In Colorado, most homeowners have limited experience with heat pumps as 85% of the state's homes currently use gas for heating. If you've just moved into a new Denver home or are scoping out a potential property, learn how to identify a heat pump and how it works. You’ll be able to use and maintain your heating and cooling system much better with this new knowledge (and possibly avoid expensive repairs down the road).
What Is a Heat Pump?
A heat pump is an appliance used for heating and cooling your home. They use refrigerant, circulated between an indoor air handler and compressor unit, to extract heat energy from the ground, air, or water.
Although heat pumps cost at least 1.5 times more to install than a traditional HVAC setup, heat pumps consume 50% less electricity for heating, so they’re typically cheaper to run during winter. Compared to a gas furnace, heat pumps reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 38–53%, which makes them environmentally friendly too.
There are four types of heat pumps:
- Air-to-air heat pumps, also known as air source heat pumps, heat homes by blowing outside air over refrigerant-filled tubes. This warms the refrigerant and turns it into a gas. The gas is then pressurized using a compressor to warm the gas further. The warmed gases heat the water, which is then piped around your home. In summer, the system works in reverse by using the refrigerant to extract heat energy indoors and transfer it outside.
- Geothermal heat pumps use solar energy trapped in the upper layer of the earth, which remains at 50 to 60°F twenty to thirty feet underground year-round. The geothermal energy is a reliable source for the heat pump in winter. In cooling mode, a geothermal heat pump draws out thermal energy from indoors and dumps it into the ground.
- Watersource heat pumps use a body of water such as a well, pond, or spring to acquire thermal energy. Like with geothermal and air-to-air models, water source heat pumps provide heating and cooling.
- Hybrid heat pumps use one of the above energy sources and combine it with an additional heating method, such as an electric boiler, in case one fails or temperatures drop past a certain level.
Our short guide–How These 4 Types of Heat Pumps Work in Winter–provides further details about how heat pumps function.
What Do Heat Pumps Look Like?
To the inexperienced eye, certain heat pump parts could be mistaken for a weird-looking refrigerator, computer server rack, or another type of HVAC appliance. However, upon closer inspection, heat pumps are easy to identify. Here's what to look for:
Air-to-Air Heat Pump
An air source heat pump is the most popular type as installation is very simple, requiring only a 3-inch hole to connect an indoor air handler with an outdoor condenser. If you see a three to five feet tall metallic box mounted near the outside of your house with a grille on the front and fan on the inside, chances are it’s the compressor unit for an air source heat pump.
If you’re still not sure whether it’s a heat pump, look for a logo or model name.
Popular heat pump brands in the US include:
- American Standard
Geothermal Heat Pump
Geothermal heat pumps require interaction with the ground to work. This means refrigerant pipes, commonly called a “loop,” are buried in a horizontal or vertical well. You can't see any pipes in a horizontal well since they’re buried a few feet underground. However, vertical wells have a 1–2ft2 hatch and/or a cylinder-shaped housing covering the borehole.
With residential geothermal setups, the well’s pipework typically runs directly into the basement, where the heat pump unit is located. However, there are three versions, so not all geothermal heat pumps look the same:
- Package units look similar to a traditional forced hot air furnace, with ductwork attached to the cabinet containing the compressor and air handler.
- Split units separate the compressor and air handler into two components and are linked with a refrigerant line.
- Hydronic units look similar to a split unit, except they’re usually hooked up to one or two 85+ gallon water storage tanks used for pumping to air handlers elsewhere in the house.
Watersource Heat Pump
Residential water source heat pumps typically use a vertical, rectangular-shaped compressor unit installed in a small equipment room or utility closet. In an apartment building, a taller and narrower version is used, called a stack unit, which is often built into the wall and has a removable face panel. Rooftop units are available too, although they’re more often installed in commercial properties. If your property is near a body of water and you have a compressor unit as described, then it’s most likely a water-source heat pump.
Hybrid Heat Pump
You’re likely to have a hybrid heat pump if you see both an air source heat pump unit (described above) plus another type of HVAC appliance, such as a gas furnace, which looks like a large metal cabinet in your attic, closet, or basement.
You’re one step closer to being an informed and empowered homeowner. Proactively care for your heating and cooling system by scheduling a service with one of our certified HVAC technicians today! We’re a factory authorized Carrier dealer near the Denver Metro area.