All About Heat Pumps

Learn about the intricacies of different heat pump systems, and determine which is best for your household.

| June/July 2020

Photo by Paul Scheckel

Shortcomings of fossil-fuel heating continue to mount, including combustion safety, fuel price volatility, air quality, and climate pressures. Conventional fossil-fuel heating systems generate heat by fuel combustion, which transforms chemical energy into heat energy. They require on-site fuel storage and periodic fuel deliveries (unless you’re connected to a natural gas supply line), a chimney, a combustion air supply, a heat distribution system, and a reliable service technician.

Alternatively, electric resistance heating systems are clean and simple to use with a low installation cost. They transform the electric utility’s energy-generating fuels into heat for your home. Unfortunately, electricity is often (though not always) the most expensive energy source available.

Residential heat pumps are gaining in popularity as advances in technology increase efficiency and reduce system costs. Though heat pumps operate on electricity to heat air or water, they’re much more efficient than conventional electric heaters. Heat pumps don’t generate heat; they move it from one place to another. Because heat can be moved in and out of a building, a single appliance can be used for both heating and cooling your home.

This article provides a brief overview of the various types and operations of heat pumps that can heat and cool your home and provide domestic hot water, giving you more options to consider when it comes time to install your next home-conditioning system. Given space limitations, I’ve left many details out of this discussion. I encourage you to seek local recommendations and talk to several contractors about the systems they prefer and why. Regional weather conditions; available human and natural resources; contractor training and ability to service equipment; budget; the age of your home; and personal comfort needs will all influence your decision.

Setting Expectations

Heat pumps aren’t an option for my off-grid home; the amount of electricity they use will crash a battery bank in a single day during winter or summer. However, as a professional energy consultant, I’ve analyzed a number of heat pump installations and interacted with those who live with them. We’re still in the early-adoption phase of this technology in terms of installer training and user-friendly operation.

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