There are two common types of heat pumps: air-source heat pumps and geothermal heat pumps (GHPs). Either one can keep your home warm in the winter and cool in the summer. An air-source heat pump pulls its heat indoors from the outdoor air in the winter and from the indoor air in the summer. A GHP extracts heat from the indoor air when it’s hot outside, but when it’s cold outside, it draws heat into a home from the ground, which maintains a nearly constant temperature of 50˚ to 60˚F. This fact sheet focuses on air-source heat pumps, which comprise the majority of all residential heat pump applications. An air-source heat pump can provide efficient heating and cooling for your home, especially if you live in a warm climate. When properly installed, an air-source heat pump can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home compared to the electrical energy it consumes. This is possible because a heat pump moves heat rather than converting it from a fuel, like in combustion heating systems.
You might be wondering how an air source heat pump uses the outdoor winter air to heat a home. Believe it or not: heat can be harvested from cold outdoor air down to about 40°F. And this can be accomplished through a process you’re probably already familiar with—refrigeration.
Basically, a heat pump’s refrigeration system consists of a compressor, and two coils made of copper tubing, which are surrounded by aluminum fins to aid heat transfer. The coils look much like the radiator in your car. Like in a refrigerator or air-conditioner, refrigerant flows continuously through pipes, back and forth from the outdoor coils. In the heating mode, liquid refrigerant extracts heat from the outside coils and air, and moves it inside as it evaporates into a gas. The indoor coils transfer heat from the refrigerant as it condenses back into a liquid. A reversing valve, near the compressor, can change the direction of the refrigerant flow for cooling as well as for defrosting the outdoor coils in winter.
When outdoor temperatures fall below 40°F, a less-efficient panel of electric resistance coils, similar to those in your toaster, kicks in to provide indoor heating. This is why air-source heat pumps aren’t always very efficient for heating in areas with cold winters. Fuel-burning furnaces generally can provide a more economical way to heat homes in cooler U.S. climates.