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Thanks for visiting our heat pump ultimate resource guide. It's broken down into 9 Chapters and the goal is to give you as much information as we can about heat pumps.
Below are the list of chapters. Feel free to click on the chapter link to jump ahead to that chapter as this guide is long and jam packed with informative information.
Chapter 1 - What Are Heat Pumps?
When the season shifts to cooler weather, many homeowners start scheduling a tune-up for or replacing their existing heating system.
Among the concerns homeowners have with older heating and cooling systems is whether a tune-up is worth the expense of the service call. After all, it worked well enough through last year, didn’t it? Another concern is, “What do I buy to replace the old unit?” One possible replacement option is the heat pump.
Heat pumps – The Basics
Basically, a heat pump is a mechanical device that uses a small amount of energy to transfer heat between your house and the outside air. This movement of thermal energy is the opposite of wind generation – here, heat is absorbed from a cold space (outside) and released into a warmer space (inside). In nature, heat tends to flow from a higher to a lower temperature.
There are several types of heat pumps that can create this exchange of cool/warm air:
Heat pumps – A Brief History
Although we often think of “refrigeration” as something related to cooling, it is a process of moving heat from one place to another. It might surprise you to learn that the heat pump grew out of an early demonstration of artificial refrigeration pioneered in 1748 by William Cullen.
That process led to the scientific principle of the heat pump, developed around 1852 by William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. Lord Kelvin envisioned applying this principle to cooling buildings and refrigeration systems. Peter von Rittinger is credited with developing and building the first heat pump system between 1855 and 1857.
It was not until the late 1940s that an American inventor, Robert C. Webber, developed the first ground source heat pump. Webber observed that his deep freezer produced constant excess heat. Connecting the outlet piping from the freezer to a hot water heater, then hooking the heated water to a piping loop and utilizing a small fan, he found that his system could propel warm air into the building. From that first system, he developed a full-sized pump that could provide heat throughout his home.
Heat Pumps Pros and Cons
There are a number of benefits to a heat pump system for heating or cooling your house. Some of them include:
Some potential disadvantages are:
Heat pump systems are not the perfect solution to every heating need but they are an increasingly more efficient and effective alternative to traditional heating systems.
Chapter 2 – How Heat Pumps Work
Heat pumps are cost-effective, eco-friendly, safe systems for heating and cooling homes in moderate climates. Recent advances have even made heat pumps work more effectively in climates with greater weather extremes, too.
You may be unfamiliar with heat pump systems and the differences between them and more traditional home heating systems:
How a heat pump works
What makes a heat pump system so effective, and how does it work? Let’s briefly return to the basic description from Chapter 1:
"Basically, a heat pump is a mechanical device that uses a small amount of energy to transfer heat between your house and the outside air."
An air-source or geothermal-source heating system has these components:
(For this example of heating, let’s focus on the air-source heat pump.)
The heat pump system consists of an outdoor unit and an indoor distribution system. Both are powered by electricity.
Year round comfort and safety
A heat pump provides a stable temperature within the home. Once the room reaches the temperature you prefer (for either cooling or warming), the heat pump will maintain that temperature. Newer heat pumps also have programmable timers that can be preset to warm the house up before you get out of bed in the morning, or to warm the house ahead of your return from work.
Heat pumps don’t create waste – no ashes, soot, smoke, moisture, or other waste material. The refrigerant used in newer heat pumps is more eco-friendly, contributing fewer greenhouse gases.
And because there is no gas heating or wood burning, there also are no hot surfaces or flames that can burn people or pets. The heat pump can be safely left on whether you are asleep or out of the house.
Want to know more about the performance and efficiency of heat pumps? Please continue to the next chapter.
Chapter 3 – Performance and Efficiency of Heat Pumps
The benefits of heating and cooling your home with a heat pump system can sound pretty appealing. But if you are a cost-conscious homeowner, you probably want to know about their performance and efficiency as well.
Heating and cooling– a changing climate
Although the heat pump is powered by electricity, a properly installed heat pump delivers from one-and-a-half to three times more heat than it consumes in electricity. The reason for this efficiency is that the heat pump moves heat; it doesn’t convert heat from a fuel like oil or propane.
Tradition has it that heat pumps are most effective for heating and cooling houses located in moderate-to-warm climates. The newer generation of heat pumps (“cold pumps”) is proving to be efficient and effective in even the colder climates.
The Canadian GeoCity initiative and the New England states of Vermont and Massachusetts are promoting installation of new generation heat pump systems. The heating efficiency of the newer systems is proving to be far less expensive than conventional fuel-based heat systems typically used in the northeast and Canada.
Improving efficiency and performance
Let’s look at some of the changes incorporated into the new generation heat “cold climate” pumps.
The efficiency of your heat pump is based on “outdoor” temperature and comparing the amount of energy delivered by the heat pump vs. the amount of energy consumed. Consider the efficiency of energy usage measured in kilowatts (kW).
An air-source heat pump is estimated to provide a Coefficient of Performance (COP) of 3:1. This means that for every 3kW of heat moved through your house, only 1kW of electricity is consumed.
A ground-source heat pump is even more efficient, with an efficiency of 4:1: for every 4kW of heat, only 1kW of electricity is used. In Canada, the cost of heating a home in Winnipeg, Manitoba could look like this:
(NOTE: these are costs to operate an electric furnace, oil furnace, air-source w/electric resistance backup heat pump, and a ground water [geothermal] heat pump per annum.)
Although heat pump efficiency is generally very good for many homes in many climates, its greatest efficiency will be with houses that are well insulated. A good insulation system helps the heat pump reach its highest COP level. Costs will also vary depending on the size of the area to be heated and cooled.
Is a heat pump the right choice for your home?
When evaluating whether to switch to a heat pump or augment your current heating system with a heat pump, one important factor to consider is the current cost of fuel for your oil- or propane-based system vs. the cost of electricity to run a heat pump.
In some areas, the cost of fuel still remains lower than the cost of electricity but that may not always be the case. Fuel costs fluctuate seasonally. Fuel costs are also dependent on the availability of a diminishing resource, the cost of delivery and changing government regulations regarding energy and pollution.
Chapter 4 – Types of Heat Pumps
By now, you are becoming familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of heating and cooling your home with a heat pump system. Let’s look more closely at the types of heat pumps currently being used in North America.
Ground-source heat pumps
Ground-source heat pumps (GSHP), also known as geothermal heat pumps, have been used in the USA for more than 50 years. Unlike air-source heat pumps that draw heat from the outside air, GSHPs exchange heat with the ground.
There are two basic types of ground-source heat pumps:
Air-source heat pumps
As described in greater detail in Chapter 2, the air-source heat pump draws air into the exterior heat pump system (located outside your house) and a fan forces the air over the heat exchanger, tubing through which refrigerant flows, to extract heat from the air. Through a process of compression and vaporization, heat is transferred to the interior portion of the heating system where it is distributed by ductwork throughout the house.
The newer technology Cold Climate air-source pump is designed for extreme climates. It is capable of detecting the minimum amount of energy needed to achieve desired heating or cooling – a very energy efficient heat pump alternative.
Absorption heat pumps
Absorption pumps are air-source pumps that rely on natural gas, geothermal-heated water, solar power, or propane instead of electricity for power. They are more often used in large-scale buildings but are also available for larger homes.
Another difference from air-source and GSHP pumps is that the absorption pump absorbs the evaporated ammonia from the refrigerant into water (instead of pumping it in a compressor). A low-pressure pump moves the solution up to a higher pressure, the heat source boils the ammonia out of the water, and the cycle is repeated.
Mini split/ductless heat pump
The mini-split (aka ductless) heat pump is a smaller device capable of heating the home or office. The mini-split differs from the air- and geothermal-source heat pumps because the system contains many indoor units, or splits. The outdoor unit routes refrigerant piping to each section. It does not process heated or cooled air through the standard duct system of a house.
An indoor unit is placed in the space that it will be heating or cooling; each indoor unit has a small fan that controls the airflow of that room.
How to choose?
Air and geothermal-source heat pumps are the most commonly used heat pump systems at this time. The newer absorption and cold pump systems are gaining support from homeowners and government initiatives.
The GSHP is a more costly initial investment but operates more efficiently in cold climates. Because the processor and pump are housed indoors, they are protected against harsher outdoor conditions. Geothermal systems are low maintenance, and the loops can last for generations when properly installed.
Air-source pumps are less complex and easier to install than the GSHP systems. They are easy to access and service but require closer attention to regular maintenance checks because the primary system is located outside the house. Although the newest generation of air-source pumps is more efficient than ever, it may require more supplemental energy to run when winter temperatures reach their lowest point.
When you are ready to shop for a heat pump system for your house, talk with HVAC professionals who are knowledgeable and experienced in designing and installing heat pumps. They will be able to help you determine what type of heat pump system will best suit your heating/cooling needs and budget.
Energy Star Ratings
Both the Canadian and United States governments utilize the Energy Star rating system to identify products that help fight climate change and save energy. These products typically help the consumer save money and protect the environment.
Energy Star-qualified air-source heat pumps have a higher seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) and a higher energy efficiency rating (EER) than traditional fuel-based heating/cooling systems. They are approximately 9 percent more efficient than standard new models that are not Energy Star qualified, and are potentially 20 percent more efficient than most standard systems installed in homes.
Energy Star-qualified ground-source heat pumps have been identified as being more than 45 percent more energy efficient than standard heating/cooling systems. GSHPs are considered the most efficient systems for providing comfortable heating and cooling to your home.
Chapter 5 Costs
It is time to turn our attention to the cost of complete system heat pumps, and the estimated complete system installation costs.
For the purpose of simplicity and clarity, certain factors for the following examples are predetermined and are based on installation of a complete air-source heat pump system:
Now, let’s look at a few examples of complete system (CS) and complete system installed (CSI) costs for some of the major air-source heat pump brands.
This is only a partial list of brand-name heat pump systems and does not differentiate between those that are high efficiency rated and those that are standard efficiency rated. Standard efficiency systems do cost less in initial outlay but may be less cost-effective to operate over the long term.
The cost of a complete 3-ton air-source heat pump system, based on SEER/HSPF ratings:
Heating and cooling your home
The costs above are based on a specific set of criteria and may not reflect the costs of installing a complete air-source heat pump system in your home. The pricing process begins with an inspection by a licensed HVAC representative.
The HVAC representative should complete a thorough evaluation of your present heating/cooling system (including a heating/cooling load calculation). Then, he or she should take measurements, and look at the heat gain/heat loss areas of your home (your windows, attic, doors, etc.). The representative uses these careful measurements and assessments to evaluate and recommend the properly sized system to best serve you and your home.
When pricing a heat pump system, keep in mind that you most likely will need to invest in a complete system. The outdoor and indoor connecting points must match and this doesn’t consistently happen, especially when the system is more than 7 years old. One HVAC specialist notes that total replacement is not always required; sometimes a part can fail prematurely and be replaced, but that is not the common case.
The cost also will vary from heat pump system to system. For instance, the more costly ground-source heat pump (GSHP) has a higher upfront cost for installation and many homeowners choose to finance a GSHP system. However, the return on investment is favourable: the GSHP system costs an estimated three-to-four times less to operate (when properly installed).
In the next chapter, we will look at other cost savings factors.
Chapter 6 – Cost Savings
In previous chapters, you learned about heat pumps, how they work, their performance and efficiency, types of heat pumps, and costs.
This chapter focuses on factors that influence cost savings, and provides some cost savings calculator links to help you estimate the potential cost of installing a heat pump system based on your house and energy bills.
Cost Savings Vactors
There are a number of factors related to both the interior and exterior environments of your house that affect the cost savings of a heat pump system. Let’s look at some of the most important factors.
Regional climate – the type of regional climate where your home is situated plays a significant part in how efficiently a heat pump (or other HVAC system) heats or cools your home.
Exterior shade – the shade provided by overhangs and landscaping also influences the energy efficiency of your home.
Building layout and orientation – the position of your house and its layout in relation to the sun, wind, and surrounding land and buildings affects your heating and cooling efficiency (and cost).
Building size – this seems fairly obvious, but the size of the heat pump system must be properly matched to the size of the building. Without that proper balance, optimal efficiency and effectiveness will be diminished or lost altogether.
Number of windows – the number of windows and the directions they face are also part of the efficiency factor that will be measured by the HVAC specialist.
Insulation – how well the house, windows, and ducts are insulated (and sealed, where appropriate) affects how efficiently your home is cooled and heated – no matter what type of HVAC system is currently installed.
Type of heat pump system – the initial and operating costs of heat pumps will vary, depending on the type of system installed.
Air-source pumps are still the most frequently used heat pump systems. They cost less to install than ground-source (GSHP), also known as geothermal, systems but may be more expensive to operate in the coldest weather.
GSHP systems are considered to be the most efficient to operate but are costly in the initial investment end.
Backup energy system – the need for a backup system will depend on the type and size of heat pump you are considering. A reliable HVAC contractor who is knowledgeable on all heat pump options can advise you on this question, based on the current condition of your house, and the size of heat pump system recommended.
NOTE: a properly-sized GSHP system with an auxiliary heating unit may be able to cover your home’s heating and cooling without the need for a backup furnace.
There are many things to consider as you explore the pros and cons of installing a heat pump system in your home. The links below are some resources that can help you calculate the potential cost savings of installing and operating a heat pump system:
Chapter 7 – Heat Pumps vs. Other Heating Sources
Over the previous chapters, you have read about various types of heat pumps and the challenges and benefits they may offer for heating and cooling your home. Before you make a decision on a heating system, it may be helpful to review the basics of more traditional HVAC systems.
When shopping for your new heating system, remember these basics:
Traditional Heating Systems
Humans have sought to heat their shelters for more than one million years. The most common heating sources have been fire and the burning of available fuels – wood, peat, animal dung, coal, gas, or oil.
Many of today’s homes are still heated by fuel-burning methods. Some of these methods include:
Additional heating systems
Advantages and Disadvantages
Each type of heating and cooling system has advantages and disadvantages. Some disadvantages of such fuel-based systems as gas or oil are the use of non-replaceable resources, pollution, and expense. Systems like the pellet- and wood-burning stoves also can emit higher levels of pollutants and also require storage areas for the wood or pellets.
Heat pumps can accommodate many types of heating and cooling needs but not all types of heat pumps will serve all heating/cooling purposes well. Replacing a traditional heating system with a heat pump system can initially be very costly although return on investment can be realized within five to ten years, depending on the type of heat pump system, layout of the home (including directional position), insulation level, and climate conditions.
The best heating system isn’t entirely determined by the price. A wise homeowner will evaluate:
Chapter 8 – Manufacturers
The process of reviewing your current HVAC system, options for repairing or replacing it, and considering which type of system to replace it with is worthy of a notebook. There really are no shortcuts to this process and if you aren’t keeping detailed notes, you may overlook very important information that could affect your decision-making.
Start with a whole-home energy audit
If you have decided to replace a traditional HVAC system with a heat pump (or an existing heat pump with a new heat pump), it is probably time to schedule a home energy performance audit. This type of whole-home evaluation will cover such things as:
NOTE: this audit may be completed by an independent contractor or an HVAC representative from a heat pump provider company.
Your home may already be fitted with a heat pump system. If so, you probably have a pretty good idea of the size of heat pump system you will need as a replacement.
If you are converting to a heat pump system from a traditional furnace and air conditioner system, you should contact several heat pump/installation companies for quotes on replacement systems.
Do any needed remediation work?
Depending on the results of the audit, you may choose (or need) to do some repairs and upgrades to ensure that your home is well-insulated prior to installation of your new heat pump. From the attic to the basement, crawlspace, or foundation, the envelope of your home should be properly insulated and sealed against needless energy loss. This is true of all the duct work in your home, too.
Evaluating Heat Pump Brands and Types
There is no intent to recommend any particular brand or model of heat pump system in any of these chapters. You are always encouraged to research HVAC systems (heat pumps are a form of HVAC) as well as some of the leading manufacturers and models.
Be aware that reading online reviews of specific manufacturers and products can be confusing. The reviews of the “Top Heat Pumps” from one website may differ considerably from those of another website.
The only way it may be possible to reasonably determine which product to choose is to speak with several individuals who actually install heat pumps. They are the people who know which brands, or models within a brand, are consistently top performers – and those that are frequently problematic.
Another important factor in your decision-making process is the actual model of a given manufacturer. Just as there are better performing cars within any major auto manufacturer’s line, so are there better performing models within even the best known heat pump manufacturers (and costlier does not equal better).
Among the leading brands of heat pump manufacturers are:
These brands are not listed as endorsed products. Many of these manufacturers have been in business for as much as a century, or longer, and their products have withstood the test of time. Other heat pump manufacturers that aren’t mentioned here may also provide the heat pump system that is best suited to your home needs.
Keep making notes on everything you learn – from the energy audit, to the experiences of service repair persons, recommendations from friends, and the HVAC vendor. Compare recommended brands, like for like, and look for those systems that offer the best levels of energy savings (such as energy star and other similar ratings).
As you come close to making a decision, you should be able to reasonably determine:
And before you make that final decision, take time to evaluate the contractor and vendor. Ask for and follow up on all references. The person doing the installation should be licensed and experienced at installing the type of heat pump system you will be buying. Also look at any online reviews.
Changing HVAC systems is a costly process, no matter which type of system you choose. Your choice will affect your monthly budget, and the overall well-being and comfort of all who live in your home for many years to come.
Chapter 9 – Review Sites
Together, we have explored the world of heat pumps. Perhaps you now have more knowledge about air- and ground-source systems, new-generation cold pumps, absorption heat pumps and mini split/ductless heat pumps.
The move toward cleaner, more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems continues to gain importance in communities throughout North America. Fortunately, there are wonderful HVAC options. Heat pump systems are rapidly evolving to meet the newest recommendations (and requirements) of both communities and consumers.
The websites listed below are among the resources used for heat pump reviews.
Heat Pump GuideFurnace CompareHVAC For BeginnersHeat Pump Price Guide