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Heat Pump Basics: How Do Heat Pumps Work and What Are the Common Types?

If you are building, renovating, or replacing HVAC equipment, you have more choices for your space heating and cooling than ever before. You may already be familiar with the old standby options: boilers, gas furnaces, electric baseboard heating, and split-system air conditioning. However, if someone suggests using a heat pump, this technology might be new to you.

What exactly is a heat pump, and is it the right choice for your space? In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know in simple terms.

What Is a Heat Pump?
In simple terms, a heat pump is an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) device that can both heat and cool your space. It uses mechanical energy to remove heat from the air and transfers it either indoors or outdoors, depending on whether your space needs heating or cooling.

Heat pumps are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly because they don’t require burning fossil fuels to generate heat.

Heat pumps have been in use for quite some time in regions with milder climates. In the New York area, people might not be as familiar with heat pumps because until recently, heat pumps couldn’t provide sufficient heat in climates where temperatures often drop below 20 degrees.

However, that is changing as heat pump technology has advanced to the point where it can operate efficiently and effectively even in the Northeast.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?
A heat pump is essentially an air conditioner that can also operate in reverse to provide heat.

In warm weather, the heat pump removes heat from indoor air and releases it outdoors to provide cooling.
In cold weather, the heat pump absorbs heat from outdoor air and releases it indoors to provide heat.
This might seem counterintuitive – removing heat from the outside in cold weather? In reality, there is always some heat energy present in the air, even in cold conditions, although it’s less than during hot weather. This is why heat pumps are most efficient in mild climates. The colder it gets outside, the harder it is for a heat pump to absorb heat energy and transfer it indoors.

However, as mentioned earlier, heat pump technology has made significant strides, and it can now provide heat even in a place like New York City.

Types of Heat Pump Systems
The heat pump we’re describing here is known as an air-source heat pump because it extracts heat from the air. There are also water-source and geothermal heat pumps that use heat from water or the ground, respectively. While these can be highly efficient, they’re typically not practical options in urban settings like New York City where digging for installation is often not feasible.

Within air-source heat pumps, there are various types of systems to choose from.

Split-System Heat Pumps
A split-system heat pump has two parts: an indoor unit and an outdoor unit, similar to traditional residential central air conditioning systems.

The difference is that split-system heat pumps have coils for absorbing heat (evaporator coils) and releasing heat (condenser coils) in both the indoor and outdoor units.

This means that, unlike split-system air conditioners, split-system heat pumps can absorb heat either from inside or outside and release heat either inside or outside. It can remove heat to cool your space or add heat to warm it.

Learn More: Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioning

Package Heat Pumps (also known as rooftop units)
Package heat pumps work similarly, but all the coils are housed in one “packaged” unit, typically located on the roof of a building (hence the name).

Heated or cooled air is delivered to the building’s interior through a ductwork system that runs through the roof and/or walls.

Wondering why you might choose a split-system heat pump over a packaged unit? The answer depends on your space. If you have easy rooftop access, the installation and maintenance costs of a packaged unit might be lower. However, they are less efficient in buildings over ten stories.

Learn More: Rooftop Package Heat Pumps

Ductless or Ducted Mini-Split Heat Pumps
Most heat pumps deliver heated or cooled air through a ductwork system. However, sometimes using ducts is impractical, especially when renovating old buildings or adding heating and cooling to spaces like garages or new additions.

In such cases, ductless mini-split heat pumps, or ducted mini-splits, might be a good solution. These systems don’t use ducts but deliver heat via refrigerant lines to fan/coil units mounted on walls or ceilings. The drawback of these units is that each room requiring climate control needs a fan/coil unit. Additionally, they may not dehumidify as effectively as ducted systems.

Learn More: Ductless Mini-Split Systems

Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) Heat Pumps
VRF is a newer heat pump technology that offers some incredible advantages over traditional heating and cooling systems. VRF systems are more energy-efficient, quieter, and can precisely control comfort conditions in multiple zones with different heating and/or cooling needs. In fact, they can provide heating and cooling to different zones simultaneously!

Learn More: Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) Heat Pump Systems

Benefits of Heat Pumps
So, why choose a heat pump over separate heating and air conditioning systems?

Reduced Energy Expenses: According to data from energy.gov, the heat energy delivered by a heat pump to your space is three times the electrical energy it consumes. This means significantly lower energy costs for you. Ordinary households can save up to $1,000 annually.

Lower Maintenance and Operational Costs: If you use a heat pump as your sole source for heating and cooling, you only need to maintain one system and diagnose and repair one system if problems arise. This also reduces your overall operating costs.

Read More: Troubleshooting Heat Pump Problems

More Environmentally Friendly: Heat pumps do use electricity, but they don’t consume fossil fuels to generate heat. When you’re not reliant on oil or gas-burning furnaces, you’re contributing to reducing fossil fuel usage.

Limitations of Heat Pumps
As mentioned earlier, one significant drawback of heat pumps is that they lose efficiency in prolonged freezing conditions. This might mean that you need supplementary heating on the coldest days of the year. In existing spaces, you might already have an old boiler that you use only when needed. In new spaces, you can install radiant floor heating for supplemental warmth.

However, depending on your location and specific heating and cooling needs, using updated heat pump technology can still save on HVAC operating costs. Professional HVAC contractors can help you compare options and make the right choice.

Learn More: Split-System Heat Pumps in Cold Climates

Heat Pump Costs
Now, for the part you might have been waiting for – how do the costs of heat pumps compare to other HVAC systems?

Again, it depends on your situation.

Split-system heat pumps may be several thousand dollars more expensive than traditional split-system air conditioners. However, when you compare them to the combined costs of both air conditioning and heating systems, you might find that heat pumps are more economical (assuming you don’t need to purchase supplementary heating systems for cold climate areas).

Heat Pump Tax Credits
There’s some good news you might not be aware of! This year’s commercial HVAC tax credit can offset a significant portion of the costs.

Let me briefly explain how it works:

Under previous tax rules, businesses could depreciate the costs of capital equipment like HVAC systems over the equipment’s useful life, which is typically many years. This was good but didn’t provide significant cost reductions.

Now there’s a new tax rule that allows you to deduct the full cost of HVAC equipment as well as installation expenses on your tax return. This can have a substantial impact on your costs!

In conclusion, heat pumps are versatile HVAC systems that can both heat and cool your space efficiently. They come in various types, from split-systems to ductless mini-splits and advanced VRF systems. Heat pumps offer several advantages, such as reduced energy expenses, lower maintenance costs, and environmental friendliness. However, they may lose efficiency in extremely cold climates, necessitating supplementary heating.

When considering the cost of heat pumps, it depends on your specific situation and the type of system you choose. While initial costs may be higher, they can often be offset by energy savings and tax credits. It’s essential to consult with HVAC professionals to determine the best heating and cooling solution for your needs.

Understanding the benefits and limitations of heat pumps and their various types will help you make an informed decision about whether they are the right choice for your space. With advances in technology and potential cost savings, heat pumps are becoming an increasingly attractive option for both residential and commercial HVAC needs.

If you have any further questions or need assistance with your HVAC decision, feel free to ask. We’re here to help!

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