A Buyer’s Guide to Heat Pumps

With global warming, air pollution, and health concerns swarming the news and media, it has become a national concern to clean up our environmental impact. There are many ways that we can do our part in positively affecting our environment, from recycling, to energy efficiency and to lower fossil fuel use. If you are ready to replace your current HVAC system and are looking to lower your carbon footprint, you will want to consider looking into getting a heat pump HVAC system.

What is a Heat Pump?

Most people, especially here in California, are familiar with traditional HVAC systems that have an indoor furnace and coil, and an outdoor condenser with a system of ducts that circulate air. These systems create heat using a gas furnace or cool air using refrigerant. A heat pump HVAC system is similarly designed, but uses a mechanical compression cycle that can provide both heating and cooling. This equipment uses electricity to remove heat from the air and move it either inside or outside, depending on whether heating or cooling is needed.

How Do Heat Pumps Work?

A heat pump system consists of two main components, an indoor air handler and an outdoor unit that has a compressor. The compressor circulates refrigerant and absorbs and releases heat where needed. Heat is released indoors for heating, and outdoors for cooling. Heat is still present in the air even when it’s cold outside, and that heat is absorbed and distributed inside the home or building. For cooling, airflow is reversed and heat is absorbed from indoors and pushed outside.

Types of Heat Pumps

Heat pump systems can be a more energy efficient choice depending on where you live and what you comfort needs are. If you are considering installing a heat pump system, there are few types you can choose from.

Air Source Heat Pumps

Air Source are the most commonly used heat pumps and consist of two units: an indoor unit called an air handler, and the heat pump unit outside. The two units are connected by tubing where refrigerant is circulated. The refrigerant absorbs and releases heat as it moves back and forth between the two units. Here are couple benefits to installing an air source heat pump:

  • They generally use less energy and can reduce your heating cost by 50% in comparison to electric furnaces and baseboard heaters.

  • They are better at dehumidifying than standard central HVAC systems, which can increase your comfort level in the warmer muggier months.

Although air source heat pumps can be a great choice for warm humid climates, their design is not efficient for climates where temperatures can drop below 10-25 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ductless Heat Pumps

Also known as mini splits, ductless systems do not use air ducts and are composed of two components. The outdoor unit is the compressor/condenser that can work with one to four indoor air handlers. The air handlers are installed on the wall(s) or on the ceiling of rooms, and the system is operated by remote control. Refrigerant is cycled between the indoor and outdoor units to heat or cool a given area or room. Here are a few benefits for installing a ductless heat pump system:

  • Installation is minimally invasive, which means that you can have flexibility in designing and zoning your system. The indoor units can be placed to cool/heat specific rooms or zones.

  • These systems perform quietly, which makes them the perfect choice for entertainment rooms or other rooms that need to be noise-sensitive.

Some people may not like the look of the indoor units, so that is something to consider with mini split systems. These heat pump systems tend to cost more than other systems, but you can take advantage of state and federal energy incentives that may help with installation costs.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal heat pumps are also known as ground or water source heat pumps because they move heat through underground pipes that are buried in the ground or a water source. These pipes are looped either vertically or horizontally and contain a water solution that is heated by the constant 50-60 degree Fahrenheit temperature of the ground or water source and is then circulated throughout the home or building. There are several benefits to installing a geothermal heat pump system:

  • They reduce energy usage by 25-50% in comparison to standard central HVAC systems.

  • These systems are quiet and good at humidity control.

  • Geothermal heat pumps require little maintenance and work well in extreme climates.

  • Their lifetime far outlasts other systems, with the indoor unit lasting up to 25 years and the outdoor loops lasting up to 50 years.

These systems are effective in climates that experience extreme temperature drops, but are not practical for small lots or certain types of soil conditions. Installation can be very costly, but owners can experience a payback in energy savings within 5-10 years.

Heat Pump Operation and Maintenance

Like your car, your HVAC system is a machine designed to work effectively when properly maintained. If neglected, parts can get loose over time or experience wear and tear from environment or overuse. To make sure that you get the most value from your system, it is important to understand how to correctly operate and maintain heat pump.

Proper Operation

When operated properly, your heat pump system will save a significant amount of energy. It is in your best interest to install a programmable thermostat with multistage functions to prevent your indoor fan from constantly running. Your system program should be set to the “auto” fan setting to prevent performance degradation from constant use, unless you have a high efficiency variable speed fan motor.

Maintenance

Regular and proper maintenance is essential to preventing costly repairs to your system and to prolonging the system’s life. Here are some aspects of your heat pump that need regular maintenance:

  • Make sure to clean or change your air filters once a month or as needed. You may have to change these more or less often depending on location and whether animals are in the home or building.

  • Clean the outdoor coil whenever it appears dirty.

  • Occasionally turn off the power to the fan and clean it.

  • Remove leaves and other vegetation from the outdoor unit and make sure there is no clutter or blockage around the unit. Protect the outdoor unit from animals that may chew on or relieve themselves on it.

  • Clean the supply and return registers and make sure that their fins are not bent or closed.

Although this list can be performed yourself, we highly recommend that you have a professional technician provide maintenance service on your system at least once a year. A technician can perform a more thorough maintenance cleaning and testing of your system’s operation to make sure there are no leaks or damages to your system. At Castillo Heating & Air Conditioning, we offer annual maintenance plans that give special benefits and discounts to our customers.

Are Heat Pumps Better Than Central HVAC Systems?

So far heat pumps sound great, but are they better than standard central HVAC systems? Well, there are benefits and downfalls to every system. Here is a list of pros and cons for both:

Central HVAC (Gas Furnace)

  • Pro: Gas furnaces create heat, so they are reliable in any weather, even below freezing temperatures.

  • Pro: Installation costs for gas furnaces tend to be lower than for heat pumps.

  • Con: The cost and availability of fuel can affect the operation costs of a gas furnace.

  • Con: Furnaces require fossil fuels, which can negatively affect the environment.

Heat Pump

  • Pro: Heat pumps are more energy efficient, and have saved some homes up to $1,000 a year.

  • Pro: Heat pumps operate as a single system, so they tend to require less maintenance and generally have lower repair costs.

  • Pro: Heat pumps are more environmentally friendly because they use electricity instead of fossil fuels.

  • Con: Heat pumps cannot work in temperatures below freezing, so they lose efficiency in extremely cold climates.

Should I Get a Heat Pump?

It’s easy to read a simple list of what makes heat pumps a rising technology in the HVAC world, but how do you know if a heat pump is right for you? First, we need to talk about your needs. Every business and household is different, so heat pumps may be a great choice for some people, but not for everyone. Consider these factors when getting estimates on a new heat pump system.

Climate

Heat pumps work best in moderate climates that don’t experience extreme cold. If you live in an area that can drop below freezing in the winter, a heat pump may not be the right choice for you.

Energy Efficiency

Cooling efficiency is rated by SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) and heating is measured by HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor). The national minimum standard is 7.7 HSPF and 13 SEER (California standard minimum is 14 SEER). In warmer climates, a higher SEER is important whereas in colder climates a higher HSPF is necessary.

System Size

Installing a system correctly sized to your needs is crucial. An oversized or undersized system will not work effectively and can have a shorter life span from improper operation. The size of your system should be determined by a professional HVAC technician using load calculations from the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Manual J.

Tax Credits and Rebates

Depending on the energy efficiency and state that you live in, there may be incentives and rebates that you can take advantage of. Here is a list of websites that can tell you if you qualify for any of these incentives:

With current concerns about the usage of fossil fuels, heat pump systems might be a great option for a new energy efficient HVAC system. If you are considering installing a new heat pump system, make sure that your home or building is as energy efficient as possible. Solar power can help lower cost of operation. Also, make sure your ducts are properly sealed and insulated to prevent lower heating or cooling performance.