The Benefits and Disadvantages of Heat Pumps

A heat pump works by pulling warmth out of a lower temperature source—air or ground—and transferring it to a higher temperature sink. This transfers thermal energy to cool your home or building, while also providing supplemental heating when the temperature drops. It’s a more energy efficient alternative to oil, propane or electric resistance furnaces and boilers. And because they’re powered by electricity, heat pumps can significantly reduce a household’s carbon footprint, especially if the electricity comes from renewable sources like rooftop solar or the grid.

A common type of Heat Pump is a ducted system that looks a lot like a central air conditioner—it has an outdoor unit with aluminum fins and coils to release or collect heat, connected to an indoor unit with the same configuration. Both units have fans that blow over the coils to circulate warm or cold air through ducts throughout your home.

You can also install a non-ducted heat pump system that doesn’t use ductwork to move air. The outdoor unit connects to one or more indoor air handler heads, which can be mounted high on walls or ceilings, or on the floor in rooms without a traditional ductwork system. These units can be particularly useful in older homes and additions, where adding ductwork may be cost prohibitive or impossible.

The biggest drawback to heat pumps is that they don’t work very well in climates where the outside air temperature regularly falls below freezing. The reason is that moving heat from a very cold place to a warmer place requires more energy than moving heat in moderate climates, although innovators are working on overcoming this limitation.

Another drawback is that a heat pump isn’t as efficient at cooling, especially in milder climates where the humidity level is low. But in most regions, a properly sized and installed heat pump should be more than adequate for heating and cooling.

It’s important to have a professional inspect and service your heat pump before winter starts. The unit should be tested for refrigerant leaks and checked for mechanical issues that can cause breakdowns. You should also have the system cleaned regularly to prevent buildup, which can lead to diminished efficiency.

In terms of maintenance, it’s a good idea to change the filter at least once a month. A clean filter will help the heat pump run more efficiently and save you money on energy bills. You should also have the unit inspected twice a year by a professional, before the heating season and before the cooling season. This will ensure that the system is running as efficiently as possible, while keeping the fan and coils free from debris. You can further reduce your costs by taking advantage of available state and utility rebates for high-efficiency climate control.