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What Is a Heat Pump?

Updated Jan 12, 2023

Updated Jan 12, 2023

Home > Maintenance & Renovation > What Is a Heat Pump?

Heat pumps have been popular in other parts of the world for a while, but they’re only starting to gain popularity in the United States. With a growing climate crisis, many people are gaining awareness that traditional furnaces and air conditioners aren’t energy-efficient. 

As energy costs rise, more homeowners are considering heat pumps, especially as their technology advances. Depending on several variables, installing a heat pump in your home could make sense. Our guide explains all you need to know about heat pumps and will help you decide if it’s the right choice for your home.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

heat pump on the side of a home in winter
Image Source: Canva

Though its name may lead you to believe otherwise, a heat pump can heat and cool a space. It transfers heat rather than creating it, making it an extremely efficient heating and cooling system. 

A heat pump extracts warm air from outside when it’s cold out, pushing it to an indoor unit through a refrigerant line. This process compresses and heats the air along the way, making it even warmer when it reaches the inside of your home. In the summer months, the cooling mode of a heat pump works similarly to typical air conditioning systems — it extracts warm air from indoors and pushes it out, leaving cool air and creating a comfortable environment inside the house. 

What if It’s Extremely Cold Outside?

Even in colder climates with freezing temperatures, thermal heat energy is still in the air and ground, which a heat pump uses. The refrigerant in the heat pump attracts warmer outdoor air and moves it through the condenser system, allowing the heat pump to operate in extreme temperatures. However, the colder the environment, the harder the heat pump works.

What Makes Heat Pumps Energy-efficient?

Heat pumps are more energy-efficient because they move heat, which takes less energy. Traditional heating systems like gas furnaces, propane, or oil systems have to work to generate heat which consumes more energy. Because a heat pump heats and cools by using heat that already exists in the outside air, the air inside your home is never heated or cooled more than necessary, making it an incredibly efficient system.

Types of Heat Pumps

There are a few types of heat pumps available to consumers, and what follows are some details of the three most common.

Air-source Heat Pumps

An air-source or air-to-air heat pump is the most common type of heat pump. An air-source heat pump is an outdoor unit that moves air through ducts the same way a central heating and cooling (HVAC) system moves air. If you’re replacing your central air with a heat pump, and your home already has ductwork to support the movement of air, this type of heat pump will work well for you as a retrofit.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal, or ground-source heat pumps, are expensive to install and difficult to modify post-installation. They work by moving heat from deep within the Earth into your home through a network of pipes underground. Even though they harness renewable energy, installing a geothermal heat pump requires lots of digging and earth-moving. It’s a major undertaking that can’t be easily changed once installed.

Mini-split Heat Pumps

Ductless mini-split heat pumps are similar to air-to-air heat pumps. They use the same heating and cooling technology, but they don’t require ducts to perform. A mini-split system is a great option for adding heating and cooling to areas of your home where you want to control the temperature separately or don’t want to extend your existing ductwork. For example, a mini-split would work well as a ductless option if you want to heat and cool your garage because you use it as a shop.

How To Maintain a Heat Pump

technician performing maintenance on a heat pump
Image Source: Canva

A well-maintained heat pump operates more efficiently than those that are severely neglected. The difference in energy consumption ranges from 10% to 25%. Regular maintenance will help lower your home heating costs, and it will also extend the life span of your heat pump. Though a technician should perform a comprehensive inspection annually, there are some things you can do on your own:

  • Clean or change filters monthly
  • Clean outdoor coils as needed
  • Clean the fan as needed
  • Remove excess vegetation near the heat pump
  • Clean supply and return registers inside your home

If your system’s components are dirty — filters, coils, and fans — indoor air flow is reduced through the system, which can affect your heat pump’s performance and even damage the compressor. If cleaning your heater’s components becomes part of your regular home maintenance routine, you’ll lower your energy use and get the best results.

Pros and Cons of Heat Pumps

Like all things, heat pumps have their benefits and drawbacks. 

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • All-in-one system
  • High efficiency
  • Potential utility savings

Cons

  • High upfront costs
  • Higher electric bills
  • Vulnerable to power outages

Benefits

All-in-one System

Having an all-in-one system means you save time and money on installing separate systems. It also offers space-saving incentives.

High Efficiency

Heat pumps are more efficient than other heating and cooling technologies. Switching to a heat pump means saving money long-term on heating and cooling costs and lowering your environmental impact.

Potential Utility Savings

Using only one source for heating and cooling helps you save on your overall utility costs. Using an electric heat pump eliminates the cost of other fossil fuel utilities like natural gas or oil.

Drawbacks

High Upfront Costs

Depending on the type of heat pump system you install, it may come with a big price tag. If you’re on a budget, the cost of heat pumps can be limiting.

Higher Electric Bills

Because a heat pump runs on electricity, it will likely increase the amount on your monthly electric bill. Although it eliminates the cost of other utilities like gas and oil, you may pay more if electricity is expensive in your region.

Vulnerable to Power Outages

A heat pump needs electricity to operate. So, if your grid loses power, it won’t run. Depending on how long the outage is, this could leave you susceptible to extreme heat or cold.

Is a Heat Pump Worth It?

heat pump and flowers outside a home
Image Source: Canva

In short, yes. Heat pumps are relatively inexpensive to operate, have a high efficiency rating, work well regardless of where you live, and are better for the environment than traditional heating and cooling methods. If you want to be conscientious about climate change without giving up comfort, a new heat pump is a great choice for your home. 

However, choosing the right type of heat pump for your home is where things can get confusing. We’ve created a quick-reference chart to help you decide what factors should weigh into the type of heat pump you choose.

FactorAir-to-airGeothermalMini-split
Limited budget
Small space
Existing ductwork
New construction
Plan to stay long-term

A mini-split or air-to-air system is the best option for anyone with a limited budget, as geothermal is a large investment upfront. If you only want to heat or cool a small space, getting a mini-split makes the most sense — any other system wouldn’t be worth the cost.

If your home is a new construction project, an investment in geothermal can make sense on multiple levels. One, it’s likely you could roll the cost of the system into the mortgage. Two, the construction required to install the system wouldn’t interrupt day-to-day life.

In any case, the return on investment for an air-to-air or geothermal system is only worth it if you plan to stay in your home long-term. You’d need to live in your home for longer than four years to recoup costs through energy savings.

How Much Do They Cost?

Your final price tag can range widely depending on the type of system you choose. Various factors, like the size of your home and how many air handlers you install, will affect how much you pay. Here is a chart representing the national average heat pump unit prices and installation costs.

Type of Heat PumpAverage Cost (Unit Only)Average Cost of Installation
Air-to-air$3,256$4,500–$13,000
Ductless Mini-split$2,839$4,000–$7,075
Geothermal$5,225$14,000–$31,500

*Prices are as of January 2023.

Financial Incentives

Recently, the Inflation Reduction Act has offered incentives for those who switch to more efficient heating and cooling systems. Starting in 2023, any household that installs a heat pump can save 30% or up to $2,000 toward the cost of buying and installing the heat pump. There are also state-level incentives that offer rebates to low-income households of up to $8,000.

Do Home Warranties Cover Heat Pumps?

Investing in your home’s air quality and temperature control is key to your health and comfort. Since your heating and cooling system is responsible for maintaining these factors, getting a home warranty with HVAC coverage will help ensure that you’ll be protected if anything goes wrong.

While not all home warranties offer HVAC coverage, some do, and they promise hassle-free and affordable service from licensed contractors. If you’re considering upgrading your home’s HVAC system to a heat pump, you might also consider getting a home warranty — it will help you cover costs if anything goes wrong.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to upgrade your existing heating and cooling system to something more efficient or want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, a heat pump is a great choice. Depending on your project, choosing the right type of system for your needs is important. Regardless, switching to heat pump technology is a smart investment.

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