What Is a Heat Pump and How Does It Work?

For those living in moderate climates, heat pumps are a common home fixture. But for those in cold country, far less are seen, with more efficient heat producing systems such as furnaces and boilers more commonly found. Why the difference by climate? The answer lies in heat pump function.

How to Identify a Heat Pump

Heat pumps come in gas and electric models, and can be installed as a split system, package systems, or as a ductless or ‘mini-split’ system. There are a few easy ways to identify a heat pump system. The first is obvious: Go outside to the large metal box housing it, and look for the model information displayed on the box. If it expressly states, ‘heat pump,’ or has both a ‘Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio’ and a ‘Heating Seasonal Performance Factor,’ you have a heat pump. You can also set your thermostat to heat, then go outside and see if the system is running. Heat pump thermostats also typically have an ‘emergency heat’ function.

How Heat Pumps Work

Heat pumps don’t create heat. They simply move warm air from one place to another with the help of refrigerant. From the outdoors to the indoors in the winter (heat), and vice-versa in the summer. That’s why in cold climates, heat pumps may not keep up with heating needs – there’s no heat in the air to transfer. In ‘emergency heat mode’ (aka: when your heat pump can’t keep the home warm enough), heat is instead generated by electricity, which is not near as efficient as typical operation.

There Are Many Types of Heat Pumps, Based on the Way They Source Heat:

  • Air Source
    The most common, transferring heat from the air/temperature outdoors.
  • Ground Source/Geothermal
    These take advantage of the more consistent temperatures within the earth or water sources.
  • Combination
    Such as ground/air source, and air source/boiler combos for improved efficiency.

Making the Most Out of Your Heat Pump

Some people run up high power bills because they don’t understand how to properly use a heat pump system. To avoid unnecessarily high energy bills and wearing out your system before its time, heed this advice:

  • Keep your hands to yourself.
    Set the thermostat to your ideal comfort temperature – and leave it alone. Jacking the temperature up/down will not cool/heat your home any faster – but it will make your system work harder and less efficiently.
  • Plan ahead.
    Consider adding a heat pump friendly programmable thermostat for the most efficient use of your system, whether you’re home or away.
  • Save supplemental or ‘emergency heat’ for emergencies!
    Heat supplied by electric resistance when temperatures plummet and there’s not enough heat in the air for your system to warm your home is half as efficient (or less) compared to typical operation. Don’t crank up the temp (which can kick it in) or switch over to supplemental/emergency electric heat unless it’s a true emergency – or your system stops working. Otherwise you’ll be paying overinflated energy bills.
  • Maintain your system.
    Properly cleaned and charged system operate far more efficiently than those that have been neglected.
  • Don’t skimp on a replacement.
    When it’s time to replace your heat pump system, opt for efficient, Energy Star models, paying keen attention to ratings. The most efficient heat pump models produce twice the heat compared to lesser models, using the same amount of energy. With heating and cooling accounting for as much as 48% if the typical electric bill, that’s some serious annual savings.

Overdue for maintenance on your heat pump system? Schedule your annual professional maintenance with Aire Serv® today.