The Truth About Heat Pumps
Updated: Aug 8
There are many myths surrounding heat pumps, mostly due to it's rapid development over recent years. Heat pumps were invented in the 1850's, using several theories related to air conditioning. It's original purpose, however, was to extract moisture from salt water, leaving only the salt behind. Thus, the original purpose was not even for the purpose of heating or cooling - it was for dehumidification. Over the years, most notably after World War II in Europe, the heat pump saw massive improvements. It required less materials than the standard heating equipment and was far more efficient than anything else at that time. It was an effective means of heating indoor spaces, but due to the exponentially lower cost of coal and oil, it was an unpopular option for most households.
Because the heat pump has developed so much in a relatively short amount of time, and started out with a different purpose than it has today, there are a variety of myths surrounding these units. Most of these misconceptions are easily debunked by learning about the processes and how they function, which you can do more in depth by reading these "How Stuff Works" articles:
Myth #1: Heat Pumps Only Heat
The United States differs from European countries in many ways, but perhaps one of the most significant is their lack of central air conditioning. If a building does not have central air here in the USA, we typically try to find ways to keep our spaces cool during hot seasons. In Europe, central air is viewed as more of a luxury than a necessity. Because I could not find an answer for why this myth exists, my personal theory is that because it was mostly used for heating purposes in Europe, and because it is called a "Heat" pump, people in America were unaware of the full range of capabilities this equipment really has.
Additionally, most people are familiar with geothermals. These units are extremely popular in the United States because the government provides a 30% tax credit to individuals who get one installed in their home. This is because they are considered an economically friendly alternative to a standard gas furnace, and because only one unit is needed, it saves on electric usage as well. If you know what a geothermal is, you know it is able to both heat and cool a home. What you may not know is that "geothermal" is really just another name for a ground-source heat pump. Ground-source heat pumps and air-source heat pumps work the same exact way with a different heat source. (Read How Stuff Works: Heat Pumps if you would like to learn more about how heat pumps use heat transfer for both heating and cooling.)
Myth #2: Heat Pumps Do Not Work in Cold Climates
This may have been true for older models, but as technology continues to improve, heat pumps are being built to withstand extremely cold temperatures. Having already been more prominent in the southern states, we are now seeing a spike in popularity for heat pumps in the north as well, boosting their numbers even more across the nation, with the exception of a few Canadian-border areas, like northern Montana and North Dakota. Intense winters there are still a bit too harsh and unpredictable for heat pumps to be reliable, though they are continuing to improve, so it may not be long until we see these units in every part of the country.
Here in Ohio, even though heat pumps heat and cool, we typically recommend pairing an air-source heat pump with a furnace. This is called "auxiliary heat", and will provide you a back-up heat source when it gets extremely cold outside. Heat pumps will work perfectly fine in cold temperatures, but they may have a harder time keeping up when the outside temperatures dip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. A heat pump uses less energy than the auxiliary heat, and since it will only use the auxiliary heat when it's needed, this saves you money on your heating bills while also providing a reliable HVAC set up for your home.
In places where the temperatures drop into the negatives on a regular basis, heat pumps may not be the best solution, but for moderate climates like Northwest Ohio, heat pumps are an excellent option!
Myth #3: Heat Pumps Are Expensive
There is a larger upfront cost for a heat pump, but over time, it will end up saving you money on your utility bills. The government also allows a 30% tax credit up to $2,000, which you can learn more about here: EnergyStar.gov Air Source Heat Pumps. Generally speaking, the labor it takes to install a heat pump is going to be about the same as a typical air conditioner or furnace, and the cost of a furnace and heat pump (no other materials included here) about $5,000 to $7,000 depending on the model. A typical air conditioner and furnace (again, no other materials included here) is around $4,000 to $6,000.
(Disclaimer: I haven't included labor or additional material costs in these amounts, but its safe to assume those amounts will be the same regardless of whatever package you choose. These amounts are assumptions based off our books, and are more reflective of a 2 to 3 Ton HVAC package. For larger 4 to 5 Ton systems, add about $1,500 to $2,000 to the amounts listed above. For the sake of simplicity, I will be sticking with my previous example, but feel free to do the math for these larger systems by following a similar formula. Larger systems will be replacing larger systems, so assume a larger monthly amount saved.)
Logistically speaking, if you were to save on average $80 each month in electric bills, that's about $960 each year, you could make up the difference in energy savings in less than 2 years. Heat Pumps are efficient, and that's their most valuable trait. If you can afford the extra $1,000-$2,000 it costs to upgrade to a heat pump, I'd encourage you to do it. When you start looking into replacing that old furnace and air conditioning system, make sure you find a company that has had training on heat pumps if that is something you'd like to learn more about. They have some complex electronics that techs to need to understand when setting them up.
Our company has installed many of these systems, and almost everyone loves them. In cases where something went wrong, it was either because of the furnace or a lack of proper maintenance. These units are lasting a long time before needing any work done, which is something we really like to see. Our customers have been thrilled with the results, they love the clean look and they're impressed with their new energy bills. Please leave comments with any questions, or let us know if you've had a good experience with your heat pump!
If you're interested in learning more about the brands we trust and carry, we have an online catalog for easy browsing here: https://www.greenesplumbing.com/products