What Is a Heat Pump and How Does It Work?

What Is a Heat Pump and How Does It Work?

Over the last few years, an increasing number of homeowners are selecting heat pumps as the primary source of heating and cooling in their homes. Whether you’re looking to decrease energy consumption, reduce the utilization of electricity from one-third to one-fifth, or replace the gas boiler in your home, installing a heat pump is a worthwhile consideration. In order to make an informed decision, Advantage Mechanical Supply is here to educate you on what heat pumps are, how they operate, and if replacing your current heating system is the right choice for you.

What Is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is a machine that can cool, heat, and dehumidify your home, making it the perfect all-in-one system. During the colder months, your heat pump system will take heat from the outside (even if it feels like there is none) and pump it into your home to generate warmth. During hotter months, the cooling system works in reverse by offloading the heat from inside your home. This process keeps the temperatures inside your house cooler. Heat pumps eliminate the need for homeowners to buy a gas boiler or furnace and an air conditioning unit. In our book, heat pumps offer the complete package for every homeowner’s heating and cooling needs. 

Types of Heat Pumps

There are two main types of heat pumps available for homeowners to heat and cool their homes. First, there are air-source heat pumps that move air from inside the home to outside, consequently either cooling or heating the home. The second is geothermal heat pumps—these use the underground temperatures of the earth to operate. Both of these heat pump systems can work as a replacement for natural gas boilers and furnaces. Let’s explore these energy-efficient options further.  

Air-Source Heat Pumps

Air-source heat pumps work similarly to how they are named. To heat your home, this system takes warm air from outside and passes it through a refrigerant that turns it into gas/vapor. This gas will go through the compressor to create more heat. Then it makes its way to the inside unit where it releases heat as it turns back into a liquid state. The heat travels throughout the home via radiators or underfloor heating—it can even be used to heat your water. 

To cool a home, the process is reversed. Warm air from inside your home is cycled through and turns into cooler air. This all-in-one design allows homeowners to only use one system for their heating and cooling needs.

Source: Department of Energy

Air-source heat pumps are best for people who live in climate conditions that don’t drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius too often. Though this heat pump system can still operate in freezing conditions, it must go through a defrost cycle which causes it to be less efficient.  

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal heat pumps use the Earth’s regular temperature to cool and heat the space it is in. By tapping into the ground, this system uses water rather than air to transfer heat to or from your home. During the summer months, the geothermal heat pump takes the heat from inside your home and transfers it to the cool earth using water as the medium. During the winter months, this system uses the warmth from the earth to heat your home. 

This type of heat pump system is a great option for homeowners who live in climates that experience all four seasons and constant changes in temperature. Because the heat pump is sourced by the Earth’s constant temperature, dramatic fluctuation in weather will not affect its efficiency like it would with an air-source heat pump. 

Heat Pump Components

Heat pumps consist of many parts that all work together to run smoothly and operate differently than your normal gas furnace. To provide you with a better understanding of how the system works, we’re going to break down the structure of a heat pump. The following are the most important parts.

Indoor Unit

The indoor unit is the part of the heat pump that you will see inside your home. With a coil and fan, this unit moves warm or cool air throughout your home, depending on which you need. When it is operating to cool your home, the coil works as an evaporator. When it is producing heat, the coil works as a condenser. 

Outdoor Unit

Coils and fans are present in both indoor and outdoor units. The outdoor unit works oppositely from the indoor unit. When it’s operating to cool your home, it functions as a condenser. When it’s working to heat your home, it works as an evaporator. This component of the heat pump allows for heat exchange to occur.


Rather than a particular part of the heat pump, refrigerants are the chemical components of the system that either absorb heat (to cool a home down) or release heat (to warm the home). 


The compressor holds the refrigerant and uses pressure to move the warm or cold air throughout the heat pump. 

Reversing Valve

Since heat pumps are all-in-one systems, they must be able to work in reverse. The reversing valve allows the heat pump system to use the refrigerant to cool the air. Once it changes direction, it heats the air.

Expansion Valve

The expansion valve ensures the right amount of refrigerant is used. It also keeps tabs on its pressure and temperature. This process allows the heat pump system to run efficiently.

How Do Heat Pumps Work?

In layman’s terms, heat pumps first take air or the temperature of the ground from inside or outside a home. Then, using electricity to transfer the heat, they bring your space to the desired temperature. Since they operate as a heating and cooling system, they function differently depending on the season. Here’s a simple breakdown.

How Heat Pumps Work in the Summer

During the summer months, you may think of your heat pump as an air conditioning unit, despite its name. The heat pump transfers heat from inside your home to the outside using a refrigerant and compressor. When they function properly, you’ll be able to enjoy the cool air inside your home during the warm summer months. 

How Heat Pumps Work in the Winter

During the winter months, you may not feel like there is enough warm air outside your home to heat it, but there is. When a heat pump is operating in the winter, the process is the reverse of what occurs during the summer. The heat from outside goes through the refrigerant, causing it to heat up and deliver warm air throughout your home.

How Do Heat Pumps Help You Save Money?

Other typical heating and cooling systems used in homes are furnaces and boilers, although furnaces are more common. Furnaces heat the air by burning fuel. Boilers use gas, oil, or coal to heat the water they store inside to provide heat throughout the home. If all these heating and cooling systems operate similarly, then how do heat pumps help you save money?

Heat pumps, depending on which type you choose, can seem costly upfront because of unit price and installation costs. If you choose to use a geothermal heat pump, you’ll have to do some extensive work on your property in order to get it up and running. This can cost over $10,000 depending on where you live. Fortunately—as a heat energy incentive—there is government assistance available to help you pay for a geothermal heat pump system. If geothermal pumps seem too involved or too expensive, you can always go for an air-source heat pump which can average from $1,500 to $5,500. 

When buying a heat pump, it’s important to remember that they operate as a two-in-one system so you don’t need to purchase an air conditioning unit if you have one. This is another way heat pumps help you save money. 

Even with a high-efficiency furnace, you can still end up paying $5 to $8 a day for it to run, and sometimes even more than that. During winter months, you can expect to pay a few hundred dollars depending on where you live and how much fuel currently costs just to heat your home. Though they can cost more upfront, heat pumps can help you save up to 40% on your monthly utility bill where other systems won’t.

Pros and Cons of Heat Pumps

As with every household appliance and product, there are pros and cons. We’ve broken down the best and the worst aspects of a heat pump so you can make a more informed decision. 

Pros of switching to heat pumps:

  • Safe: Heat pumps utilize electricity rather than combustion to safely heat or cool down your home. Heating systems that use combustion always run the risk of causing a fire. 
  • Running costs: Heat pumps are energy efficient and offer a lower running cost than combustion-based heating systems.  
  • Carbon emissions: You can reduce your carbon footprint with the heat pump’s energy-efficient function. 
  • Maintenance: Heat pumps require minimal maintenance checks that can also be done without professional assistance.
  • Reliable: Heat pumps have a life expectancy of up to 15 years. This will save you substantial money over time. If cared for well, some heat pumps last up to 20 years or more.
  • Cooling: Because of their reversible design, heat pumps can also cool down your home—eliminating the need for a separate system.

Cons of switching to heat pumps:

  • Installation: Installing a heat pump is not an easy task, especially if you choose to use a ground source heat pump. Installation requires extensive—and often invasive—work to be done inside and outside your home.
  • Upfront cost: Though heat pumps have a low running cost, you’ll see a higher upfront cost when you first purchase this type of system. 
  • Cold weather: In climates that get very cold, it can be difficult for the heating system to work efficiently. Yes, there is always heat in the air that can be used but if it’s very cold then the system will have to work harder. 

How Much do Heat Pumps Cost?

Heating systems function differently, therefore their costs vary. Upgrading to a heat pump will cost you the price of the unit along with installation fees. Fortunately, the maintenance on heat pumps usually doesn’t cost much and is fairly easy. The average cost of an air source heat pump is $1,500 to $5,000 with an installation cost of $2,000 to $5,500. The average cost of a geothermal heat pump is $10,000 with an installation cost of $3,000 to $6,000. For geothermal heat pumps, the price can vary drastically depending on the terrain surrounding your home.

Are Heat Pumps Worth It?

Although monetary costs should be considered when buying a heat pump, the energy cost should also be on your mind. Heat pumps function by transferring thermal energy rather than creating it, causing them to be more energy efficient than boilers and furnaces. You’ll save on energy and reduce your carbon footprint by replacing your furnace with a heat pump. There’s also a less likely chance of a gas leak and easier maintenance responsibilities. 

Get the Best Heat Pump With Advantage Mechanical Supply

Transitioning from a furnace or boiler to a heat pump system may seem tricky, but with the right knowledge, you can confidently make a choice. If you’re ready to make the energy-efficient switch to heat pumps, Advantage Mechanical Supply will be here with you every step of the way. We carry a wide variety of home products, including heat pump components, making us your one-stop shop for all HVAC-related needs.
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