat. When we measure temperature we are actually measuring the heat that exists. Even when temperatures fall below freezing, enough heat can be extracted from the air to heat our homes or businesses. This is why a heat pump can still provide energy-efficient heat to a structure even when it is “cold” outside.

Heat Pumps can also provide air conditioning and can do so very well. When your thermostat calls for cooling, it triggers a valve within the heat pump that reverses the process of heating your home, and works just like an air conditioner.

There are two ratings to look at when considering an air source heat pump.

The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER rating) is a rating that that reflects the overall efficiency of a Heat Pump or Air Conditioner in COOLING. The higher the SEER rating the more efficient the unit is in cooling. The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF rating), is used for air source heat pumps to rate the overall efficiency in heating season. The higher the number the more efficient the heat pump in heating. If you’re looking to reduce energy expense throughout the heating season, then HSPF is the main consideration for the efficiency rating of a heat pump.

Another important consideration for air-to-air heat pumps is the outside temperature to which it can extract heat efficiently. Most air-to-air heat pumps will extract air down to about freezing (32 degrees F.). However newer technology with Inverter Scroll Compressors is allowing efficient heat extraction down to single digits. When the outside temperature drops below its operation point, a ducted system will automatically switch over to a backup heat source, usually a gas or electric furnace.

When and why should I consider a New Heat Pump?

  • As an upgrade when replacing a furnace. Even if you’re not ready to purchase a heat pump at the time you replace your furnace, for little extra cost you can make your new furnace heat pump ready. It’s much more cost effective than trying to retrofit your furnace when you’re finally ready to add your heat pump.
  • When replacing an oil furnace you can forgo the expense of upgrading to gas or propane by simply replacing the oil furnace with a more efficient heat pump and an electric air handler.
  • Efficiency. Air-to-Air heat pumps are a great way to keep energy costs down. With super efficient Inverter Scroll Technology, it’s seldom necessary to use more expensive back up heat (gas, propane, electric) as the main source to heat your home, especially in mild climates like the Northwest.
  • Old Age Question: Repair or Replace? Is it wise to put money into repairing an older less efficient unit that will break down again? The real appeal to many home owners is the peace of mind, and savings they’ll receive from a new unit that incorporates today’s high efficient technology.
  • Air Conditioner or Heat Pump? Are you considering an air conditioner? If you live in an area with a definite heating season, it’s worthwhile to research the benefits of a heat pump. Installing air conditioning is almost just as much work as installing a heat pump. But with a heat pump you’ll also benefit from energy savings in the heating season.
  • Don’t have your ducts in a row? Try a ductless heat pump. They don’t need any duct work, and they’ll nearly replace the use of space heaters like electric baseboards. They may also fit the need to heat a single space currently not being heated or a future addition.

If you need help choosing the right heat pump, start by choosing the good contractor. Making sure that the equipment is the right size for your home and the duct work is sized correctly for the unit is vital. Improper air flow will end up causing trouble with equipment when you need it most.

Choosing a contractor that can give you options and do the job without cutting corners is a must for optimum efficiency, low cost of ownership, and proper operation. It’s worth your time and money to research contractors in your service area, in order to find an expert that can help you decide if a heat pump is right for you.

Bruce Davis Jr.
General Manager
Day & Nite Plumbing & Heating, Inc.

Bruce is a second generation plumber and HVAC technician. He earned his Commercial Plumbing License and later became N.A.T.E. Certified and E.P.A. Refrigerant Certified for HVAC service and repair for commercial and residential HVAC appliances. Bruce has years of experience as an HVAC Technician, Boiler Technician, and Plumber. He is now General Manager for the company he has been with his entire career and oversees the Plumbing, Heating, and Air Conditioning business for Day & Nite Plumbing & Heating, Inc.

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