Magic Heat Pumps

Tap free energy from the air or ground to heat and cool your home with this superefficient technology.

| April/May 2005


This article talks about magic — the sort of magic that allows you to heat and cool your home with solar energy stored in water, earth or thin air. That’s the essence of heat pump systems. The concept is simple: heat pumps use the Earth as a huge heat source or sink — borrowing heat in the winter and dumping heat in the summer. This exciting option offers long-term cost savings and less dependence on fossil fuels.

Heat pumps have been around since the early 1900's — refrigerators and air conditioners are types of heat pumps — but were not commonplace for residential buildings until the 1970's. Although they have been available for more than 30 years, heat pumps are still not understood by many homeowners.

Heat naturally flows from a warmer area to a cooler area. But with the aid of a compressor and a small amount of electricity, heat pumps can force heat (from water, air or the ground) to flow in the opposite direction. It’s a little like pumping water uphill. When the heat pump process is reversed in the summer, it will move warm air out of your house, eliminating the need for a separate air-conditioning system. And because heat pumps move heat from one place to another rather than create heat through combustion, they are up to four times more efficient than fossil-fueled furnaces.

There are two main types of heat pumps: air-source and ground-source. On the outside, they are unexciting — simple, rectangular, metal boxes with protruding pipes. It’s what’s inside that creates the magic. Here’s how they work:

The heat pump cycle begins as cold liquid refrigerant passes through a heat exchanger and absorbs heat from a natural source such as air, water or the ground. The refrigerant evaporates as the heat is absorbed, becoming a gas. This refrigerant gas then passes through a compressor, where it is pressurized, raising its temperature to more than 160 degrees. The gas then circulates through another heat exchanger, where heat is removed from the gas and transferred to air or water, which is then circulated into your house. (The temperature of the heated air or water is about 100 degrees.) As it loses heat, the refrigerant gas changes back to a liquid. The liquid is further cooled as it passes through an expansion device (which releases the pressure created by the compressor, causing the temperature of the refrigerant to drop), and the heat pump cycle is complete, ready to begin again.

Because a heat pump supplies lower-temperature air than a fossil-fueled furnace, a heat pump tends to run for longer periods of time. For people who are not accustomed to this, it may seem that the heat pump is always running. Yet, a properly designed and installed heat pump will deliver steady heating with less energy consumption than the fossil-fueled competition. For example, a typical air-source heat pump requires just 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to produce the equivalent of 300 kWh of useful home heat. And a ground-source heat pump can be even more efficient. This leads to substantial savings, especially in areas where fossil fuel prices are relatively high and electricity prices are relatively low. Savings are even greater with variable-speed heat pumps. These units adjust their output to match the actual heating or cooling needs of your home, reducing excessive cycling and wear on the system, especially during mild weather.

11/14/2008 1:31:34 PM

vacuum, The cost is partially due to the economy of scale. How many have been installed in your neighborhood vs gas or electric based HVAC systems? Some of your costs in production do not change when producing more units, so those costs are shared by more consumers as production increases resulting in a lower price for the consumer. What makes me irate, is the refusal of the home building industry to change. Try to buy a new home in a subdivision that is designed to take advantage of passive solar, utilizes a heat pump, or even has a tankless water heater as standard or even optional equipment. They are the ones that could really drive the economy of scale to bring prices down for us all. Imagine being the builder of a subdivision and selling homes that may be more expensive, but have the selling point of a fraction of the utility costs of the subdivision down the road.

11/14/2008 10:44:57 AM

Heat pumps are relatively simple units why is the cost so exhorbitantly high? Yes lifecycle costs are low but one wouldn't think the technology is that complex to require high upfront costs.

11/14/2008 10:27:41 AM live in arizona...either face that fact and pay cooling bills becuse you want to pretend your body is in a different climate, or scrap the A/C, use ceiling fans and and some solar opening skylights to pull the heat out, and quit being so hung up on climate control! Yes, hvac installers do need to come out of the dark ages, but you talking about them wasting precious resources is insane when I think about the size of the footprint your 5000 sq ft house is taking up on this earth and the amount of resources it takes to work and make a house of that size!

mark in scottsdale
6/30/2008 11:30:28 AM

With 5000 sq ft of house in the AZ desert, I've searched in vain for a qualified and experienced HVAC or MECH Contractor to put together a GeoThermal system for us. The local "btu jockies" seem to suffer from sheer ignorance or inertia. The fact that something new or different might be better, cheaper for the long run, and have less impact on the earth seems to make no difference. These guys have been in the fortunate position of being able to throw together mediocre systems and shove them in tract and custom homes here for years without anyone demanding anything better of them! The result is that we have many "luxury" homes here that have substantial square footage and HVAC that meets the bare minimum required by law, and nothing more. Doesn't seem to matter if the house cost 2 Million or 10 Million. The HVAC you get is almost always the same old antiquated technology poorly installed. Their idea of a heat load calculation is "ya got 5500 sq feet of house - yer gonna need about 12 Tons of Cooling." And then they install the system that is most profitable for them and probably the most brutal for the homeowner to operate over the next 20 years or so. To be sentenced to $800/mo electric bills because of sheer incompetence and cheapness on the part of the various builders is INSANE! The waste of precious resources that result from this kind of thinking borders on the criminal in my opinion. The one place in the US where we could EASILY run our entire home on PhotoVoltaics and the subsidies here from the government and utilities are far lower per KW/of installed capacity than they are in NYC! But to not be able to find a decent company to install a GeoThermal system is mind-boggling. I've been told by HVAC contractors "... they won't work here!" (I guess the laws of physics get suspended here in the desert maybe?) or "... they can't dig the holes deep enough!" (Funny - most homes here have t

ferdinand almodovar
2/7/2008 11:00:58 AM

Do youn have knowledge of those systems been cost effective in tropical temperatures of 80-90 degrees year round like in the caribbean

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