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What is a Heat Pump?

Heat pumps are energy-efficient alternatives to electric heaters or gas furnaces, but what is a heat pump exactly? This post will walk you through heat pump basics and help you choose if a heat pump is right for you in your home.


Heat pumps are energy-efficient alternatives to electric heaters or gas furnaces.

What is a Heat Pump and What Makes it Unique?

In the simplest of forms a heat pump is both your air conditioner (in the summer) and your heater (in the winter). Heat pumps leverage the cooling efficiency of your system by using the condenser (your outdoor unit) to pump hot refrigerant into your indoor evaporator coil by essentially the same means as air conditioning.


What makes a heat pump unique from a typical air conditioner is the addition of a reversing valve. A reversing valve, not surprisingly, reverses the flow of refrigerant and essentially "flips" your condenser and evaporator coil in heat mode.


Think of it this way:


In air conditioning, your outdoor condenser (by means of its compressor) pushes liquid refrigerant into your evaporator coil. The evaporator coil regulates the flow of refrigerant through a metering device or thermostatic expansion valve (TXV). You can think of a TXV as the nozzle on a water hose. The high pressure coming from your house via your hose is dampened to a light spray or mist which cools the surrounding area. This change of state (from liquid to gas--evaporation) within your evaporator coil is what effectively creates cooling.


There's obviously a little more science and engineering behind air conditioning than lightly spritzing water out of a water hose, but you get the drift. For the more chemistry/science focused explanation, check out this YouTube video:

So there you have it! A basic introduction into all things air conditioning. Hope that helps, and see you next time!


Just kidding, there's more to it than that.


Why Should You Buy a Heat Pump?

That's the real reason you're here, right? When and why should you purchase a heat pump?


Energy Efficiency

As we've already said, heat pumps leverage the built-in efficiency of your air conditioning by converting the same electricity into heat. Unlike far less energy-efficient electric-only heat systems, your heat pump makes your electricity go further. After all, electricity is simply heat captured in a way we can transport and use it, but we still have to translate that heat into something useful for indoor home comfort. The most energy-efficient way of doing so is a heat pump.


Electricity for Fuel

Many homeowners who have grown up around gas appliances don't concern themselves too much with the safety of their appliances. As a matter of fact, most modern gas appliances (gas furnaces included) have more safety features on them than a Falcon Rocket. If you're unfamiliar with gas or if the price of running a gas furnace to heat your home is more cost prohibitive, then electric-sourced heat is the way to go.


We don't by any means think that gas is any more or less safe than electricity when it comes to heating your home, but electricity is far easier to get a hold of when building a new home, renovating an existing home, or changing out an aging system. All of that to say, depending on the existing utility infrastructure surrounding your home, using natural gas or propane to heat your home may not even be an option.


The Luxury of Emergency Heat

One major upside to heat pumps is that you still get the luxury of having electric heating coils or heat strips as back up heat. This is for two reasons, 1) heat pumps sometimes need a little help to heat your house quickly (auxiliary heat) and 2) there are instances where your heat pump may not be able to keep up with the weather conditions or it malfunctions. In either case, your auxiliary/emergency heat can come to the rescue and help out where single-heat source furnaces and air handlers cannot.


Drawbacks to Heat Pumps

As with anything, there are a few drawbacks to heat pump systems. For all of their energy savings, efficiency, and comfort, there are instances where you may want to consider conventional heat options.


Electrical Infrastructure Requirements

In order to install a heat pump in an existing home, you'll need to have already had a heat pump installed or at the very least an electric-only furnace. If everything is already there and adequate electricity is provided to power both your air handler and condenser, then the change to a heat pump is no problem.


On the other hand, if you're switching from a gas furnace to an electric system, you'll have to have a certified electrician run new wires to your air handler at least. Even then, you may need to upgrade your electrical service or make other needed repairs just in order to go with a heat pump.


Ambient Conditions

It's well publicized that heat pumps start to struggle in certain outdoor ambient conditions. First and foremost, heat pumps have a hard time when the mercury falls below freezing for extended periods of time. Secondly, the combination of near-freezing temperatures and high humidity can cause heat pumps to freeze up and stop heating your home or heat your home less effectively.


In their defense, heat pumps have built-in defrost controls where the system can cycle (briefly) into air conditioning mode and thaw out any accumulated frost or ice which is usually sufficient in most conditions. However, when the outdoor temperatures remain below freezing with precipitation, things start to get a little dicey. Many heat pumps will struggle to run defrost cycles long enough or often enough to clear any built up ice accumulation. This is the exact reason why heat pumps typically are not installed in northern states. The good news is that as a heat pump owner, you have the luxury of having backup heat!


Heat Pumps Aren't Blazing Hot

A common complaint from people from northern states who move to Texas and fire up their heat pump for the first time is, "My heater doesn't blow hot." Which is entirely accurate.


If you're accustomed to a gas furnace, then a heat pump simply won't put the same heat out of your vents. The reason comes down to efficiency. While a heat pump may only blow out 90-100 degree air, it does so with far greater efficiency than a natural gas or propane furnace burning fossil fuels. It runs longer while also running cheaper.


For reference, standard efficiency gas furnaces are generally only 80% efficient in their burn of gas. While that results in some cozy hot air (somewhere in the neighborhood of 135 degrees), it too comes at a cost: fuel and efficiency.


Higher Purchase Price

Finally, heat pumps tend to be a little more expensive to buy up front, and while comparing a heat pump to a natural gas or propane furnace isn't an apples to apples comparison, the purchase price of a heat pump will be a little more than a conventional electric furnace.


Heat pumps simply have more moving parts, more engineering, and generally more technology build into them than an air conditioner. As a result, you can expect to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 10%-15% more on a heat pump than an electric furnace with an A/C.


Fortunately, those added upfront costs can and will be justified by your energy savings in the winter months, so the higher cost shouldn't deter you from going with a heat pump. Additionally, you can consider financing that purchase or a portion of it to help make up the difference.

Unlike far less energy-efficient electric-only heat systems, your heat pump makes your electricity go further.

Is a Heat Pump Right For Me?

Despite their short list of drawbacks, heat pumps are perfect for southern states. Let's face it, Stephenville gets its fair share of cold weather by the time the New Year rolls around, but we're never sitting for weeks on end in subfreezing temperatures. Sure, the occasional cold spell or ice storm will roll through and make virtually everybody go into a bit of a frenzied panic over how to keep the house warm, but by and large we have very little to worry about.


With that said, unless you simply prefer gas heat, want a simpler electric furnace, or don't have the electrical infrastructure available, then a heat pump is likely the most economical option over the lifespan of your system. If you've never owned a heat pump, then hopefully we've shed some light on how they work and what to expect in a general sense. They're certainly great, useful, and viable options for our climate, and you'll likely be very happy with a new heat pump system. (Also, don't forget that we Texans spend about 80% of our year in air conditioning, so who cares about heat anyway?)


Choose the Right Heat Pump System

With so many choices to make and options to weigh when buying or replacing an HVAC system, you'll want to make sure you make the right choice for your budget, your home, and your family. This is where we come in.


Stephenville Heat & Air has been Stephenville's premier heating and air conditioning company since 2001. We've installed countless residential and commercial systems and helped homeowners like yourself make thoughtful, future-focused decisions about their home and indoor comfort. Get in touch with one of us today to get a free estimate or to learn more about our best-in-class American Standard equipment.


Looking for service, need help deciding what's right for you, or want to apply for financing? Call us at 254-965-4644!