A heat pump is a machine or device that effectively “moves” thermal energy from one location called the “source” (at a lower temperature), to another location called the “sink” or “heat sink” (at a higher temperature). During the operation, some of the thermal energy must be transformed to another type of energy in the process before reappearing as thermal energy in the sink.
Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer. During the heating season, heat pumps move heat from the cool outdoors into your warm house and during the cooling season, heat pumps move heat from your cool house into the warm outdoors (see picture below). Because they move heat rather than generate heat, heat pumps can provide equivalent space conditioning at as little as one quarter of the cost of operating conventional heating or cooling appliances.
The most common type of heat pump is the air-source heat pump, which transfers heat between your house and the outside air. If you heat with electricity, a heat pump can trim the amount of electricity you use for heating by as much as 30% to 40%. High-efficiency heat pumps also dehumidify better than standard central air conditioners, resulting in less energy usage and more cooling comfort in summer months. However, the efficiency of most air-source heat pumps as a heat source drops dramatically at low temperatures, generally making them unsuitable for cold climates, although there are systems that can overcome the problem.
For homes without ducts, air-source heat pumps are also available in a ductless version called a mini-split heat pump.
Geothermal (ground-source or water-source) heat pumps achieve higher efficiencies by transferring heat between your house and the ground or a nearby water source. Although they cost more to install, geothermal heat pumps have low operating costs because they take advantage of relatively constant ground or water temperatures. Whether a geothermal heat pump is appropriate for you will depend on the size of your lot, the subsoil, and the landscape. Ground-source or water-source heat pumps can be used in more extreme climates than air-source heat pumps, and customer satisfaction with the systems is very high.
A number of innovations are improving the performance of heat pumps. Unlike standard compressors that can only operate at full capacity, two-speed compressors allow heat pumps to operate close to the heating or cooling capacity needed at any particular moment. This saves large amounts of electrical energy and reduces compressor wear. Two-speed heat pumps also work well with zone control systems. Zone control systems, often found in larger homes, use automatic dampers to allow the heat pump to keep different rooms at different temperatures.
Some models of heat pumps are equipped with variable-speed or dual-speed motors on their indoor fans (blowers), outdoor fans, or both. The variable-speed controls for these fans attempt to keep the air moving at a comfortable velocity, minimizing cool drafts and maximizing electrical savings. It also minimizes the noise from the blower running at full speed.