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  • Writer's pictureRob Mitchell

What’s all the hubbub about heat pumps?

Updated: May 4, 2023

Bosch Heat Pump

Concern over global warming and the desire to reduce the use of fossil fuels has generated a lot of conversation regarding the use of heat pumps to heat your home. Most of this discussion about heat pumps is about air-source, split-system, forced-air heat pumps, the most common type of heat pump used in the United States. Ductless split-system heat pumps are another option, but they are more commonly used in commercial buildings or for home additions or older homes with no ductwork.

Heat pumps have actually been around for decades and are the primary HVAC system in many homes in the United States, though mostly in the warmest parts of the country, where the older heat pump designs could work effectively. Unlike gas or oil-burning furnaces, heat pumps do not use fossil fuels to produce heat. They run on electricity. That makes them a more planet-friendly heating solution if the electricity they are run on is provided from planet-friendly sources.

In 2021, 47.5 percent of occupied housing units in the United States were using utility gas and 39.8 percent were using electricity for heating. Only .2 percent were using solar. In Colorado, 68.0 percent of occupied housing units were using utility gas, only 24.1 percent were using electricity for heating. Bottled, tank, or LP gas accounted for 4.8 percent and solar .4 percent. These statistics come from the 2021 ACS census 5-Year estimates.

If you need to replace your air conditioner or your entire HVAC system, you might consider getting an air source heat pump. If you have existing ductwork, you can add a ducted heat pump to your system much like you’d add a central air conditioner. Without existing ductwork, a ductless mini-split heat pump might be easier to install.

A heat pump is designed like an air conditioner and works in the same fashion: circulating refrigerant between two sets of coils and changing the refrigerant’s pressure and temperature in a compressor. The difference with a heat pump is that it can change the direction the refrigerant moves so that instead of just removing heat from your house, it can also bring heat in. When a heat pump is in cooling mode, it will use approximately the same amount of energy to cool a house that an air conditioner of the same size and type does.

The real difference is in the heating. A heat pump consumes much less electricity to operate than an electric furnace. Under optimal conditions a heat pump can deliver 175% to 300% more energy than it consumes. High-efficiency gas furnaces are only about 95% efficient. Depending on the local prices for gas and electricity, a heat pump might even cost less to run than a gas furnace.

What possible drawbacks are there to getting a heat pump?

Heat pump technology has improved quite a bit in recent years. Today, even in moderately cold outdoor temperatures, heat pump systems provide energy-efficient heating using only electricity. However, as temperatures drop below freezing, the heat pump requires more and more energy to maintain a comfortable temperature inside. Thus, reducing its efficiency and increasing your electric bill. You can solve this problem by pairing a heat pump with a furnace, creating a dual fuel heating system.

A dual fuel system includes both a heat pump and a gas furnace. It will operate the heat pump during milder temperatures when it is most efficient. As the outdoor temperature drops the system will automatically switch over to the gas furnace. Not only does this give you the best comfort in your home, but it switches back and forth between the heat pump and gas furnace depending upon which is most efficient, saving you the most amount of money.

A heat pump is more expensive to purchase than either an air conditioner or a furnace. Therefore, to get the full value from one, it should replace both the air conditioner and the furnace. It’s wasteful to buy a heat pump and only use it for one mode.

In general, the air from a heat pump isn’t as hot as what you get from a gas furnace. It still warms your home, but it “blows cooler.” Some people don’t like that.

Another drawback of heat pumps is their higher electrical setup requirements. If you are currently using a fossil fuel heating system that runs on natural gas, fuel oil, or propane, you may need to upgrade your electrical panel for the installation of a heat pump system.

In spite of these drawbacks a heat pump should still be considered when you are ready to make changes to your current system.

New building codes in Denver will ban natural gas furnaces and water heaters in new commercial and multifamily construction starting in 2024. In Seattle, as of July 2023, all new residential home construction will be required to use electric heating and heat pumps. No more natural gas heating for new construction homes there. Many other cities across the US are adopting similar policies to either require or gently encourage people to move over to electric heating.

There are tax incentives available at the Federal, State and many local levels for the installation of certain heat pump systems. Even some local utilities are offering various heat pump installation incentives. Of course, the incentives available are dependent upon a number of different factors. You should certainly investigate them when making a final decision.

We would be happy to answer any questions you might have or make a visit to evaluate your situation for the installation of a heat pump system. Just give us a call.

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