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All about Heat Pumps - Heating and Cooling in One

All about Heat Pumps - Heating and Cooling in One

Heat pumps heat and cool your home in one extra efficient home comfort system.

Electric heat pumps are home appliances that can both heat and cool a home. One heat pump system can replace a traditional air conditioner and a home heating system like a furnace, boiler, or inefficient baseboard heat.

The main advantage of an electric heat pump compared to other HVAC systems is their efficiency. The way heat pumps are designed and the technology they employ make them 2-3 times more efficient than traditional heating systems.

Because they don’t use fossil fuels, electric heat pumps are also considered an environmentally friendly heating and cooling option.

Are you wondering how one machine can replace both an air conditioner and a furnace?

At the simplest level, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another. In cooling mode, a heat pump moves the heat inside your home to the outside, leaving your home cooler. This is no different than how your refrigerator or air conditioner works. These appliances pump heat out of an insulated space, leaving it cooler inside.

Heat pumps also work in cold climates, despite what you may have heard, and there are also specially rated cold-climate heat pumps that perform even better in sustained colder weather. How does that work?

The short answer is heat pumps go into reverse-mode, the opposite function of cooling your home. Heat pumps take heat energy from the outside air into your home, keeping your indoor air at a consistently warm temperature. That might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, how can something move heat from the outside air when it’s 30 degrees F outside? Just remember, heat is energy, and there is energy in the air and in the operation of the heat pump itself, whether it’s 50 degrees F, or 15 degrees F outside. Cold-climate rated heat pumps are now an option on the market from top rated manufacturers like Daikin and Trane.

To be clear, if you live in a poorly insulated home in a climate where the temperature regularly stays below 10 degrees (which is a rarity in the Pacific Northwest) a dual-fuel system is the answer for that circumstance, rather than a stand-alone heat pump. The extra efficient heat pump can still be your air conditioning and most of your winter heat, but then you have a backup furnace heat source on coldest days.

More about Efficiency

Standard heating systems like furnaces and boilers create heat by burning fossil fuels or using inefficient electric resistance. Heat pumps, by comparison, move heat from outside to inside, or in reverse, in much the same way that refrigerators do. As a result they use much less energy.

Heat pumps — especially mini-split systems — also typically have a much higher SEER rating than traditional air conditioners, meaning in cooling mode they run more efficiently.

Utility bill savings

As we mentioned earlier, the average homeowner can save hundreds per year switching to a heat pump. Homeowners switching from inefficient systems that run on fuel oil, propane, or traditional electric resistance (like baseboard heat or electric furnaces) can save even more!

Even though heat pumps cost more upfront, their utility bill efficiency savings can often pay themselves off within 8-12 years.

More indoor comfort with dehumidification

In addition to saving you money, heat pumps can make your home more comfortable.

On a hot, humid day heat pumps act like whole-home dehumidifiers, gradually taking moisture out of the air. Even if it isn’t hot — like on a humid fall day, for example — you can run your heat pump as a dehumidifier and keep the temperature at 70 degrees.

In this same way, your heat pump will keep the air inside your home at a consistent temperature and humidity level on cold days when you want to stay warm inside.

In addition to that, many heat pumps are “variable-speed,” which means they provide a more consistent temperature than “single-stage” furnaces or air conditioners.

Better for the environment

Unlike traditional furnaces and boilers, heat pumps run on electricity. That means that when paired with a renewable energy source like rooftop or community solar, they heat your home without heating the planet. Compared to other electric heating systems, heat pumps are much more energy efficient.

No ducts required

Many homes don’t have ducting, making it tricky and possibly expensive to install ductwork for heating or cooling. But ductless heat pumps—also called mini-splits—don’t require ducting.

Perception of higher upfront cost

The biggest challenge for homeowners looking at upgrading to heat pumps is the higher upfront system cost. Whereas a cheap air conditioning system or furnace can cost you less than $8,000, the average heat pump including installation is about $15,000.

Part of the reason for this is that you’re paying for something that can replace both your heating and cooling system. If you compare a heat pump to a new furnace installation and an air conditioning unit installation, it’s actually a similar price. Many heat pumps also use much more advanced technology than cheaper heating and cooling systems, like variable-speed inverters, 20+ SEER ratings, and zone controls. Fortunately, our area is offering many rebates, incentives, and tax credits, which help bring down or offset the higher upfront cost. And remember, the operating cost of a heat pump far outweighs the operating cost of other electric heating types.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are heat pumps noisy?

A common myth of a heat pump is that they are louder than other heating and cooling systems. This isn’t true. Heat pumps generally run at about 40-50 decibels, which is about the same as a quiet dishwasher. This is no different than a furnace or traditional air conditioner.

Isn’t heating with electricity expensive?

Traditional electric heating systems like electric furnaces and baseboards are inefficient and therefore expensive, that’s for sure. But heat pumps are in a league of their own in terms of great efficiency. Heat pumps use advanced technology to use 3-4 times less electricity than conventional heating systems. This is why heat pumps can save many homeowners so much money. Compared to fuel oil, propane, and electric resistance heat, heat pumps use far less energy and cost much less to operate.

Is a heat pump more efficient than a traditional air conditioner?

Assuming a heat pump and an air conditioner have the same SEER rating, they will use the same amount of electricity each year to cool your home.  But many heat pumps come in higher-SEER rated models than the typical air conditioner. And unlike central AC, if you opt for a ductless mini-split, you can choose to cool only the rooms you use. These two advantages make most heat pumps more efficient than standard AC systems.