Whole house heat pump systems: How they work (and why they're awesome) (2022)

Everything you need to know about the most efficient HVAC technology on the market.

Heat pumps can make your house feel great in all seasons, but it can be tricky to sort through your options. Here’s everything you need to know about this smart and efficient climate control technology.

  • How do heat pumpswork?
  • What are the different kinds of heat pumps?
  • Geothermal vs. air-source heat pumps
  • Why is a heat pump so efficient?
  • Advantages and disadvantages of heat pumps
  • How much maintenance does a heat pump need?
  • Do I need ducts for a heat pump system?
  • How many mini-splits does my house need?
  • How much does a heat pump cost?

What’s a heat pump, anyway?

A heat pump is the smarter, cleaner way to heat, cool, dehumidify and purify the air in your home, and it’s an all-in-one replacement for your existing HVAC systems.

It’s called a heat pump because it controls your home’s climate by redistributing the heat that’s already in the air. In the winter, it extracts heat from the outside environment and moves it inside your home. In the summer, the process is reversed: The heat pump takes heat from inside your home and moves it outside. The end result? Your home feels great all year. It’s a pretty simple concept that adds up to comfortable and energy-efficient climate control.

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You may not have heard much about heat pumps, but that doesn’t mean they’re new. In fact, a traditional air conditioning unit is technically a heat pump—both systems work by removing heat energy from your home and transferring it to another location. The major operational difference is that the heat pump can also transfer heat into your home, so it can replace your heating system as well as your air conditioner—and do both jobs much more efficiently than traditional HVAC systems. (A heat pump also dehumidifies your home, so it’s a win-win-win.)

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Heat pumps are common in many countries (even countries with very hot or cold climates),and they’re found in architecturally famous buildings all over the world, such as Buckingham Palace and Shanghai Tower. And heat pump demand in the US has doubled in the past decade—in 2019 alone, 3.11 million heat pumps were shipped to the US to be sold. As the movement toward clean energy gathers speed, heat pumps are becoming the new standard in American homes.

Can a heat pump cool a whole house?

Yes. In fact, it’s one of the leading HVAC technologies available for both heating and cooling your home. Depending on the type of heat pump system installed, you can even accomplish precise temperature control room by room.

How do heat pumps work?

Heat pumps (sometimes called ductless air conditioners or mini-splits—more on that later) control household climates by extracting and moving the heat in the air, but different kinds of heat pumps do that in slightly different ways. Let’s look at the two broad categories of heat pump technology.

Here are the different kinds of heat pump systems

Air-source heat pumps

An air-source heat pump system (also commonly called an air-to-air heat pump) operates just as you might assume: It moves heat from the air inside your home to the air outside of your home (and vice versa). Broadly speaking, an air source heat pump is made up of two main components which work in tandem: an outdoor condensing unit—which often looks like a traditional air-conditioning system—and an indoor air-handling unit or units.

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Air-to-air heat pumps are the most common in the US, and when you hear people talking about installing a heat pump, this is usually the kind they mean. That’s mostly because air-source heat pumps are the easiest kind of heat pump to install and maintain, and they provide excellent comfort and lifetime value. Air-source heat pumps are also popular because they come in both ducted and ductless versions. Both systems use an outdoor condensing unit—the major difference between ducted and ductless heat pumps is the way they handle the air inside your home.

The ductless heat pump uses small wall-mounted units (called mini-splits or mini split AC) to distribute and handle air. These are placed strategically throughout your home to ensure every corner feels great.

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(Video) Heat Pumps Explained - How Heat Pumps Work HVAC

Meanwhile, ducted heat pump systems rely on a single air-handling unit called a standard split, which redirects conditioned air throughout your home via ductwork. (Since there’s only one standard-split, it’s significantly larger than a mini-split—you’ll often find it tucked away in a basement.)

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The scientific principle for both systems is the same. And whether you choose a ducted or ductless air-source heat pump, rest assured: your house will feel great. Air sealing and insulating your home at the same time as installing an air-source heat pump can make a night-and-day difference in your everyday comfort level. It’s one of the smartest HVAC strategies on the market.

Geothermal heat pumps

Geothermal heat pumps work a little differently: Instead of using an outside unit to exchange heat energy, they’re engineered to move heat to and from the earth (or a water source). These systems take advantage of the fact that the temperature of the ground and water around your home stays relatively constant, and so, once installed, they’re a bit more efficient than a standard air-source unit.

Despite some gains in efficiency, geothermal heat pumps aren’t as common in private households because they’re more complicated and expensive to install. Geothermal systems are installed under the ground or in water, so the installation process itself can be intrusive and lengthy. And servicing geothermal systems can also present challenges, since you’ll need to excavate the underground component to do certain repairs.

Geothermal vs. air source: Which is better?

#For the vast majority of private homes, an air-source heat pump system provides the best mix of comfort, efficiency and value. In fact, air-to-air heat pump technology has advanced so much in recent years that the difference in efficiency between a geothermal and air-source heat pump is minimal (and there are easier, less-expensive ways to make your home more comfortable than digging up your lawn).

That said, a geothermal system can be a great choice for homes over 5,000 square feet or for very large industrial buildings. Tap here to learn more about the different types of heat pumps (and some less common subtypes).

Why is a heat pump more efficient?

Heat pumps redistribute heat that’s already present in the environment. Transferring heat energy doesn’t require as much electricity as producing it

Heat pumps are extremely energy-efficient. According to the Department of Energy, installing an air-source heat pump can cut your electric bill in half (compared to baseboard heaters and furnaces)—a massive drop. So how and why do heat pumps use energy so efficiently?

The biggest reason: Heat pumps don’t produce heat at all. Instead, they redistribute heat that’s already present in the environment. Transferring heat energy doesn’t require as much electricity as producing it, so heat pumps can keep every room in the house comfortable—for a much lower energy cost.

Of course, a lower utility bill isn’t the only reason to get an energy-efficient heat pump system—conventional heating and cooling systems aren’t very kind to our planet. In New York, for example, traditional HVAC causes 32% of the greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for a whopping 37% of the state’s energy consumption. Opting for a heat pump system instead is better for you, the earth, and future generations.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a heat pump?

Now, let’s talk pros and cons of heat pumps for houses. Here’s why you might consider replacing your standard heating and cooling system with a heat pump system (and a few reasons why it might not be right for you).

Let’s get the cons out of the way first.

(Video) How Do Heat Pumps Work? | Heat Pumps Explained

Disadvantages of heat pumps

Cost

First, let’s address the expense. The cost of installing a quality heat pump system is roughly equal to the cost of buying both a traditional air conditioning and heating system at the same time. In some cases, it’s even more expensive, and that can deter homeowners from considering a heat pump at all.

But cost doesn’t necessarily need to be an obstacle. And when you look at the lifetime value of a heat pump, the financial picture changes. Heat pumps are the Tesla of HVAC options—you get a lot for your money. They provide fantastic energy and cost efficiency and, if they’re well-maintained, they can last for 15 years or more. Even better, Sealed can help you get a heat pump system installed at no upfront cost.

“Feel” (of the heat)

A heat pump isn’t designed to replicate the feel of heat that comes from a furnace or boiler. Instead, its continuous airflow system ensures every place in your home consistently feels warm—not hot, but warm.

Most people love how their home feels after they install a heat pump, but if you’re someone who wants their home to feel “toasty,” you might want to supplement your heat pump with an additional heating solution for the coldest days of the year (which can often be built right into or directly connected to the heat pump system).

Appearance

First of all, know that heat pump systems include a visible outdoor unit—just like with a traditional AC system. So you’ll need to make space for that unit and plan your landscaping accordingly (it’s generally pretty simple to hide it with shrubs).

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There’s nothing wrong with how a heat pump looks, but they’re also not walking down the runway at fashion week. If you select a ductless mini-split system, for example, you’ll need wall-units installed at strategic points throughout your home.

These units are designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they’re not invisible. If you’re someone who places a premium on interior design, you’ll need to think abouthow to incorporate a mini-split heat pump into your aesthetic. (Learn how to camouflage a mini split unit here.)

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Benefits of heat pumps (a much longer list)

Better comfort

Put simply, heat pumps are a life upgrade. They make your home feel amazing. Both heating and cooling throughout your home is more even and the continuous airflow ensures that every corner of your house is comfortable. Also, if you choose a ductless mini-split system, you’ll get precise room-by-room temperature control. (Trust us: once you try it, you’ll never go back to one thermostat again. Traditional HVAC is like having one light switch for every lightbulb in your house.)

Easy to live with

Heat pumps don’t produce odd smells, they’re whisper-quiet (especially the mid- to high-range models), and they don’t require much maintenance. Once your heat pump system is installed, it’s easy to have in your home.

Healthier air

Many heat pump systems have built-in filtration to keep micro-particles and other unwanted elements out of the air you’re breathing. And, since heat pumps are fully electric and don’t burn natural gas or oil inside your home, you and your family won’t be subject to fumes or dangerous carbon monoxide off-gassing.

All-in-one system

Since a heat pump replaces both your heating and cooling systems, it simplifies your home upkeep. You can install and maintain one system instead of two (and get a better climate control result, to boot).

(Video) How a Heat Pump Works | This Old House

Thinking that you’re close to needing an HVAC replacement? Learn when to replace your air conditioner or when to replace your heating system here.

Flexible

If you have electricity, you can get a heat pump—and there’s a heat pump system to fit every kind of residence. Replacing a ducted HVAC system? A heat pump will fit right in and use your existing ductwork. Don’t have ductwork? Or maybe you just need better climate control on one side of your home? You need a ductless mini-split heat pump. It’s an adaptable technology with plenty of options.

Cleaner, greener energy

Heat pumps are the greenest HVAC systems currently on the market. They’re fully powered by electricity, so they generate less carbon dioxide than traditional methods powered by oil, pellets or natural gas. And heat pumps are incredibly efficient with the electricity they do use, so you’ll significantly reduce your home’s environmental footprint (and energy bill) by installing one.

Affordable

Like any quality home upgrade, a heat pump can represent a significant expense to purchase and install. But if you live in an eligible area, you can get a heat pump system installed for no upfront cost—then pay for it with the money you save on energy. When you work with Sealed, your monthly expenses will hardly change, but your monthly comfort will be vastly improved. It’s a great option if you’re looking for better comfort with a lower environmental footprint.

How much maintenance does a heat pump need?

A heat pump doesn’t need much maintenance—that’s one of the great benefits of heat pump technology. But there are still a few things you can do to keep your heat pump system running well.

Change the filters

You’ll need to change the filter(s) on a regular basis—once a month, if you use your system continuously, and less often if you use it sporadically.

Clear away debris

Branches, leaves and other debris that gather around your outdoor unit can significantly impact your heat pump’s ability to do its job. Heat pumps need about 2’ to 3’ of clearance all around, so keep an eye on the area and be sure to remove anything that lands around (or on top of!) your unit.

Clean outdoor coils

If your condenser coils are dirty, your heat pump won’t be able to operate efficiently. So, once or twice a year, make a point to shut off the power and clean off the coils with a special solution.

Keep snow away

If you live in a climate zone with significant snowfall, know that you’ll need to keep your outdoor unit clear of snow and ice. (A properly-installed heat pump is raised from the ground to allow for melt and drainage, but it’s still a good idea to keep the area clear.)

Get your heat pump inspected

Heat pumps are durable, but you should have yours inspected once a year by a qualified HVAC technician. They’ll be able to identify potential problems before they become severe (and they can also give you tips on how to identify issues yourself).

Do I need ducts for a heat pump system?

No. One of the benefits of heat pump technology is that it’s flexible—you can install a heat pump system with or without existing ductwork. If you already have ductwork, it’s easy to integrate a heat pump into your existing infrastructure. And if you don’t have ductwork in your home, you’ll install a mini-split heat pump system (also sometimes called a mini-split air conditioner).

Mini-splits are small wall-mounted units that send conditioned air directly into your home.

Whole house heat pump systems: How they work (and why they're awesome) (8)
(Video) Heat Pumps: the Future of Home Heating

How many mini-splits do I need for my house?

The short answer? You’ll need 24,000 BTU per 1,000 square feet of space.

But let’s unpack that a little more. To talk about this, first we need to talk about the acronym BTU. It stands for British Thermal Unit and is the standard measurement in the HVAC industry. Essentially, we use BTU measurements to talk about how much heat energy a system can remove from a space. The bigger your indoor space, the more BTUs you’ll need your heat pump system to handle.

When HVAC technicians install a ducted heat pump system, they decide how many BTUs your overall system will need and select a size accordingly. But for a ductless heat pump system, that calculation is handled on a section-by-section basis. To do this, technicians ask questions: How many BTUs are necessary in your upstairs bedrooms? How big is your downstairs? Are there any major obstructions or barriers that interfere with airflow?

So figuring out how many mini-splits you’ll need can be a pretty complex calculation, but here’s a general rule of thumb: For every 1,000 square feet of space in your home, you’ll need system capacity (combined mini-splits or central) that’s capable of handling 24,000 BTUs.

All that said, planning a mini-split strategy is a job best left to professionals—there are nuances for certain spaces of your home, such as high-traffic areas, kitchens or rooms with many windows. (And if you go through Sealed, our technicians will figure all of this out for you when they design your new system.)

How much does a heat pump cost?

The cost of a heat pump system can vary based on the size of your house, layout of your space, where you live and whether or not you’ll use your existing ductwork or install a ductless mini-split system. You’ll also need to consider the cost of professional installation. Purchasing a climate control system for your home is a significant expense in any situation, and a heat pump system is no different.

That said, the economics of installing a heat pump for your house makes sense. First of all, if you live in an eligible area you can get your heat pump system installed for no upfront cost. (You’ll pay with the money you save on energy—and if you don’t save on energy, you won’t have to pay.)

But even if you pay for your heat pump out-of-pocket, they’re generally a great investment. They significantly reduce your energy costs (especially if you also properly seal and insulate your home) and they’re relatively simple to maintain. Given that your heat pump is a complete HVAC solution that will replace both your heating and cooling system, it’s an excellent lifetime value for the money.

Want to find out if heat pumps are right for your home? Give us a call at 844-265-2164 -our home comfort specialists are available to talk it through.

Sold on heat pumps? So are we. See if your home qualifies to get a high-performance heat pump system installed at no upfront cost with Sealed.

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FAQs

What is the downside to a heat pump? ›

7 Disadvantages of Heat Pumps are:

High upfront cost. Difficult to install. Questionable Sustainability. Requires significant work.

Is a heat pump a good way to heat your home? ›

Heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners for all climates. Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer.

What makes the heat pump so effective? ›

The biggest reason is that heat pumps, as the name suggests, don't really “heat” or “cool” the air. Instead, they “pump” warm or cool air from one area of your home to another. This method of heat “transfer” is much more efficient than simply heating or cooling your home.

How does a heat pump heat a whole house? ›

Air-source heat pumps are the most common type. They use electricity to move heat from the outside air into your home. Water-source and geothermal heat pumps use thermal energy stored in water or the ground to transfer heat into your home.

What is the average cost to install a heat pump? ›

The cost of installing a heat pump ranges from $4,000 to $7,500 with the national average around $5,500. At the low end, your installation costs could run around $2,500, while on the higher end your costs could range up to $10,000.

Should I turn my heat pump off in extreme cold? ›

My Heat Pump Is No Longer Working At All in Cold Weather

It's a common misconception that they need to turn off. Heat pumps don't need to turn off to maintain energy efficiency because they operate at ⅓ the energy of an electric furnace.

At what temperature do heat pumps become ineffective? ›

Heat pumps do not operate as efficiently when temperatures drop to between 25 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit for most systems. A heat pump works best when the temperature is above 40. Once outdoor temperatures drop to 40 degrees, heat pumps start losing efficiency, and they consume more energy to do their jobs.

What size heat pump do I need for 2000 sq ft home? ›

If you have a 2,000-square-foot home, this rule of thumb suggests you need a 60,000 BTU heat pump.

Do heat pumps use a lot of electricity? ›

Heat pumps require some electricity to run, but it's a relatively small amount. Modern heat pump systems can transfer three or four times more thermal energy in the form of heat than they consume in electrical energy to do this work – and that the homeowner pays for.

What is cheaper to run heat pump or gas furnace? ›

Furnaces cost more to operate than heat pumps.

Generating heat requires a lot of fuel, but because a heat pump doesn't generate heat, it only needs enough electricity to circulate the refrigerant through its pressurized lines. A heat pump uses much less energy than an electric or gas furnace.

How well do heat pumps work in cold weather? ›

ASHPs provide reliable heating when the refrigerant is significantly colder than outdoor temperatures. In moderate weather, cold climate heat pumps can operate at up to 400% efficiency — in other words, they produce four times as much energy as they consume.

What temperature should I set my heat pump in the winter? ›

Ideal Winter Heat Pump Temperature Settings

According to the Department of Energy, 68°F is the sweet spot that balances comfort and energy efficiency during the fall and winter months. When your home is occupied and when family members are awake, a heat pump setting of 68°F keeps the living areas reasonably warm.

How many rooms can a heat pump heat? ›

Many models can have as many as four indoor air-handling units (for four zones or rooms) connected to one outdoor unit. The number depends on how much heating or cooling is required for the building or each zone.

Do you still need a furnace with a heat pump? ›

As long as there is still a little heat energy in the air, a heat pump will function. But the lower the temperature, the less reliable this process is. The less heat energy is usable outside, the more effort is required for a heat pump to bring heat indoors to reach your ideal temperature.

Which side of the house is best for a heat pump? ›

The heat pump's installation is usually outside of your home. It is best to place it in a well-ventilated and dry area outdoors. And you should position this HVAC unit near the ground on one of your property's outer walls.

What is the most reliable heat pump brand? ›

Best Heat Pumps of 2021
  1. Goodman. Goodman is a well-known brand in the HVAC industry and provides great energy-efficient heating and cooling solutions for homes large and small. ...
  2. Carrier. ...
  3. Ruud. ...
  4. Trane. ...
  5. Rheem. ...
  6. Lennox. ...
  7. Bryant. ...
  8. American Standard.
Jul 25, 2021

What size heat pump do I need for a 2500 square foot house? ›

In short, for a 2,500 sq ft home, you would require a 6.25-ton heat pump.

How many years does a heat pump last? ›

Heat pumps normally last an average of 15 years, though some can wear out after a decade. Some of the newer units being manufactured today can last a bit longer. The factor most important in determining the lifespan of your heat pump is maintenance.

Do heat pumps work below 20 degrees? ›

Do heat pumps work below 20 degrees? Yes, air source heat pumps work below 20 degrees Fahrenheit—in fact, they can perform well below -10! If you're worried—or if you live in Antarctica—you can get a heat pump with a supplemental heating system in case of emergencies (the vast majority of people never need it).

At what temperature does a heat pump switch to emergency heat? ›

The Emergency Heat or Auxiliary Heat setting is the second stage of your heating system that is used when the temperature is too low for the heat pump to be able to remove heat from outside, typically below 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why does my heat pump keep running after it has reached the set temperature? ›

Your Air Filter Needs To Be Cleaned

For a heat pump to run efficiently, it needs a supply of fresh, clean air. If the filter becomes clogged, the heat pump will have to run continuously to keep your home comfortable. Replacing or cleaning the filter can fix this problem.

Are heat pumps worth the money? ›

In most cases, heat pumps are worth it. Heat pumps are usually more expensive to install, but you end up saving more money throughout the year with low maintenance costs, making heat pumps a great investment. Additionally, heat pumps are much safer with no risks for a gas leak, which can expose you to carbon monoxide.

What happens when heat pump is oversized? ›

If your heat pump is too large for your home, it will short (or rapid) cycle, which isn't healthy for the motor. If too small, it will constantly try to run to meet your temperature needs.

Are heat pumps noisy? ›

Are heat pumps noisy? Answer: All heating products make some noise, but heat pumps are usually quieter than fossil fuel boilers. A ground source heat pump may reach 42 decibels, and an air source heat pump may reach 40 to 60 decibels, but this depends on manufacturer and installation.

Can you replace a furnace with a heat pump? ›

Because furnaces and heat pumps can use the same kind of air ducts to move air through your home, it's a relatively straightforward process to replace your furnace with a heat pump. Heat pumps are a reliable method of home heating, and some models can work when it is still as cold as -27° C outside.

Why is my heat pump bill so high? ›

Improper maintenance of your heat pump could lead to a 25 per cent increase in your energy bills. Blocked and dirty filters reduce the amount of airflow that can pass through the system and may harm performance. It's also worth checking the fan regularly to ensure there isn't any debris, such as leaves, stuck in it.

How many hours a day should a heat pump run? ›

Typically, a heat pump should cycle two to three times an hour. The heat pump should stay on for 10 to 20 minutes during the cycle. However, during cold outside temperatures (below 30-40 degrees), a heat pump will constantly run to maintain the home temperature.

What size breaker does a heat pump need? ›

For a standard 3-ton residential air conditioner or heat pump, you'll need a 20 amp breaker with 12-gauge wire. Air conditioners smaller than 3 tons often use a 15 amp breaker with 14-gauge wire, while larger units can use up to 60 amp breakers and 3-gauge aluminum wire or 4-gauge copper wire.

What is better than a heat pump? ›

A gas-fired furnace generally has a longer lifespan than a heat pump. Furnaces with proper maintenance can last 20 years or more.

What is the cheapest way to heat your house? ›

As a general rule, heating your home with a natural gas furnace is the cheapest way to keep warm through the winter months. Electricity is usually significantly more expensive than gas, so even the most efficient heaters will be a bigger drain on your pocketbook than a traditional furnace.

Can you add a heat pump to an existing gas furnace? ›

Can A Heat Pump Be Installed With An Existing Furnace? You can install a heat pump to an existing gas furnace by using a dual fuel system. This framework uses a split or packaged unit to pull energy from two sources: electricity and gas.

Do heat pumps use a lot of electricity? ›

Heat pumps require some electricity to run, but it's a relatively small amount. Modern heat pump systems can transfer three or four times more thermal energy in the form of heat than they consume in electrical energy to do this work – and that the homeowner pays for.

Is a heat pump better than central air? ›

A heat pump will outperform an air conditioner in efficiency when it comes to cooling. Heat pumps use five times less energy than air conditioners. When a heat pump is in heat mode and has an electric heater kick on, it can increase the energy usage.

What is cheaper to run heat pump or gas furnace? ›

Furnaces cost more to operate than heat pumps.

Generating heat requires a lot of fuel, but because a heat pump doesn't generate heat, it only needs enough electricity to circulate the refrigerant through its pressurized lines. A heat pump uses much less energy than an electric or gas furnace.

Is a heat pump worth it? ›

In most cases, heat pumps are worth it. Heat pumps are usually more expensive to install, but you end up saving more money throughout the year with low maintenance costs, making heat pumps a great investment. Additionally, heat pumps are much safer with no risks for a gas leak, which can expose you to carbon monoxide.

Videos

1. Understanding Heat Pumps | Future House | Ask This Old House
(This Old House)
2. Heat Pumps in New Construction
(Walking Mountains Science Center)
3. This is Why Heat Pumps May NOT Be The Future
(Skill Builder)
4. Can Heat Pumps Work in Cold Climates? | Heat Pump Q&A
(BC Hydro)
5. Why Heat Pumps are Essential for the Future - Explained
(Undecided with Matt Ferrell)
6. Bosch Geo 101 - How Geothermal Heat Pump Systems Work
(BoschHeatingCooling)

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