Heat pumps are a type of heating and cooling system. A heat pump is a mechanical-compression cycle refrigeration system that can be reversed to either heat or cool a controlled space. Installation for this type of system consists of two parts: an indoor unit called an air handler and an outdoor unit similar to a central air conditioner. A compressor circulates refrigerant that absorbs and releases heat as it travels between the indoor and outdoor units. Or in plain terms: they pump heat to or away from the inside of the house.
How are heat pumps different than an air conditioner?
Essentially, they work the same. And to the naked eye, they look identical. The difference is an air conditioner condenser (also known as a compressor) spins one way and is designed for the refrigerant to only move through the system in one direction. On a heat pump, the condenser is capable of spinning in both directions, and the refrigerant can move through the system in both directions. One direction to cool a house, and the other direction to heat a house.
What are the two components of a heat pump system?
In addition to the refrigerant condenser, a heat pump has an interior portion, the air handler, which is also often called a blower or fan unit. The two sections are then connected by refrigerant lines. The refrigerant lines are usually copper tubes that carry the hot and cold refrigerant between the air handler and condenser.
The air handler may be a large metal box that looks similar to a gas furnace. But air handlers can also be made to be compact and are easily hidden in ceiling cavities, making them popular for condominiums.
Why install a heat pump?
Heat pumps are usually installed in Southern California in condos or places where it’s impractical to run a gas line.
Heat pumps are popular in condos because a gas furnace needs an exhaust system to carry deadly carbon monoxide away from the home. Trying to route that many gas exhaust systems in a large building is difficult, and can be impractical for very large condominium complexes. Also, an air handler can be made in a compact size that saves space when building a condo building. Whereas a gas furnace needs only room for the furnace, but clearance around the furnace.
In some areas of Sothern Calfornia, such as the hills above Chatsworth, and many parts of Malibu, the rocky geography made it impractical to run underground gas lines at the time of construction. So heat pumps are the only real option.
Are there disadvantages to heat pumps?
One aspect some people do not like about a heat pump system is they feel like a pump warms the air more slowly than compared to a gas furnace. With a gas furnace, you have an intense flame heating air, and so when you stand in front of a vent, you feel really hot air coming out. With a heat pump, the sense of heat coming out of the vent tends to not be intense, giving you the illusion it’s not heating very well.
Heat pumps also use electricity, which traditionally has been more expensive than natural gas, making older heat pumps more expensive to use than a gas furnace. Although this is changing.
The Future of Heat Pumps
As technology changes, heat pumps are becoming more and more efficient, using less electricity than previous generations of heat pumps. Meaning new pumps may no longer be more expensive to operate than a gas furnace. Natural gas has also received some pushback from government agencies and the public at large after the massive gas leak in Porter Ranch in 2015.
As solar and other renewable sources of electricity become more common, there is a feeling that heat pumps are better for the environment than gas furnaces. This is because gas furnaces release carbon monoxide into the air. The City of Agoura Hills, for example, has banned gas furnaces in new construction in 2021. Other cities are considering similar measures to either ban or phase out gas furnaces in future construction.
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