Thinking about buying a heat pump? This unbiased report will help you sort through the options so you can make an informed decision.
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Because heat pumps heat and cool homes relatively efficiently, they have grown dramatically in popularity in recent years. Unfortunately, though most people understand how furnaces and air conditioners work, they’re less familiar with heat pumps.
This buying guide can help you become much more familiar with them in the hopes that, if you go the route of having a heat pump installed, you may be able to save significantly on your energy bill. And, if you install one with an Energy Star designation, you can qualify for a $300 tax credit.
Similar to an air conditioner, a heat pump uses refrigeration principles rather than fuel combustion to both heat and cool. In cooling mode, it acts almost exactly like an air conditioner, extracting heat from indoors and expelling it outdoors. But, when switched to heating mode, it reverses this process, drawing heat—even from cold outdoor air—to warm interior rooms. For more about how the most common type works, see How a Heat Pump Works.
Is a Heat Pump Right for Your Home?
Whether or not a heat pump will save you money on energy bills depends on a number of factors, including your climate, the type of fuel prevalent in your area, and the amount of insulation and other energy-efficient features you have in your home.
Heat pumps are not great in cold climates. They are most effective at saving energy when in the heating mode. In a cold climate, however, your house needs more heat as the temperature outside goes down—but the heat pump works less efficiently at lower outdoor temperatures. Below a temperature known as the “balance point,” normally from between 30 and 45 degrees F., supplementary heat is required—and that means expensive electrical heating kicks in.
In a cold climate, the general wisdom is this: If you have natural gas available, it probably makes sense for you to heat and cool with a conventional forced-air heating and air-conditioning system. Natural gas, needed for a gas furnace, has traditionally been a more efficient, less expensive fuel than electricity—though this isn’t always the case. For more about conventional furnaces, please see How to Buy a Furnace.
But in the Northeast or other regions where fuel-oil or electric-resistance heat is more the norm, a heat pump can realize substantial savings. Although an electric-resistance furnace is much less expensive to install than a heat pump, the heat pump can deliver 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 times more heat with the same amount of energy, depending on the climate, the house, and the particular system.
The right way to decide the most appropriate form of heating and cooling for your home is to do an economic analysis based on a system’s purchase price and efficiency, the cost of your fuel, and your home’s heating/cooling load requirements. Keep in mind that if you’re replacing an existing forced-air furnace and air conditioner with a heat pump, the ductwork may need to be replaced, too. Heat pumps generally require larger ducts.
Heat Pump Refrigerants
The refrigerant a heat pump utilizes for heat transfer is an important consideration when buying a new model. Almost all major brands of heat pumps on the market today have shifted from R22—also known as freon—to more environmentally sustainable refrigerants.
R22 refrigerant is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon that is known to deplete the ozone layer and can subject the earth to harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. It will be completely phased out of domestic use by the year 2020. Until that date, R22 is expected to become more and more expensive to obtain as manufacturers cease production and existing recycled stocks diminish.
Other, non-harmful refrigerants have been developed and are available, but it is important to know that heat pumps that use R22 cannot be charged with the newer, safer refrigerants because the systems are not compatible.
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