What Is A Heat Pump And How Does It Work?

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Have you found yourself wondering what a heat pump is? Maybe you have recently purchased one and want to know how it works?

Or are you curious and want to know more? Whatever brought you here today, we have the answer for you!

We know how confusing heat pumps (thermostat) can be.

What Is A Heat Pump And How Does It Work?

These days there seem to be so many on the market, all promising different results, that it can seem impossible to find out what the heat pump does and how it works.

Before you know it, you are lost in a sea of guidance and articles, not knowing who is right or who to believe. 

Well, no more! Today, we are here with the answers that you need.

Just keep reading to find out what a heat pump (see also ‘Do Heat Pumps Work Below Freezing?) is and how it works! 

What Is A Heat Pump?

A heat pump (see also our guide to heat pumps and emergency heat) is an indoor cooling system that moves heat out of a home or other structure.

It works by using electric power instead of electricity to compress refrigerant gas into cold vapor (gas) which goes over a metal coil (condenser coil).

The condensed cold coolant fluid is then run over another coil called the evaporator coil before returning to the compressor where compression begins all over again as the process repeats itself.

There are two basic types of heat pumps. One heats water for space heating only and one can be used both indoors and outdoors.

If you have an active geothermal heat (see also ‘How Does Geothermal Heating Work‘) pump, the unit will extract heat from your house’s soil.

How Does A Heat Pump Work?

A heat pump operates on a closed-loop system. You’ll find a thermostat in many modern homes.

The thermostat controls the flow of current through the compressor to maintain the desired room temperature.

You can replace the original thermostat with a programmable model so that you can control each room’s temperature individually.

The main components are the compressor, condensing fan, thermostatic expansion valve, evaporator coil, and condensing coil.

There are different types of heat pumps available for residential applications.

These include the air-source heat pump, direct immersion heat pump, radiant heat pump, natural circulation heat pump, and forced convection heat pump.

Most manufacturers offer free estimates upon request.

Consult your local building permit office for more information about installing equipment such as a heat pump.

Contact the manufacturer for more details on these systems.

A heat pump can help homeowners save money by reducing their monthly heating bills while improving comfort inside their homes.

They may be especially helpful during seasonal winters when the weather is cold.

If you plan on selling your home someday, then a heat pump could be a valuable asset.

Plus, heat pumps are versatile; they can handle various operating modes depending on where you live.

For example, they can either heat or cool a space.

You also don’t have to worry about running out of natural resources like oil since heat pumps utilize renewable alternatives.

Advantages Of Heat Pumps

High-efficiency heat pumps offer advantages such as higher comfort levels, better interior quietness, improved occupant health, and less noise pollution.

An added benefit of a heat pump is that they help slow global warming by reducing carbon emissions.

Heat pumps do not emit any form of carbon. They also reduce the electricity demand compared to conventional systems.

Another advantage a heat pump has is that it helps lower utility bills.

Not only does it use electricity instead of natural gas, but it also uses much less space than a furnace would fill up. 

Also, because the heater doesn’t burn fuel like many other heating methods, there isn’t a chimney to clog.

Heat pumps may also be known as “air conditioners” or “cooling systems”.

However, heat pumps are technically classified as “heat transfer systems”, since they transfer heat from one location to another rather than cooling an enclosed area.

Types Of Heat Pumps

Single-Effect Geothermal Heat Pumps

Single effect geothermal heat pumps are installed underground in hot climates, providing up to 20% of annual heating needs.

Unlike their two-stage counterparts, single-effect heat pumps use just one stage of refrigeration.

These units operate with low efficiency when the outdoor temperature is below the ideal operating range of 50°F-70°F. 

However, this problem is generally overcome by installing them deeper than standard ground source heat pumps.

Also, single-effect units may experience high start-up costs.

Two-Stage Geothermal Heat Pumps

With the help of additional coils in series known as stages, two-stage geothermal heat pumps improve on earlier systems by increasing overall performance while eliminating the need for expensive backup electrical generators.

These heat pumps offer higher efficiency levels compared to single-effect heat pumps at any outdoor temperature.

Although these heat pumps are considerably more efficient than traditional ones, they cost three times as much. 

They are suitable for areas like California and Hawaii.

Also, most homeowners who buy two-stage heat pumps tend to install them outdoors because they don’t want to risk damaging their property.

Single-Zone Heat Pumps 

Single-Zone Heat Pumps 

In a single zone heat pump, the refrigerant circulates in only one direction around the coils.

In this case, the heat is transferred in a counterflow system. An example of a single-zone heat pump is the Daikin R-30C1/R-31C3 model.

Multi-Zone Heat Pumps

Multi-zone heat pumps come with more controls than single-zone units and allow homeowners to use the heat pump in different ways.

There are three main components in a multi-zone heat pump system.

The first component of the multi-zone system is the controller.

This device connects the outdoor fan motor to the electronic thermostat.

Each zone is connected via separate wiring. The second component is the control valve.

The valves regulate the rate of refrigerant entering each zone so that the temperature in each room remains constant.

The third component is electrical relays. These devices turn the compressor on and off.

Most homes these days have them installed under the sink (see also ‘How To Install Vent Under Sink’) or in a closet.

Multi-zone heat pumps can be wired together for larger systems.

For instance, the ZENITH SZ6048SXW is a large air conditioning system that connects six zones.

All these zones have thermostats, which makes it easier to set temperatures in individual rooms.

Air-Source Heat Pumps

An air-source heat pump uses outside air rather than a subterranean loop of pipes to absorb heat from the surrounding environment.

Air-source models are very effective, but require some maintenance to keep working properly. 

A typical repair includes cleaning the ventilation hood and ductwork, replacing filters every 30 days, checking the seal around the ductwork, and making sure all fuses have fresh batteries.

Direct Immersion Heat Pumps

This type of system works by circulating chilled water through a coil buried beneath the foundation or within another part of the home.

Water circulates into a tank, where it absorbs heat before returning to the coil.

These heat pumps require less maintenance because they’re not exposed to harsh external elements. 

But they also take longer to get warm and cool down compared to other heat pumps.

In addition, the installation process requires digging trenches for both indoor and outdoor piping.

Radiant Heat Pumps

This type of heat pump generates warmth using infrared technology.

It has no moving parts, so there’s little wear and tear, making repairs simple.

However, radiant heat pumps aren’t commonly used indoors because they require an unobstructed ceiling space.

Natural Circulation Heat Pumps

These heat pumps use underground pipes to transport heated water.

It’s possible to combine multiple loops for better capacity and energy savings.

Unlike other heat pumps, this one doesn’t directly utilize outside air for cooling purposes.

To provide enough humidity, an auxiliary unit must be used.

Forced Convection Heaters

They use fans to circulate heat through a duct system.

Each fan blows hot air at its own designated outlet, which allows you to set individual temperatures for rooms.

Fans are quieter than blowers, which makes them ideal for bedrooms.

Some units are designed to operate without electricity, so they won’t cause damage if the power goes out unexpectedly.

Installing a forced-convection heater is straightforward. All you need is a supply line (usually 1/2″-3″) and a venting connection.

An alternative to a traditional heat pump is a high-efficiency heat pump.

High-efficiency heat pumps are often marketed as variable speed fans.

Variable speed technology allows the fan to automatically adjust its operating speed depending on the conditions in the home.

When there is no need to circulate fresh air throughout the home, the fan slows down to save energy.

In addition, the blower and fan blades typically last longer when operating at reduced speeds.

What Are The Costs Associated With Having A Heat Pump Installed?

Heat pumps are typically priced in two different ways: installation cost and operation cost.

The price will differ based on size (the cost of a smaller heat pump may be lower), whether or not the house has a basement (heat pumps that are required to be placed under the floorplan may increase cost), and how much the installer charges per hour.

Installers typically charge $20-$50 per hour and the average installation time is 10-12 hours.

This is why it’s best to hire a contractor with experience.

Hiring an experienced contractor means the work should go smoothly and quickly.

When hiring a contractor, make sure he or she offers upfront pricing.

Once you agree on the price, make sure to add the cost of installation and any applicable materials.

How Do I Choose A Heat Pump Company?

You’ll want to find a reputable heating and cooling company that offers free inspections before installation.

Make sure that your contractor performs all necessary safety checks and recommends corrective actions before proceeding.

Be sure to ask for references from previous customers. A good contractor should keep detailed records of previous jobs. 

Ask him or her about what type of documentation they’ll provide before requesting payment.

Don’t hesitate to inquire about warranties and guarantees after each service call.

Your contractor should let you know if there’s anything special you need to take care of before completing your project.

When selecting a technician, ask about his or her experience working on heat pumps and what specific repairs they specialize in.

Ensure that your contractor provides written quotes for each inspection.

Before signing a contract, check your paperwork carefully to ensure that it includes everything you agreed to.

Also, double-check that the final bill matches the total quoted amount. 

Are Heat Pumps Better Than Other Types Of Energy-efficient Furnaces?

Yes! Heat pumps use only one-fourth of the fuel used by traditional furnaces while providing similar warmth.

In addition, because heat pumps operate at low temperatures (see also ‘ Will Heat Pumps Work In Subzero Temperatures? ‘), they require less airflow compared to traditional furnaces.


Heat pumps are economical, efficient space heaters that can save homeowners money on their utility bills during cold weather.  

Although they have some downsides, such as higher start-up costs, heat pumps offer many benefits over older heating technologies like gas-powered furnaces and split-system models.

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Get a free estimate online from top local home service pros in your area.


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