6 Things to Know About Electric Heat Pump Systems

An electric heat pump can be a good choice for homeowners looking for energy-efficient ways to heat and cool their homes. Energy-efficient appliances reduce utility bills and are better for the environment. In April of 2021, President Biden announced his resolution to reduce greenhouse gas levels by 50 to 52% by 2030. Switching from fossil fuel-powered machines to electric devices is one path to meeting this goal.

Homeowners turn to heat pumps for more than energy savings and environmental concerns. Another top advantage is the ability to cool and heat homes with a single system. One heat pump system can replace a home’s air conditioner and furnace.

Still, heat pumps aren’t for every household. For one, your location might not be suitable for heat pumps. Only when you understand the benefits and drawbacks of heat pumps can you determine if one is ideal for your home.

What is an electric heat pump?

An electric heat pump is a heating and cooling system that transfers heat. Heat pumps transfer heat indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. A heat pump system primarily includes an outdoor condenser and an indoor air handler connected by refrigerant lines. Ductwork delivers the conditioned air to the house.

ow a electric heat pump works diagram
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How does an electric heat pump work?

How a heat pump works is similar to how an air conditioner operates. Refrigerant circulates between the indoor and outdoor units, absorbing heat from the surrounding air at one of the coils and releasing heat at the opposite coil with assistance from a compressor and a fan.

electric heat pump cooling cycle diagram

The Cooling Cycle

The heat pump transfers the home’s heat outside during the cooling cycle. The indoor coil is an evaporator, and the outdoor coil acts as a heat pump condenser.

The cooling cycle begins at the indoor coil. Warm household air blows over the coil as the cold refrigerant flows through it. The refrigerant absorbs the air’s heat, and the air handler’s fan blows the cooled air through the home’s ducts and vents. The refrigerant then travels to the outdoor unit and flows through that unit’s coil. The condenser’s fan supplies airflow and the heat energy stored in the refrigerant transfers to the outdoor air. Finally, the cooled refrigerant cycles back into the house to repeat the process.

electric heat pump heating cycle diagram

The Heating Cycle

The heat pump reverses its operation in heating mode and transfers heat energy inside. The outdoor coil acts as an evaporator, and the indoor coil functions as a condenser.

The heating cycle begins at the outdoor coil. Cold refrigerant in the coil absorbs heat from the outside air. The refrigerant then travels to the indoor unit’s coil. Cold household air blows over the coil, and the heat energy in the refrigerant transfers to the indoor air. The air handler’s fan blows the heated air through the home’s ducts and vents. Lastly, the cooled refrigerant cycles back through the outdoor unit to repeat the process.

Some heat pumps have an auxiliary heat or backup heating system that assists in heating the home if the heat pump struggles during cold weather. Dual-fuel heat pumps are another option to ensure homes stay warm during winters in cold climates.

electric heat pump defrost cycle diagram

The Defrost Cycle

The heat pump defrost cycle removes frost accumulating on the outdoor coil during freezing temperatures and high humidity levels. Ice on the coil reduces its efficiency and makes it difficult for the refrigerant to absorb heat.

When the defrost cycle initiates, the reversing valve reverses the heat pump’s operation and puts it into cooling mode. Hot, refrigerant gas containing absorbed heat from the home flows through the outdoor coil to melt the frost. The condenser fan remains idle to allow the ice to melt, but cold air blows from the vents in the house. The heat pump typically returns to heating mode when the coil reaches 58°F.

Do electric heat pumps save money?

Heat pumps often have higher upfront costs but can save you money over time with reduced energy costs. You might reap additional savings through tax credits and other incentives with new heat pump installation.

Heat pumps deliver increased savings over time

Heat pumps are a long-term investment that delivers savings from lower energy costs over time. Heat pumps use approximately 50% less energy than electric furnaces and baseboard heaters. Not only do heat pumps cost less to operate than other electric systems, but they also protect homeowners from rising fuel costs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Winter Fuels Outlook predicted in October 2022 that households that use natural gas, oil, and electric heating would spend more on energy costs during the winter of 2022 than the previous year:

  • Natural gas, 28% more

  • Oil, 27% more

  • Electricity, 10% more

Tax Credits and Other Incentives

Households that install new heat pumps can recoup some of the costs through local and federal tax credits and rebates. Some local utility companies offer incentives for installing Energy Star-qualified heat pumps. The federal government provides tax credits for high-efficiency upgrades, and rebates up to $14,000 will soon be available for heat pumps through the Inflation Reduction Act’s High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Act (HEEHRA).

Find your area’s energy efficiency rebates and incentive programs with the Energy Star Rebate Finder and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).

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Benefits of an Electric Heat Pump

Electric heat pumps offer numerous advantages to homeowners.

  1. They are more energy efficient. Heat pumps transfer more energy than they consume and can be up to 300% efficient.

  2. They are cheaper to run compared to a gas furnace. While it isn’t always the case, the cost to run a heat pump vs. furnace can be less if natural gas prices are higher than electric rates and the home is in a mild climate.

  3. There is no gas and carbon monoxide risk. Heat pumps are electric and don’t pose the risks associated with fuel combustion, such as leaks, explosions, or poisonings.

  4. They produce warm and cold air. Heat pumps can heat and cool your house with the same system. They transfer heat outside in summer and inside in winter.

They don’t burn fossil fuels. Heat pumps run on electricity and are environmentally friendly. They transfer heat, unlike furnaces that generate heat from fuel combustion.

Downsides of an Electric Heat Pump

Despite their advantages, heat pumps have some drawbacks.

  1. They have higher upfront costs. Heat pumps are more costly to install than gas furnaces.

  2. They use electricity. Electric appliances can be disadvantageous if your area has high electricity rates or is prone to power outages.

They can be less efficient in extreme climates. Heat pumps transfer heat indoors from the outside air in winter and are less efficient below 40°F. Heat pumps in cold climates usually require a backup heating system.

How much electricity does a heat pump use per day?

Overall, heat pumps use less electricity than other electric resistance heating systems. The amount of electricity a heat pump uses depends on the heat pump’s type, size, SEER and HSPF ratings, and mode.

According to Learn Metrics, a one- to six-ton air-source heat pump with ratings between 14 and 22 SEER and 8 and 14 HSPF uses 4.36 kWh to 41.14 kWh per day in cooling mode and 6.86 kWh to 72 kWh per day in heating mode.

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Is an Electric Heat Pump Right for You?

Electric heat pumps are innovative heating and cooling systems that transfer heat. Because they transfer instead of generating heat, they can heat and cool homes. Heat pumps operate like air conditioners during cooling cycles and like air conditioners in reverse during heating cycles. Defrost cycles preserve the outside coil’s efficiency during frosty outdoor conditions. Heat pumps have higher upfront costs but can save homeowners money through efficient energy usage, tax incentives, and rebates.

A heat pump might be right for you if…

  • You want energy-efficient heating and cooling

  • You want to reduce your heating and cooling costs

  • You want to avoid gas and carbon monoxide risks

  • You need a heating and cooling solution

  • You want to reduce your fossil fuel usage

Reconsider installing a heat pump if…

  • You can’t withstand the higher upfront cost

  • Your area has high electric rates or prevalent power outages

  • You live in a cold climate and aren’t going to install a backup heating system

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a heat pump with an electric furnace?

No, you don’t need a heat pump if you have an electric furnace. However, you might want some form of backup heating, such as electric heat strips or a gas furnace, if you install a heat pump in a cold climate.

Is my heat pump gas or electric?

Heat pumps are electric. Some homes have dual-fuel systems that combine electric heat pumps with gas furnaces for backup heating.

How long does an electric heat pump last?

Heat pumps last about fifteen years. Proper installation, maintenance, and usage determine how long heat pumps last.

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