top grille and fan off of heat pump for maintenance

Heat pump maintenance is an essential responsibility for air-source heat pump owners. First off, maintenance leads to improved heat pump efficiency and performance. In fact, heat pumps that are appropriately maintained consume ten to twenty-five percent less energy than neglected units. Besides energy savings, heat pump maintenance has additional benefits relating to its longevity and your home’s indoor conditions.

Heat pump maintenance involves do-it-yourself tasks, winter upkeep, and professional tune-ups. Heat pumps require more attention than air conditioners and furnaces because they are used year-round for heating and cooling, and the condenser units are located outside. Though heat pump systems necessitate great care, they reward homeowners with efficient, eco-friendly indoor climate control.

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Benefits of Preventative Heat Pump Maintenance

All machines require preventative maintenance to keep them running. Vehicles, for example, require regular oil changes, refilling of fluids, replacement of worn parts, and other upkeep. Likewise, heat pump systems’ motors, bearings, and other mechanical parts require regular attention.

Preventative maintenance aims to avoid breakdowns and other issues that cause interrupted heating and cooling. Preventative heat pump maintenance involves identifying and rectifying problems, inspecting and cleaning components, lubricating parts, and testing operations to keep your heat pump operating optimally year after year.

Preventative heat pump maintenance has several benefits:

  • Prevents repairs

  • Increases efficiency

  • Improves indoor air quality

  • Extends your system’s lifespan

Prevent repairs

Heat pump maintenance prevents repairs caused by unlubricated motors, restricted airflow, bad electrical connections, clogged condensate lines, and dirty coils. Locating and rectifying minor issues prevents them from turning into significant repairs.

Increase efficiency

Maintenance partially determines heat pump efficiency and impacts utility bills. Poor electrical connections and dirty, neglected components reduce a heat pump’s ability to heat and cool. A poorly maintained heat pump won’t necessarily break down, but your energy bills will likely increase.

Improve indoor air quality

Heat pumps condition and distribute a home’s air. Therefore, the HVAC system’s cleanliness, specifically the coils and air filters, affects the home’s air quality. Poor air quality affects occupants with allergies, asthma, and respiratory conditions. Moldy heat pump components affect the entire household's air and can cause constructional issues.

Extend your system’s lifespan

How long do heat pumps last? Heat pumps last about fifteen years, but unmaintained heat pumps typically have shorter lifespans. Preventative maintenance identifies minor issues before they become detrimental, and regular attention keeps the system operating smoothly. Preventive care can extend a heat pump's life beyond fifteen years.

DIY Heat Pump Maintenance Tips

Do-it-yourself maintenance tasks keep heat pumps functioning properly between professional tune-ups. Regular upkeep ensures heat pumps operate efficiently and guarantees comfort throughout the seasons. The last thing anyone wants is a heat pump blowing cold air in winter.

DIY maintenance tasks should be performed once a year if heat pumps are used for cooling and twice a year if they’re also used for heating. Although maintenance can be performed at any time, the best times are before the heating and cooling seasons begin to avoid interruptions.

Heat pump systems incorporate indoor and outdoor components, and each unit has separate tasks. Before conducting maintenance, ensure both units' power supplies are switched off at the circuit breaker panel. Consult the owner's manual for additional guidance, and only perform tasks within your skill or comfort levels.

Indoor unit maintenance

  • Check electrical connections for loose or singed wires. Hire a professional for repairs.

  • Ensure the blower wheel is clean and balanced. Inspect the fan belt for wear and looseness. Oil the blower motor bearings if the blower housing is unsealed.

  • Ensure the air filter is not clogged with dust, hair, or other debris. Clean or change it if necessary. How often you should change the air filter varies, but most filters should be replaced at least every three months.

  • Inspect and clean the drain pan and coil. Clean the coils with an indoor coil cleaner.

  • Inspect and flush the drain line.

  • Ensure the auxiliary heat strips function properly. If you have a dual-fuel heat pump, perform furnace maintenance tasks.

  • Inspect the ductwork for leaks and damage. Seal leaks with metal tape, and repair damaged ducts.

  • Unblock and vacuum the supply and return air vents.

  • Ensure the thermostat is level, clean and the connections are tight. Ensure it operates appropriately, and schedules are correctly programmed.

  • Be aware of unusual noises and smells while the heat pump operates.

Outdoor unit maintenance

  • Remove vegetation, snow, belongings, and debris around the condenser unit. Allow at least two feet of space on all sides.

  • Ensure the unit’s metal fins are clean and free from debris.

  • Clean the coil with an outdoor coil cleaner.

  • Inspect the unit’s base-pan drain holes and remove obstructions.

  • Check the electrical connections and the wires’ insulation for looseness and damage.

  • Remove debris from the fan motor and clean the fan blades. Oil the fan motor bearings if the housing is unsealed. Ensure the fan is balanced and undamaged.

  • Ensure the condenser unit is level.

  • Check for refrigerant tubing cracks and leaks.

  • In coastal areas, wash the exposed surfaces of the unit every three months to remove corrosive salt buildup.  

How to Clean Your Heat Pump

Cleaning the heat pump’s condenser maintains the system’s efficiency. The condenser fins and coil have essential roles in the heat transfer process. The coil and fins release the home’s heat in cooling mode and absorb the air’s heat in heating mode. Debris caught in the fins and dirt coating the coil reduces the system’s ability to transfer heat effectively.  

Like other maintenance tasks, heat pumps should be cleaned once a year if they are used for cooling and twice a year if they’re also used for heating before the seasons begin. Please verify in the heat pump’s owner's manual that unprofessional cleanings are acceptable before starting.

Step 1: Turn off the power supply to the outdoor unit at the circuit breaker panel.

Step 2: Remove vegetation and debris within two to three feet of the unit.

top grille and fan removed from heat pump for maintenance

Step 3: Remove the unit's outer cage, which might be secured with screws. If possible, remove the top grille and fan. If the fan is not removable, avoid spraying water when cleaning.

Step 4: Gently vacuum the unit’s outer surfaces with a wet-dry vac or spray a garden hose outwards from the inside; never use a power washer. Spray the water straight through the fins to avoid bending them. If desired, apply an outdoor coil cleaner, and follow the manufacturer's directions.

Step 5: Straighten bent fins with a fin comb or a dull tool, such as a butter knife. Call an HVAC professional to fix or replace them if they won't straighten..

Step 6: Replace the fan, grille, outer cage, and screws.

Step 7: Restore the unit’s power. Turn it on, and adjust the thermostat’s settings to ensure it works.

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Winter Heat Pump Maintenance Tips

It might be surprising that heat pumps that cool houses in summer can also heat homes in winter. How does a heat pump work in winter? Heat pumps heat houses by absorbing the air’s thermal energy and transferring it. Thermal energy is always present if temperatures are above absolute zero or -459.67°F.

Heat pumps can be efficient heaters if they are correctly maintained. Efficiency reduces when temperatures drop below freezing, and units are covered in ice or snow. Backup heating systems are typically necessary in cold climates.

Follow these winter heat pump maintenance tips to maintain efficiency:

  • Set your heat pump’s thermostat at one temperature.

  • Clear away the snow.

  • Remove thick ice.

  • Plan your backup heat source.

  • Defrost mode is important.

  • Do NOT cover your system.

person adjusting heat pump thermostat

Set your heat pump’s thermostat at one temperature.

It might be tempting to crank up the thermostat when the outdoor temperature drops, but that would cause your heat pump or backup system to draw increased energy and raise your utility bills. Install a programmable thermostat designed for heat pump systems, and set schedules for when you’re home, away, and sleeping.

heat pump covered in snow during winter

Clear away the snow.

Heat pumps pull warmth from the air, so they struggle when covered in snow. Heat pumps generally sit four to eight inches above ground level and aren’t affected by minor snow accumulations. Deep snow around the unit should be cleared away. Use a broom or brush instead of a shovel to prevent damage to the heat pump.

ductless heat pump outside covered in ice during winter

Remove thick ice.

Ice can form on the heat pump from water dripping off the roof or freezing rain. The heat pump’s defrost mode will melt frost or thin ice, but thick ice must be removed. Turn off the power supply to the heat pump, and pour warm water over the ice to melt it. Don’t use a shovel or sharp object to chip away at it and risk damaging the unit. Ensure the ice isn’t forming due to a leaky gutter above the unit, and repair the gutter if it leaks.

heat pump thermostat showing AUX heat setting

Plan your backup heat source.

Houses in cold climates require backup heating systems, such as electric heat strips in the air handler, baseboard heaters, or dual fuel heat pump systems, including gas furnaces. These auxiliary heat systems supplement the heat pump’s heat when it loses efficiency or when the defrost cycle runs. Emergency or EM heat is manually activated and overrides the heat pump system if inoperable.

heat pump defrost cycle illustration

Defrost mode is important.

The heat pump defrost cycle runs when conditions are right for frost to form on the outdoor coil. The heat pump begins cycles when its sensors detect low coil and air temperatures. The system reverses its operation to send heat from the home’s air to the outdoor coil. Defrost cycles end when the coil’s temperature increases, in five to fifteen minutes. Cycles typically repeat every thirty to ninety minutes. More frequent or more prolonged cycles signal heat pump issues.

heat pump condenser outside not covered from elements

Do NOT cover your system.

You don’t need to protect your system with a heat pump cover. Heat pumps are designed to withstand winter weather. Covering the outdoor unit leads to mold growth and pest infestations.

Schedule Routine Professional Maintenance

Schedule routine professional maintenance at least once a year, twice if it’s the primary heating and cooling system. The best times for care are in spring and fall or before the heating and cooling seasons begin. It’s harder to schedule visits, and rates might be higher during summer and winter when the HVAC industry is busiest.

During a routine visit, a technician will inspect, tune-up, and clean the heat pump system. Professional maintenance doesn’t replace do-it-yourself tasks. Perform DIY maintenance, such as filter changes, throughout the year to preserve the heat pump’s efficiency and performance. Leave tasks involving high voltages and toxic refrigerants to professional technicians.

HVAC professional heat pump maintenance checklist

HVAC professionals will perform the following tasks:

  • Verify adequate airflow, and inspect the ductwork for leaks and damage; seal/repair ducts when necessary

  • Clean the indoor coil and the drain pan

  • Flush the drain line

  • Check the lines and system discharge pressure

  • Verify the correct refrigerant charge; check for and repair refrigerant leaks

  • Inspect electrical connections; replace damaged wires; clean and tighten connections

  • Lubricate motors and bearings; check belts for wear and looseness

  • Inspect the blower wheel’s balance and cleanliness

  • Test the defrost cycle

  • Test the thermostat’s calibration and controls

  • Check the outdoor temperature sensors

  • Inspect the outdoor unit’s cleanliness and the base pan’s drainage

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Heat pump maintenance is essential. Maintenance prevents repairs, increases efficiency, improves indoor air quality, and increases your system’s lifespan.

Heat pump maintenance involves do-it-yourself tasks, winter upkeep, and professional tune-ups. DIY tasks range from regular filter changes to component inspections and cleanings once or twice a year. Winter upkeep involves snow and ice removal to maintain the heat pump’s ability to deliver heat on cold days. Yearly or biannual professional cleanings and tune-ups are another crucial component of heat pump care.

With proper maintenance, your heat pump should meet or exceed its life expectancy and provide uninterrupted, efficient heating, cooling, and fresh air.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do heat pumps require maintenance?

Yes, heat pumps require regular maintenance like other heating and cooling systems to operate efficiently.

Is heat pump maintenance expensive?

Heat pump maintenance services cost between $75 and $150—replacement parts and additional labor cost extra.

How often should you service a heat pump?

Heat pumps should be serviced at least once a year. Twice a year is ideal for heat pumps that are the primary heating and cooling system.

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