Mitsubishi “air source heat pumps,” for heating and cooling, installed behind two Chicago homes (Images: Nick & Eddie Construction)
Electric heat pumps are the future!
Such exciting news, right? (But what the heck is a heat pump?)
Well, they’re the most efficient way to both heat and cool your home, and a much better environmental option than ye olde gas furnace or boiler. They’re quieter than the systems we’ve been using in recent decades and they give homeowners incredibly precise control over temperatures—all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In a nutshell, electric heat pumps are essentially two-way air conditioners. In the summer, they work like any other air conditioning unit by removing heat from the indoor air and then pushing cooled air back into the room. In the colder months, they do the opposite by drawing heat energy from the outside and bringing it into your home to warm it up.
The trick is that instead of generating heat, a heat pump simply transfers heat from one place to another, which is a much more efficient use of electricity. Even on extremely cold days, heat pumps are able to extract heat from the outside air and can use electricity to provide additional heat. By transferring heat instead of generating heat, less electricity is required and less energy is used, keeping your bills more manageable while energy prices continue to climb. And boy are they climbing.
What Kind of Heat Pump Should You Buy?
While you can buy a heat pump at Home Depot and big online retailers nowadays, we highly recommend working with an experienced contractor to help you figure out what you’ll need. There are numerous factors—what kind of home you live in, how large your conditioned living space is, whether your home has been properly air sealed and insulated, what kinds of local climate and incentive programs are available—that will determine what makes the most sense for you and your home. You may also need to upgrade your electrical system and may decide to connect your heat pump to your water heater and clothes dryer. These systems are incredibly flexible and can open a lot of new possibilities that transfer to money and energy savings.
The other thing to note is that there are different kinds of heat pumps. Here are the most common types:
Air Source – the most common and adaptable kind of heat pump. This system transfers heat between your house and the outside air using an air handler and a condenser connected by a line of refrigerant.
Water Source – these pumps transfer heat by way of water instead of air. They require access to a well, lake, or other water source and aren’t as common.
Ground Source – these take advantage of thermal energy stored in the earth by drilling a series of wells underground and circulating that energy back into the home. While extremely efficient, installation requires bringing heavy machinery onto a property to dig trenches for piping, and initial installation can be time-consuming and expensive.
All of these heat pumps operate using the same principle: moving heat from one place to another is much more efficient than generating heat from scratch. For single family homeowners, the most commonly used heat pump system is air source due to upfront costs, rate of return, and ease of installation. Air source heat pump systems are also incredibly adaptable and can work in any home. There are both ducted and ductless systems, and the heat pump condenser—the part of the system that lives outside your home—can be mounted on a wall, the roof, or the ground.
Heat pump technology has dramatically improved in recent years. They are not cheap, but they last, and there are several brands offering warranties up to 10 or 12 years. It can be hard to choose a brand and model, but if you work with a good contractor, they will be the one sourcing the parts and aware of what the best system is for you, your home, and your climate zone.
How To Find a Contractor That Knows What They’re Doing
As with any contractor, it’s always a good idea to ask around! The odds are pretty good that if a neighbor or someone you know has purchased one, they’re going to want to talk about it. People geek out on these. A lot of heat pump manufacturers also have preferred partnership programs for independent installers. These contractors must meet a certain level of standards working with the equipment in order to meet manufacturers’ expectations. So, if a contractor has gotten the seal of approval from a manufacturer, it demonstrates at least some level of training and understanding.
How Expensive Are They?
The truth is, they are not inexpensive. While heat pumps can be more cost-effective than other heating and cooling systems over the long term, the initial purchase price can be high, especially in places that get as cold as Chicago. That said, there are some credits and rebates available, and on August 16, 2022, President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which is full of provisions to help homeowners make energy-efficiency upgrades to their homes beginning in 2023... and the largest rebates are reserved for heat pumps!
We recommend continuing to do your research on available credits and rebates, and asking your contractor what other incentives they know of as well!
To recap, there are plenty of reasons why heat pumps are quickly becoming popular. Here are a few:
One system can both heat and cool your home!
They are far more efficient than traditional heating and air conditioning systems, which can help lower bills.
There is no combustion of fossil fuels like natural gas, so systems are safer and indoor air is cleaner.
They are quieter than traditional systems.
They are extremely adaptable and can be either ducted or ductless.
They can work with existing HVAC ducts.
Newer models are incredibly precise in terms of temperature control, and systems can be zoned.
There are incentives available to help offset initial costs.
We’re excited about these systems and how adaptable they are for vintage homes, but homeowners should keep in mind that this is a large investment and one worth taking some time to research. Start looking at heat pumps before your current system starts kicking and sputtering—give yourself some time to do things in a way that you’ll get the most bang for your buck and the best results in terms of efficiency and rate of return. Ask around for contractor recommendations, research local rebates and incentive programs for energy efficient upgrades, and be prepared to air seal and insulate your home before you purchase a heat pump or you’ll be throwing your money out the window (pretty much literally). Have fun and good luck with your search!