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Heat Pumps? How Do They Really Work?


There is so much to consider when building your dream home, or renovating your current one to a higher standard, and one of the most important is the heating system. You could stick with the same energy-hungry heating systems and air-conditioning units or you could look into installing a heat pump. Heat pumps are a simple means of drawing heat into the home from an outside source and can make a huge difference to the comfort of your home, the energy used and the money you spend.

There are many types of heat pumps out there, and many pros and cons to consider before committing to one, but they are definitely worth plenty of consideration.

Some states even offer a tax credit or loans for residential energy-efficient upgrades.

The different types of heat pump for your home.

Before looking at the pros and cons of installing a heat pump system in your home, it is important to take a brief look at some of the different types. The methods below all vary greatly, with different pros and cons, and it helps to narrow down the style that is best for your property and heating needs.

Air heat pump

Does as the name suggests by transferring air through air ducts and refrigerant-filled coils to heat or cool the home as required.
Ground-source heat pump: again, not the most imaginative name as this time the heat is taken out of the ground, absorbed in water pipes and pumped throughout the home.
Absorption heat pump: this one tends to be powered by renewable energy, not electricity, and creates heat by processing ammonia in the water. Less common and best used in larger homes.

Mini-split heat pump

For homes without air-ducts. Seen as a flexible, unobtrusive way of connecting outdoor air sources to multiple indoor units.
Reverse cycle chiller (RCC): works through the heating and cooling of water through an insulated water tank. An added benefit here is that there is no need for a backup burner.


The benefits of these alternative heat pump systems.

Many homeowners are drawn to either air heat pumps or ground-source heat pumps because of the potential benefits they can offer compared to other heating systems. The benefits of savings and energy efficiency will vary from home to home, but the following factors provide a good starting point when considering the pros and cons of adding a heat pump to your house.

Energy efficiency for a greener solution:

Heat pumps are built to cover the whole home with an even distribution of heat and to do so in an efficient manner. The simple act of heat transference requires less energy than that of burning fuel and this means that they are also great choices if you want to go greener in you home renovation.

To check the efficiency of a system, look for the SEER and HSFP ratings. Ideally, the SEER rating will be between 14 and 18 and the HSFP will be between 8 and 10. This efficiency can be increased by looking for models with dual-mode compressors or scroll compressors, although this can add to the overall costs.

Cost effective solutions to heating the home:

Costs can obviously vary greatly depending on the type of pump and your needs but, generally speaking, they can offer a more cost-effective approach to your home’s heating system. Ground-source pumps, for example, have larger short-term costs in the installation but fewer ongoing costs in the running and maintenance. Homes that have switched to heat pumps have been able to save as much as 40% so most homeowners would agree that any short-term inconveniences are outweighed by the long-term benefits.

You are essentially getting two systems for the price of one:

This is another cost-related benefit that is sometimes overlooked by consumers looking into the potential of heat pumps. At the moment, you probably have a heating system and an air-conditioning system and that can put a strain on your energy usage.

Heat pumps can simplify matters by offering a heating and cooling system in one installation. The action of pulling heat into the home can easily be reversed, which means that you may not need an air-conditioning unit in your new renovation at all.

Heat pump flow

Drawn in Inkscape by Ilmari Karonen.

A simple stylized diagram of a heat pump’s vapor-compression refrigeration cycle: 1) condenser, 2) expansion valve, 3) evaporator, 4) compressor.  Note that the arrows in the diagram are meant to indicate the flow of air and coolant; they do not correspond to heat flow, which in the system depicted is (generally) from right to left.


The potential disadvantages to installing one of these heat pumps in your home.

Cost effective in the right home:

The potential for savings and the energy efficiency that can be achieved with these pumps are both great plus points, but you have to remember that every home is different. In some homes, there may be the need for supplemental heating that quickly increases costs.

This will be more likely if your home experiences more dramatic temperature changes due to a colder climate. Many pumps struggle to cope with temperatures close to zero because it requires greater effort to reach the desired heat, although there is a new Cold Climate pump in development that promises to work with impressive energy-efficiency in sub-zero temperatures.

These pumps may not reach the temperatures you expect:

If you see yourself as quite a cold-blooded creature that needs a consistently high temperature throughout the house, you may be disappointed in the results compared to your current heating system. Heat pumps are efficient and can heat all the corners of the house, but the maximum temperatures could be lower than you hope for.

Don’t forget about the maintenance issues:

All heating systems require some form of maintenance and checks over the course of their life and this is also true of these heat pumps. Little responsibility will fall on your shoulders, apart from changing the filters, because these systems are best handled by professionals. Despite this, it is still helpful to know what you might be getting into with the different types of the heat pump.

At their best, this system could last up to 30 years but there is always the chance of low airflow, damage and issues with the refrigerant. Ground-source pumps are less susceptible to faults and damage because of their location and tend to last the longest. If they do go wrong, however, it can be costly to dig them up.

Is a heat pump the best option for your renovation or new build?

There is a lot to consider when looking into the potential of heat pumps as a viable heating system for your new home. The pros and cons outlined here give you a basic starting point to build upon and discuss with your HVAC contractor.

If you feel that there are indeed more advantages than disadvantages, you can then take a closer look at the different types available. There are issues with these systems but their green credentials, effeciency and potential savings make them appealing prospects in many homes.

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