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Maintaining Your Heat Pump: Minimize Breakdowns and Save Money

Heat pumps are a type of mechanical compression cycle refrigeration system that can be used for both heating and cooling. Think of a heat pump as a transportation device that moves heat from one place to another. In this article, we will provide all the information you need to know about heat pump maintenance.


Basic Knowledge: How does a heat pump work?

In the most basic sense, a heat pump transfers heat using a circulating refrigerant. The refrigerant undergoes evaporation and condensation in this process, resulting in increased heat transfer. A compressor pumps the refrigerant between two heat exchanger coils. The refrigerant absorbs heat by evaporating at low pressure and releases the heat it absorbed by compressing it at high pressure before flowing to the other coil.


What are the main components of a heat pump?

Before performing regular maintenance on a heat pump, it’s helpful to understand and familiarize yourself with the main components.

  • Reversing valve: It changes the flow of refrigerant, determining whether your indoor space is being cooled or heated.
  • Thermostatic expansion valve: It regulates the flow of refrigerant, similar to how a faucet valve regulates the flow of water.
  • Accumulator: It’s a reservoir that adjusts the refrigerant charge as per seasonal needs.
  • Refrigerant lines and pipes: They connect the indoor and outdoor units.
  • Heating strips: They are electric heating elements used for auxiliary heating. They add heat on cold days or help to quickly recover from lower set temperatures.
  • Ductwork: It serves as the air tunnel that distributes air to various zones in the space.
  • Thermostat or control system: It sets the desired temperature.

The compressor moves the refrigerant between the two sets of coils.

heat pump installation

General Tips:

Set the thermostat to a consistent temperature. Constant adjustments can lead to higher utility costs.


During heating months, do not set the thermostat below 65 degrees. 


In cooling mode, do not set the thermostat below 70 degrees. This can cause indoor coil freezing and condensation around floors and windows.


Schedule regular maintenance with a technician every year.


Recommended preventive maintenance checks:

Monthly Heat Pump Maintenance:

  • Inspect the exterior of the heat pump.
  • Check electrical terminals. Clean and tighten connections if necessary, and coat them with insulating coating.
  • Check for refrigerant leaks.
  • Ensure the outdoor coils are clean. If they become dirty, turn off the unit and clean them with a heavy-duty coil cleaner and hose.
  • Inspect the air filters and clean or replace them as needed.
  • Check for dirt and other obstructions in the ductwork, filters, blower, and indoor coil.
  • Diagnose and seal duct leaks.
  • Verify sufficient airflow by taking measurements.
  • Verify the correct refrigerant charge by taking measurements.


Semi-Annual Heat Pump Maintenance:

Lubricate motors and check the tightness and wear of belts.

Verify proper electrical controls, ensuring that heating is locked out when cooling is required and vice versa.


Annual Heat Pump Maintenance:

Schedule annual maintenance with a technician.

Oil fan motors if necessary (not required if permanently sealed).


Heat Pump in Cooling Mode:

During summer, the heat pump removes hot air from the space and transfers it to the outside, effectively cooling the space. When operating correctly, the heat pump keeps the space comfortably cool while reducing indoor humidity. The process is as follows:

  • The electric fan draws hot air from the space into the ductwork system.
  • The refrigerant circulates between the outdoor condensing unit and the indoor evaporator coil via the compressor.
  • The warm indoor air flows over the indoor coil while the refrigerant is pumped from the outdoor condenser coil to the indoor evaporator coil.
  • The refrigerant absorbs heat as it passes through the indoor air.
  • The dehumidified air flows through the connected indoor ducts to the vents throughout the space, effectively cooling it.
  • This cycle continues to keep your space cool and comfortable during the warm months.

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Heat Pump in Heating Mode:

Heat pumps are more common in moderate-temperature regions. However, air-source heat pump technology has advanced, allowing these systems to be combined with additional heating elements. This makes them more suitable for areas with prolonged cold weather. When the heat pump switches from cooling mode to heating mode:

  • The outdoor coil serves as the evaporator, and the indoor coil serves as the condenser.
  • The refrigerant flows through a closed refrigeration line system between the outdoor unit and the indoor unit.
  • Even in cold outdoor temperatures, the condenser coil absorbs heat from the outside air and releases it inside through the evaporator coil.
  • The electric fan draws the indoor air into the ductwork system.
  • As the refrigerant is pumped from the outdoor coil to the indoor coil, it absorbs heat from the air.
  • The heat released from the refrigerant in the indoor space due to phase change heats the air.
  • This cycle repeats to keep your space warm and comfortable during the cold months.


Winter Heat Pump Maintenance Tips:

Check your outdoor heat pump after snowfall or ice storms. If it’s covered in snow and ice, the heat pump won’t function properly.


Either switch the thermostat to “Emergency Heat” to remove ice and snow or pour warm water over the pump. Do not use hot water.

Do not use sharp objects or an ice pick to remove ice from the heat pump coils. This can cause severe damage to the heat pump and personal injury.

Don’t forget to turn off the “Emergency Heat” mode afterward.


We hope these heat pump maintenance tips and checklist help reduce your energy costs and improve efficiency.


Heat Pump Costs:

Heat pumps operate using electricity instead of fuel. They can provide equivalent space conditioning while running at only a quarter of the operating costs of traditional heating or cooling equipment. The installation cost of a heat pump ranges from $4,000 to $8,000, depending on the size of your home. Over time, your electricity bills will be cheaper as you save money on winter heating (and summer cooling).


Heat Pump Maintenance Tips:

Once the temperature drops below a certain point (e.g., 40°F), your heat pump may encounter some issues. Regularly check your heat pump to ensure there are no obstructions or problems. To make your heat pump maintenance routine go as smoothly and efficiently as possible, implement the following five tips.


Keep your heat pump away from drainage ditches.

Avoid placing the outdoor unit below a leaking drainage ditch. In winter, water may drip onto the top of the unit and freeze, restricting airflow and causing the entire unit to ice up.


Be proactive with accumulation.

Develop a habit of checking for excessive ice or snow on or around your heat pump during winter. Keep snow, ice, and leaves away from the top, sides, and bottom of the heat pump. This is especially important after severe weather. The more frequently you address this, the less likely problems will arise.


Don’t forget emergency heat.

Switch the thermostat to “Emergency Heat” or the off position while clearing accumulation. This will stop your heat pump from extracting heat during maintenance. When you use the heat pump, the thermostat will heat your home, but remember to switch it back to normal heating after clearing ice and snow.


Be cautious when cleaning.

To melt ice and snow, pour warm or even cool water on the top of the unit. Do not use any sharp objects to pick or knock off the ice from the coils. This can cause severe damage and personal injury. If the unit re-ices after cleaning, call for heat pump service.


Improve heat pump performance.

The heat pump should be elevated 4 to 8 inches above the ground. This will protect the coils from snow and ice and allow proper drainage due to condensation (similar to air conditioning).


Why Choose a Heat Pump?

So, if you have to perform heat pump maintenance throughout the entire winter, why bother? As discussed, there are many reasons. The reasons to choose a heat pump include:

  • Combining heating and cooling systems into one.
  • Environmentally friendly and energy-efficient.
  • Quieter than other heating systems.
  • Long-lasting, with a lifespan of 10 to 20 years.
  • Safer than combustion heating systems, as they don’t emit carbon monoxide.
  • Relatively inexpensive.


By choosing a heat pump, you can enjoy the benefits of both heating and cooling in a single system while reducing your energy costs and improving efficiency.

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