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How It Works: Heat Pumps and Energy Efficiency
September 29, 2016
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We all want our homes to be comfortable year-round. In the summer, we want to stay cool. During winter, we seek heat. For some homeowners, a heat pump can give them the best of both worlds!

These types of units are often super energy-efficient because they use heat that’s already present. By working with both indoor and outdoor air they can balance—or rather, counterbalance—whatever temperature you want inside. A heat pump can be a great asset. But when it’s not working properly, no one’s happy.

How Heat Pumps Work

If you want to understand heat pumps, it’s good to know that they aren’t too different than an air conditioner or refrigerator. Think about it this way: The coils on the back of the fridge always feel a little hot because the refrigerator works to pull warm air out. That’s why everything in the box stays cool. The same goes for air conditioning units. They’re made to extract heat from the air, and then sort of “exhale” it outside.

They have similar parts and similar purposes to air source heat pumps, but the heat pump has one unique advantage. Both refrigerators and A/C units work to keep places cool. What’s neat about heat pumps is that they work to both cool and heat a home. Here’s the shortlist of what they’re made of:

  • Compressor
  • Liquid Refrigerant
  • Fans/Fins
  • 2 Sets of Coils—one for indoors, the other for outside
  • Reversing Valve (this is what makes the heat pump different)

Their overall goal of a heat pump is to move heat from one area to another. The compressor works to circulate refrigerant between the two coil sets. And that refrigerant either absorbs or releases heat—depending on the coil set—to get your indoor temperature just right. The fans help move the air around so when you’re ready to switch seasons, your cooling unit can become a heating unit.

Switching the thermostat from heat to cool, or vice versa, will cause the reversing value to switch the direction flow of refrigerant. At that point, the hot air will move in the opposite direction. Rather than “exhaling” the air outside, as it does in the summer, it “exhales” the air inside, producing efficient and economical heat.

Since they do double-duty, heat pump systems can run in any season. They push hot air outdoors in warmer months, and then pull warm air indoors when it’s cold. It’s all with a flip of the switch. Pretty cool, right?

Pros and Cons

Heat pumps have a big appeal for cutting energy costs because they don’t have to exert as much energy creating the heat. They simply use the heat that’s already present and move it to where you need it. Some people don’t realize that there’s still some amount of heat in the air even in cold weather. The little heat pump can still do its thing in winter because it draws in all the heat it can find outdoors and sends it inside.

So as long as outdoor temperatures aren’t super-low, the heat pump can easily be the only heating source for a home. For moderate climate areas, these units can save big bucks on energy costs. It’s when the thermometer drops that it might need backup. As a general rule, this tends to happen when it falls to 30 degrees or below outside.

Because a heat pump isn’t the most effective heating source in below-freezing temps, it might need to be partnered with another supplemental heat source, like a furnace or an air handler, during extreme winter weather. If you’re unsure about your area’s limits, it’s a good idea to consult with a local professional. The right heating and cooling setup can keep your home comfortable and energy-efficient year-round.

Heat Pump Maintenance

Like other HVAC units, a heat pump will last longer with annual maintenance. In addition to annual maintenance, A lot of heat pump users also extend the lifespan of their unit (10-12 years is average) by changing the filter on a regular basis, or about once a month for consistent use. Other than that, just keep the fans and coils clear of debris and you should be set!

If other problems arise, you might need to call on a professional. They can help you diagnose any heat pump repairs by doing all of the following:

  • Check indoor coils, ducts, or filters for obstructions
  • Seal leaking ducts and ensure adequate airflow
  • Confirm proper refrigerant charge (and no leaks)
  • Inspect electric terminals, and clean or tighten connections
  • Lubricate interior motors, and check belts for tightness and wear
  • Test reverse valve and thermostat operations

A heat pump can help keep energy costs low throughout the year—but only as low as it’s properly maintained. A neglected heat pump can end up wasting as much as 25%. So as long as you have a heat pump, you’ll want to keep it in good working order to get those energy savings.

Whether you want to be warmed up or cooled off, a heat pump is a great solution for home comfort. If it’s not doing its job, call in a good heat pump company. A few repairs might be able to put it back on the right track.