How Does a Heat Pump Work?
When someone asks, how does a heat pump work, many AC Technicians respond – it’s air conditioning in reverse. Technically that’s true, however it doesn’t help explain things to someone who isn’t in the air conditioning & heating business. Since heat pumps are very common here in Phoenix, AZ., let’s look at how they work without the technical jargon.
How Does a Heat Pump Work Exactly?
It’s important to first explain that a heat pump is both an air conditioner (cooling) and heating system in one. You may have already known that, but many don’t as it’s not implied in the name “heat pump”. People frequently ask us if a heat pump provides cooling also – yes, heat pumps provide both cooling and heating. Many common misconceptions about heat pumps prompted me to write an article about how heat pumps work.
Another thing to point out is that while a heat pump uses electricity to heat, it’s not “electric heat.” Confused? Not to worry, it’s easy to explain.
Heating Energy Sources (Fuel)
Fuel Oil / Natural Gas (NG) / Propane (LP) Heating
Most residential furnaces & boilers use oil or gas to heat your home. There are other heating types such as geo-thermal and hydronics, but for the sake of simplicity let’s discuss the most common.
Not all homes are equipped with natural gas, a propane tank, or an oil tank, instead they have electricity only. Even homes that are equipped with another fuel source will sometimes use electricity for heating.
Equipment that uses electricity for heating include heat pumps and electric furnaces, also known as strip heat or resistance heat.
- Electric furnaces are the least efficient form of heating.
- Heat Pumps are the most efficient form of electric heating.
How Does a Heat Pump Work vs. an Electric Furnace?
A heat pump works by using the air conditioner compressor in both on both the heating and cooling setting. A device called a “reversing valve” simply reverses the flow of refrigerant inside the machine.
An electric furnace on the other hand does not use the compressor and does not provide cooling. Instead, it heats up metal coils like the metal wires found inside a toaster. The fan motor blows air across the heated coils and as the air passes through the coils it picks up heat.
To Understand How a Heat Pump Works Let’s Review How an AC Unit Works
Contrary to what most people think, an air conditioner does not “produce” cold air – it removes heat from the air. As promised, I’m not going to use a bunch of AC jargon and technical language so here’s the simplified version:
An air conditioner removes heat in the air from inside your home and blows that heat outside through the condenser. This explains why if you feel the air blowing out of your outdoor unit it’s warm – even hot sometimes.
In heating mode, a heat pump is removing heat from outside and blowing it inside the home. Therefore, the air blowing out of your outdoor unit in the winter is cool – even sometimes cold. As strange as it sounds, it’s important to realize there’s always heat present in the air … even in the winter. Heat is a form of energy, it can’t be created or destroyed but it can be moved from one place to another. Moving it is where the technical part of how a heat pump works comes into play. For that you need to attend trade school or join our apprenticeship program!
Bottom line: A heat pump works by using a compressor, refrigerant circuit, and fans to move heat from one place to another.
Will a Heat Pump Save You Money on Your Heating Bill?
If you have an old heating system or live in a modular home / mobile home, you may have resistance heat. Resistance heat aka strip heat or electric furnaces are the least efficient way to heat your home. Electric furnaces use a tremendous amount of electrical energy.
Now that you know how a modern heat pump works, you may have guessed that today’s compressors are very efficient. Bottom line, replacing an electric furnace with a heat pump will save you significant money on your heating bill.
Heat Pump vs. Gas Furnace
Comparing the purchase cost & cost to own / operate a heat pump vs. gas furnace is more difficult. The largest factor to consider is where you live. For example, here in Phoenix, AZ there are a lot of reasons why a heat pump makes more sense than a furnace (depending on application). On the other hand, in extremely cold climates or where electric rates are much higher than gas rates a furnace may win.
That said, heat pumps have gained mass-appeal nationally and technology improvements have led to them being installed even in notoriously cold climates. If you live outside of Arizona, I recommend you seek the advice of a local air conditioning & heating company. Your local contractor will know not only what works best in your climate, but what makes more financial sense.
In the Phoenix, AZ area not only are heat pumps prevalent, but they also make a lot of sense. Heat pumps are great heating systems in the winter and cooling systems in the summer. Companies like Bosch, Lennox, Trane, Goodman, and Mitsubishi (to name a few) make super-efficient, quiet, and dependable heat pumps.
Now that you know how a heat pump works (without all the technical jargon) hopefully you feel confident in owning one.
Heat Pump Repair Service & Install
Magic Touch Mechanical has been providing heat pump repair service & installation for 25-years, and we’re heat pump experts! In fact, we require all our service technicians & installers to earn their Master Heat Pump Technician Certification, amongst others.
We’re also the largest Bosch Heat Pump Accredited Contractor in the state of Arizona! However, no matter the brand or model heat pump you want or have we can install, repair, and maintain it.
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Air Conditioning, Heating, Fireplaces & Fire Pits since 1997 There's Magic in the Air! Article Author: Rich Morgan, President - Magic Touch Mechanical