An air-source heat pump can provide efficient heating and cooling for your home. When properly installed, an air-source heat pump can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes. This is possible because a heat pump moves heat rather than converting it from a fuel, like in combustion heating systems.

A heat pump's refrigeration system consists of a compressor and two coils made of copper tubing (one indoors and one outside), which are surrounded by aluminum fins to aid heat transfer. In the heating mode, liquid refrigerant in the outside coils extracts heat from the air and evaporates into a gas. The indoor coils release heat from the refrigerant as it condenses back into a liquid. A reversing valve, near the compressor, can change the direction of the refrigerant flow for cooling as well as for defrosting the outdoor coils in winter.

When outdoor temperatures fall below 40°F, a less-efficient panel of electric resistance coils, similar to those in your toaster, kicks in to provide indoor heating. This is why air-source heat pumps aren't always very efficient for heating in areas with cold winters. Some units now have gas-fired backup furnaces instead of electric resistance coils, allowing them to operate more efficiently

The efficiency and performance of today's air-source heat pumps is one-and-a-half to two times greater than those available 30 years ago. This improvement in efficiency has resulted from technical advances and options such as these:

In heating mode, an air-source heat pump evaporates a refrigerant in the outdoor coil; as the liquid evaporates it pulls heat from the outside air. After the gas is compressed, it passes into the indoor coil and condenses, releasing heat to the inside of the house. The pressure changes caused by the compressor and the expansion valve allow the gas to evaporate at a low temperature outside and condense at a higher temperature indoors.

  • Thermostatic expansion valves for more precise control of the refrigerant flow to the indoor coil
  • Variable speed blowers, which are more efficient and can compensate for some of the adverse effects of restricted ducts, dirty filters, and dirty coils
  • Improved coil design
  • Improved electric motor and two-speed compressor designs
  • Copper tubing, grooved inside to increase surface area.

Most central heat pumps are split-systems—that is, they each have one coil indoors and one outdoors. Supply and return ducts connect to a central fan, which is located indoors.

Some heat pumps are packaged systems. These usually have both coils and the fan outdoors. Heated or cooled air is delivered to the interior from ductwork that protrudes through a wall or roof.

Selecting A Heat Pump

Every residential heat pump sold in this country has an Energy Guide Label, which features the heat pump's heating and cooling efficiency performance rating, comparing it to other available makes and models.

Heating efficiency for air-source electric heat pumps is indicated by the heating season performance factor (HSPF), which is the total space heating required during the heating season, expressed in Btu, divided by the total electrical energy consumed by the heat pump system during the same season, expressed in watt-hours.

Cooling efficiency is indicated by the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), which is the total heat removed from the conditioned space during the annual cooling season, expressed in Btu, divided by the total electrical energy consumed by the heat pump during the same season, expressed in watt-hours.

The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rates both the efficiency of the compressor and the electric-resistance elements. The most efficient heat pumps have an HSPF of between 8 and 10.

The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rates a heat pump's cooling efficiency. In general, the higher the SEER, the higher the cost. However, the energy savings can return the higher initial investment several times during the heat pump's life. Replacing a 1970s vintage, central heat pump (SEER = 6) with a new unit (SEER=12) will allow the use of half the energy to provide the same amount of cooling, cutting air-conditioning costs in half. The most efficient heat pumps have SEERs of between 14 and 18.

To choose an air-source electric heat pump, look for the ENERGY STAR® label, which is awarded to those units with SEERs of 14.5 or greater and HSPFs of 7 or greater. If you are purchasing an electric air-source heat pump and are uncertain whether it meets ENERGY STAR qualifications, look on the bright yellow Energy Guide label for an efficiency of 14.5 SEER / 7HSPF or greater. For units with comparable HSPF ratings, check their steady-state rating at -8.3 degrees C, the low temperature setting. The unit with the higher rating will be more efficient.

 

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