Millions of American households heat their homes — and cool them — with a heat pump. Yet in some parts of the country, they are not very common at all. With this in mind, let us pose and answer some of the most common questions that homeowners have concerning this equipment.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

The easiest way to conceptualize how a heat pump works is to think of it moving heat from outside the home to the inside, and it can actually reverse this process. Even when the air outside is cold, there is still some heat energy present. The refrigerant in a heat pump has less energy and lower pressure and is thus able to absorb that heat energy. After absorption, the refrigerant is pressurized to increase the temperature. The refrigerant is then piped into the home where the heat is extracted, and the cycle continues anew. During hot weather, this process is simply reversed in order to provide a home with cool air.

Does a Heat Pump Both Heat and Cool?

Yes. A heat pump can both heat or cool a home. It is not uncommon to think otherwise, and the confusion seems to arise from the term heat pump. But the term is used to distinguish it from an air conditioner because a heat pump is essentially an air conditioner that can reverse that process in order to heat a home. Heat pumps differ from furnaces in that they do generate heat.

Are Heat Pumps Employed in Centralized Systems?

Yes. A standard heat pump is centralized and requires ductwork through which the heated or cooled air can be distributed via a blower or air handler. These setups are generally quite similar to the traditional central forced air residential HVAC systems that have a furnace and an air conditioner.

Do Ductless Heat Pumps Exist?

Yes. There are ductless versions of air-source heat pumps. They are called mini-split heat pumps, and that term is often shortened to mini-split system, or just mini-split.

What Is the Difference Between Air Source and Ground Source?

Air-source heat pumps use the ambient air from outside the home in order to heat or cool it. This is the traditional technology people think of when considering heat pumps. The scientific premise dates back to the 1800s, but residential air-source heat pumps became available in the U.S. since about 1946 and became more widespread throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A ground-source — or geothermal — heat pump uses heat energy from the ground. The fundamentals are the same, but the source of energy is different. The concept of geothermal heating has been around since the 1940s, but it was not until the 2000s that independent residential systems became practical. The main difference is that GSHPs are better suited to colder climates than ASHPs but still cost considerably more to install.

Are Heat Pumps Effective in All Climates?

No. The general rule is that an air-source heat pump is effective at temperatures down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Beyond that point, these systems have to work much harder to heat a home and are thus much less efficient than a furnace. Ground-source heat pumps are more effective in colder climates, and there are actually systems available that are suited to very cold climates. However, the cost of these systems is currently more than the average homeowner will want to spend on a heating system.

What Is a Hybrid Heat Pump System?

Imagine a climate in which winter temperatures are usually above 40-degrees Fahrenheit but there are occasional periods where it drops down perhaps as low as 25 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a scenario in which a hybrid heat pump system may be a good choice. Your home would have both a heat pump and a furnace. The heat pump would cool the home and heat it most of the time. But when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, the furnace would kick in to counter those colder temperatures.

How Are Heat Pumps Rated for Heating Efficiency?

Furnaces and many other heating equipment types are rated by AFUE. AFUE stands for Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency and indicates how much fuel is lost in the heat-creation process. An 80 AFUE indicates that 80% of the fuel consumed is actually converted into heat. But heat pumps do not burn fuel in that manner. Heat pumps are therefore given an HSPF rating. HSPF stands for Heating Seasonal Performance Factor. Energy Star-rated heat pumps range from 8.5 to 12.5 HSPF.

How Are Heat Pumps Rated for Cooling Efficiency?

Heat pumps are provided a SEER rating. SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio and is a measure of how efficient a heat pump is at cooling over the course of a season. This is the same rating that is used for air conditioners. So, while you cannot compare heat pumps and furnaces using HSPF and AFUE, you can compare heat pumps and air conditioners using their SEER ratings. SEER ratings range from 13 to about 21, and a unit must have a 14 SEER rating to qualify for the Energy Star label.

How Long Does a Heat Pump Last?

The heat pumps that were commonplace in the 1960s were expected to last about a decade. The technologies have improved since then, and a modern heat pump is expected to last about 15 years. With regular maintenance, it’s not unusual for a heat pump to last 20 years or even more. However, the 15-year mark is the point at which homeowners will want to consider Heat Pump replacement. This is the point at which the existing equipment is becoming less efficient and newer technologies are likely becoming more efficient. A discussion with your HVAC technician will help determine the right choice for you.

Does My Outdoor Heat Pump Unit Need to Be Covered?

The answer to this question is usually no, but there are exceptions. Be mindful that the external heat pump unit is designed to operate outdoors and to withstand the elements. If you have seasonal maintenance performed, your system should be fine. If there is a specific reason to cover it, such as an excess amount of falling matter, then it’s important to choose a raised cover that has been specifically designed for this purpose and allows for the necessary airflow through the unit.

Are There Rebates Available for Heat Pumps?

Yes. There are rebates, tax credits and so forth available for both ducted and ductless heat pumps. Such rebates can be available at the federal, state and local levels but also through nonprofit and private organizations. Your local HVAC company is the best way to find out about available rebates.

Your Heat Pump Experts in Orange

Sano Heating & Air Conditioning is based in Orange and provides our services throughout Orange County and the surrounding areas. In addition to heat pumps, we install, maintain and repair furnaces, air conditioners, duct systems and indoor air quality equipment. Call us today or contact us online to learn more about these services and to schedule an appointment or on-site consultation.

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