Everybody knows what air conditioners and furnaces are, but their cousin in the HVAC world — the heat pump — isn’t as well understood. Don’t let the name fool you, because heat pumps can do it all: heating, cooling and dehumidifying, just like traditional resistance heating and cooling systems. But heat pumps do it in a different, more energy-efficient way.
How Does a Heat Pump Work?
A resistance heater actually generates its own heat, and it takes a lot of energy to do that. But a heat pump simply moves heat that already exists, and it does it at a fraction of the energy consumption of a furnace. Heat pump systems can be up to four times as energy-efficient as the heaters they replace.
During the winter, heat pumps can actually capture heat energy from the frigid outdoors and move it into your home. And during the summer, the process is reversed — the heat pump pulls hot air out of the home, just like your refrigerator pumps hot air out of its enclosed space. Heat pumps tend to do a better job than air conditioners of dehumidifying during the summer, as well.
Because heat pumps move heat rather than generate it, they’re optimal for moderate climates. In more extreme climates, especially colder ones, a heat pump alone might not be enough to keep a home comfortable. In that situation, homeowners can still realize energy efficiency gains by using a heat pump system in conjunction with another type of heating system. But heat pump technology is also improving all the time, and it’s expected that homes in the coldest climates will eventually be able to use heat pumps for all their space heating needs.
What are the Types of Heat Pumps?
- Air-to-air heat pump systems are the most common and affordable type of heat pump. These pumps extract and move heat from the air in and around your home. Like a traditional air conditioner, they work with an air handler and ductwork system to keep treated air moving.
- Ductless mini-split systems: You may have seen other types of mini-split heaters and air conditioners before — these self-contained units are usually only sized to treat the air in a single room, and they’re most often used as a heating and cooling solution in homes that lack ductwork. Mini-split systems generally operate just like air-to-air systems.
- Geothermal heat pumps move heat through a series of pipes that are buried deep in the ground. If there’s a water source nearby, the pipes may extend into underwater areas as well. Because underground temperatures are warmer and more stable during the winter, geothermal heat pumps are the most efficient of the bunch.
How Expensive is a Heat Pump?
There had to be a catch, right? While heat pump systems may be much less expensive to operate compared to traditional HVAC systems, their installation costs are much higher.
Many air-to-air heat pumps cost between $1,000 and $3,000 just for the equipment. If you’re planning on installing multiple mini-split systems, you’ll need to multiply that cost by the number of systems you want. As for installation, anything from $4,000 to $8,000 per system is within the normal range.
Geothermal systems are exorbitantly expensive compared to traditional air conditioners and furnaces. For a 2,500-square-foot home, equipment and installation for a geothermal system could reach $25,000.
Price fluctuations in air-to-air systems mostly revolve around the size of the home; bigger homes require more powerful and expensive pumps. But with geothermal systems, there are lots of factors that could drive up the cost. Nearby soil conditions and rock formations can make geothermal installation impossible or much more expensive, since a significant part of the system will be buried below ground. Even with a huge leap in energy efficiency, it could take a very long time for a geothermal system to pay for itself in energy savings.
Will a Heat Pump Save You Money?
So, is a heat pump better? If you’re replacing your aging system or building a brand new home in a moderate climate, it may well be. But to be sure, you’ll want to consult with a licensed HVAC equipment technician and carefully compare the high upfront costs to the long-term savings forecast.