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How Do Heat Pumps Work?


Heat pumps use electricity to provide heating and cooling to buildings. These devices efficiently transfer heat from one place to another, depending on the location it’s needed for.


In the winter, heat pumps provide heating by extracting heat from the outside of the building and transferring it indoors. In the summer, they can provide cooling by moving indoor heat to the outside.


Understanding different types of heat pumps, their principles of operation, and how they contribute to addressing climate change is essential.


Principles of Heat Pump Operation

Heat pumps use technology similar to air conditioning to cool your home using a refrigerant. The main difference between air conditioning and heat pumps is that heat pumps have a reversing valve, which allows them to also provide heating for your home.


In heating mode, the operation of a heat pump is opposite to that of an air conditioner. It uses refrigerant to warm your home instead of cooling it.


heat pump installation

Here’s a step-by-step process of how a heat pump works:


Heat is sourced from either external air or heat stored in the ground. It is blown or pumped onto a heat exchange surface outside the heat pump.


This heat is enough to evaporate the refrigerant liquid inside the heat pump and turn it into a gas.


This gas is then compressed, which increases its pressure and causes its temperature to rise.


The heated gas flows through an internal heat exchange surface. This heat can be blown into the house or transferred to a central heating or hot water system.


As the heat is delivered to the house, the gas’s temperature drops, causing it to revert to a liquid state.


The reverse refrigeration cycle repeats until your home reaches the desired temperature set by the thermostat.


If heat pumps source heat from the outside, how do they provide heat on cold days?

Even in cold weather, some heat energy still exists. Heat pumps can effectively extract heat energy from the ground or air surrounding a building and use it to provide warmth for your home or business.


For optimal performance, it’s important that buildings have good energy efficiency, including effective insulation.


Different Types of Heat Pumps

There are different types of heat pumps: air-source and ground-source.


Heat pumps can also be combined with fossil fuel gas furnaces, and these systems are often referred to as hybrid heat pumps.


How does an air-source heat pump work?

An air-source heat pump absorbs heat from the air and raises its temperature. There are two main types of air-source heat pumps: air-to-water and air-to-air.


Air-to-water heat pumps absorb heat from external air and input it into a wet central heating system (similar to existing gas central heating systems). Due to the lower heat output compared to traditional furnaces or boilers, you might need larger radiators or underfloor heating to fully utilize it. Air-to-water heat pumps are often best suited for new builds or energy-efficient buildings.


Air-to-air heat pumps absorb heat from external air and distribute it inside your home using fans. This type of system can be used for heating but doesn’t produce hot water.

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How does a ground-source heat pump work?

A ground-source heat pump system utilizes natural heat from the ground by pumping liquid through pipes. The heat pump then raises the temperature of this liquid, which is used for heating or hot water.


Its function is similar to a furnace or boiler in a central heating system, but it generates heat from the environmental heat in the ground rather than burning fuel.


The ground-source heat pump system consists of a ground loop (a network of pipes buried underground; the larger the loop, the greater your home’s heating demands) and the ground-source heat pump unit.


A mixture of water and antifreeze is pumped around the ground loop, absorbing the naturally generated heat stored underground. The water mixture is compressed and passed through a heat exchanger, where the heat is extracted and transferred to the heat pump. The heat is then transferred to your home’s heating system.


This heat can be used for radiators, hot water, or underfloor heating systems.


How does a hybrid heat pump work?

A hybrid heat pump system, also known as a dual-source system, integrates a heat pump (either air-source or ground-source) with a traditional gas furnace or boiler heating system, and in the future, it could even integrate with a hydrogen boiler.


Hybrid heating systems can monitor outdoor temperatures and automatically select the most energy-efficient option to keep your home consistently warm and provide hot water.


Why are heat pumps important for achieving net-zero emissions?

Approximately 40% of global emissions come from buildings, with a significant portion attributed to how we heat our homes and businesses.


To achieve net-zero carbon emissions and address climate change, we need to transition from high-carbon fuel-based heating to cleaner, low-carbon, or zero-carbon alternatives.


Heat pumps play a crucial role in this transition for two main reasons:

The design of heat pump systems aims to extract more heat energy from the surrounding environment than the electrical energy consumed to generate heat. They produce two to three times more heat output than the electricity input they consume.


As more and more electricity comes from renewable sources like solar and wind energy, the power used to drive heat pumps becomes cleaner as well.

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