What are heat pumps, and how do they work?
What is a heat pump?
For many years, homeowners had an air conditioner for summer cooling and a furnace for winter heating. Those were the only two options available. Now, things are different. Today’s homeowners don’t just have those two choices. Heat pumps and ductless systems are revolutionizing the way people think about cooling and heating by doing something surprising: combining both into one system.
In this article, we introduce you to heat pumps and explore how they work, why they’re so efficient, and what makes them different from traditional air conditioners and furnaces. Finally, we’ll address the all-important question: is a heat pump right for your home?
How do heat pumps work?
Despite their name and their use during the winter, heat pumps actually have far more in common with air conditioners than they do furnaces. Furnaces turn energy (in the form of either electricity or combusting natural gas) into heat energy. This heat energy is then distributed throughout your home, warming the temperature inside.
In contrast, heat pumps don’t actually generate heat. They move it from one place to another. In the winter, that means transporting heat energy from outdoor air indoors to heat the living spaces of your home.
If that process sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a mirror of what air conditioners do, just in the opposite direction. In the summer, your air conditioner uses the refrigeration cycle to take heat and release it outside, cooling down your home. Heat pumps simply reverse the cycle to provide heating.
Where does the heat come from?
To us, a cold winter night isn’t exactly something we associate with “heat.” Yet, even cold air has some ambient heat energy in it. Heat pumps use refrigerant to absorb that residual heat energy and transport it indoors, where it can be released and concentrated to warm up your rooms.
The heat pumps we install and discuss in this article are also known as air-source heat pumps, since they pull heat out of the air. However, other specialized systems do exist. This includes geothermal heat pumps, which pull ambient heat energy from below ground, and heat pumps designed to work with surface water sources, such as a lake or pond on your property. For obvious reasons, both systems are only practical for certain types of homes in certain areas.
Are heat pumps location-specific?
Technically speaking, heat pumps can be installed anywhere. There is a catch, however. Because they operate by pulling heat energy out of cold air, heat pumps work most efficiently in places with mild winter climates—our Central Valley included. In places with truly cold winter nights (regularly below-freezing temperatures), the heat pump has to work harder and run longer to get enough heat out of the outdoor air to warm up the home. This means higher electric bills for the homeowner.
Ultimately, this means there’s a climate sweet spot where heat pumps are most efficient and effective. Our winters here in California certainly fit the bill, as do those throughout most of the Sun Belt here in the United States. In places like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas, heat pumps have all but replaced traditional furnaces.
Even this temperature consideration is shifting. A new generation of heat pumps is changing what was once thought possible for cold-winter regions. It also means that today’s heat pumps are even more efficient for California’s homeowners.
Should you buy a heat pump or a furnace?
Both heat pumps and furnaces heat your home. Beyond that, there are some major differences you need to think through before you buy either system.
As previously mentioned, climate plays a role here. A homeowner in North Dakota probably needs the heat generation of a furnace to stay warm during the winter. However, there are factors beyond just what the winters are like. Since heat pumps double as air conditioners in the summer, they allow homeowners to have an effective two-in-one, year-round system. This means you only have to buy and maintain one HVAC system, instead of two.
Many homeowners are also switching to residential heat pumps because of changing energy standards and availability. Heat pumps are powered by electricity, not gas. That makes them perfect for homes without a natural gas connection, but also those that use solar panels to generate daytime electricity. As California homeowners continue to invest in solar, heat pumps are an ideal HVAC partner.
What are ductless systems?
All ductless systems are heat pumps, but not all heat pumps are ductless. Ductless systems, as the name says, do not use ductwork to transport cooled or heated air. Instead, the refrigerant lines run to wall-mounted blower units that send the cooled or heated air directly into the room. These are often called “mini-splits” because a single outdoor condenser unit can be connected to several indoor blower units.
So, why do homeowners choose ductless heat pumps over traditional ones? It mostly comes down to ductwork, which is expensive and space-consuming to install in homes that don’t already have it. Ductless systems allow such homes and buildings to access heating and cooling without the need for extensive structural modifications.
Is a heat pump right for your home?
If you need a new heating system, you might want to consider the benefits of heat pump installation in your home. Here are several of the advantages of doing so:
– Upfront Cost: A heat pump can replace both your furnace and your air conditioner, which means you just have one HVAC system to maintain and think about.
– Efficiency: Replace your electric furnace with a heat pump, and you could cut your electricity use in half. This results in significant savings on your future energy bills—especially your winter heating costs.
– Longevity: With the right professional maintenance from your friends at Allbritten, your heat pump will last for many years to come. Generally speaking, heat pumps last years longer than gas or electric furnaces.
Considering a heat pump for your home? Contact our team here at Allbritten. We’re Fresno’s friendly HVAC experts. Our technicians know everything there is to know about heat pumps. Give us a call or fill out our online form to set up a free in-home estimate so we can walk through your options with you.