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Technology At Home

How a heat pump can help heat or cool your home

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Heat pumps are having a moment. They are not yet widely used in the US, but they are more efficient than traditional gas ovens and better for the environment. And despite the name, heat pumps can provide both heating and cooling.​

Matt Bowers, 43, lives in a 2,800-square-foot home in Rochester, New York. He heats his house, he says, “with the same amount of electricity as a hair dryer.” The annual heating portion of his electric bill is about $250, about what it costs on average to heat most American homes for just two months. Bowers, the owner of Rochester Passive House Consulting, uses an air source heat pump to heat and cool his home.​

Although Bowers’ home was already built to ultra-energy-efficient passive house standards, anyone using a heat pump should see dramatic savings on their home’s energy bills, according to the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). That’s because today’s heat pumps are 2.2 to 4.5 times more efficient than traditional gas furnaces, according to a recent report from consulting firm McKinsey on decarbonising buildings.​

Close-up of black full inverter heat pump outdoors in the garden, near wooden pool house on a sunny day.  Lens flare on the image.

Heat pumps are also quiet, offer more control than a gas furnace, and are touted as one of the best ways to combat climate change, as they run on electricity and do not release carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (as a fossil fuel). -fired gas ovens). In addition, recent federal legislation offers tax credits of up to $2,000 to get people to switch, and state rebates can sweeten the deal (see box below for more information).

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Sounds too good? “There aren’t many downsides to owning a heat pump,” said Amber Wood, building program director, ACEEE. She acknowledges that in the past there have been complaints about noise levels, or that heat pumps don’t work well in cold climates or that they don’t raise the temperature high enough. But new technology has overcome those challenges, she says.​

It is true, however, that if you live in a region where it can be extremely cold for long periods of time, your heat pump may not be able to keep up with the heat loss from the structure itself and you will need a back-up heat source powered by gas or electricity that kicks in quickly .​

Either way, if your home is drafty or poorly insulated, a heat pump probably shouldn’t be your first line of defense. You should take care of these issues first before investing in a heat pump or traditional heating system. Plus, says Wood, if your house is well-weathered, “you can probably install a smaller system — another place to find savings.”​

Today, only about 14 percent of homes nationwide use heat pumps. But concerns about the climate and numerous government incentives mean that could change. And in some states, like Washington, heat pumps are now mandatory for all new residential construction (with a gas usage allowance for backup heating in extreme cold).​

How does a heat pump work?

Think of a heat pump as an air conditioner that can blow both hot and cold air

A heat pump takes heat from the outside air or from the ground, depending on the type of system you have, regardless of the season. The air is passed over a refrigerant, which becomes super hot when compressed or, when the pressure drops, becomes cold.​

The most common system is an air source heat pump (ASHP), which has an outdoor unit (similar to a central air conditioning unit) connected via a hose system to one or more indoor air handlers or ‘heads’. A ground source heat pump (GSHP) does a similar job, but draws heat from the ground instead of the outside air