A complete cooling and heat pump 4-zone system that provides up to 38,500 BTU cooling and 38,000 BTU heating capabilities. Ductless units are efficient and feature WiFi remote access.
Pricey. Also a little challenging to install. Manual is confusing.
A versatile, affordable, compact model. Slide-out chassis and low price make it practical for most consumers. Fairly quiet. Some users report lower utility bills. Efficient 8,000 BTU heating and cooling. Easy to install. Helpful customer service.
Some reports of faulty compressors upon arrival.
Nearly silent inside and very quiet outside. Available in different sizes. Effective and reliable. Comes with remote but can also interface with your phone over WiFi.
Most customers recommend hiring a professional to install.
Portable, efficient, and reliable when it comes to heating and cooling spaces up to 700 square feet. Features 3 speed settings and caster wheels. Fairly quiet operation.
On the heavy side, and the design is bulky.
A mid-range model with 12,000 BTU capable of heating and cooling up to 500 square feet. Available in various sizes if you need larger heating and cooling capacity. Easy to install and quiet to run. Durable build.
Brand not as recognizable as competitors.
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Many of us look forward to coming home to a refreshing icebox in the summer and a toasty warm cave in the winter. Central heating and cooling is one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, and the house thermostat is our friend – that is, until the monthly energy bill arrives. Fortunately, there’s a newer technology that not only provides the same level of heating and cooling but also does it more economically. Welcome to the world of heat pumps.
Heat pumps take advantage of the surrounding environment and the laws of thermodynamics to both heat and cool. All ambient air contains heat molecules, and a heat pump extracts that heat energy, reducing the need for more expensive forms of heat generation, such as gas-powered flames or electric heating coils. A heat pump also works in reverse, pulling heated air out of a room and replacing it with cooler air.
Many homeowners buy heat pump systems as economical alternatives to expensive central HVAC units and fuel-hungry furnaces or electric heaters. If you’re looking for a way to reduce home energy costs while maintaining a comfortable environment for your family, read our in-depth guide to heat pumps.
Traditional HVAC systems: An air conditioner generates refrigerated air and a furnace generates heated air through the use of electric coils or a gas flame. This heated or cooled air is forced into living spaces through ducts. The air eventually returns to the AC or heater, where the process starts all over again. This requires a constant supply of energy to cool down or reheat the air as it circulates through the system.
Heat pumps: A heat pump transfers heat energy from one area to another. Outside air over 32°F contains some ambient heat molecules, and this heat energy can be captured by an outdoor heat pump. The pump concentrates the heated air before sending it through ductwork or pipes to individual heating/cooling zones inside the home. A heat pump also draws hot air from interior rooms and exhausts it outside, thus creating a “heat sink” cooling effect.
In most cases, a heat pump should be more cost efficient than a traditional HVAC system. However, it isn’t an ideal solution for everyone. We recommend consulting with a professional HVAC technician before investing in a new whole-house heat pump system, but room-size or portable heat pump units aren’t as problematic. Two primary considerations when deciding on a heat pump are ambient air temperatures and installation costs.
Ambient air temperatures: Heat pumps work best where there are few extreme seasonal highs and lows. This doesn’t mean a heat pump won’t work at all in places like Minnesota or Arizona, but it might not work as efficiently when the temperature is routinely below 32°F or above 90°F. You might need to add a secondary form of heating or cooling if you live in areas with extreme weather.
Installation costs: Replacing an existing central HVAC system with a heat pump requires professional installation and maintenance. Some homeowners can connect a new heat pump to an existing HVAC system, or opt for window or portable heat pumps in selected zones. Some units don’t require any new ductwork but can require the installation of pipes or electronic controls.
When heat pump technology first became available to consumers, options were mostly limited to large outdoor units piggybacked to existing HVAC systems. When conditions became too hot or cold for maximum efficiency, the traditional HVAC would take over. Today, there are a number of different types of heat pumps available.
Whole house units: Many homeowners still prefer to use the standard central heating and cooling method, only with dedicated heat pumps instead of more expensive air conditioning and heating units. These systems typically consist of a large outdoor heat processing unit, ductwork or pipes, interior zone vents, and electronic controls. These heat pumps can be expensive to install and maintain, but they offer efficient heating and cooling for several thousand square feet of living space.
Window or wall units: Similar to a room-size window air conditioner, these fairly inexpensive heat pumps often perform multiple tasks, including heating, air conditioning, and dehumidifying. While the total heating and cooling output might be more limited, the overall cost is enticing. Most window/wall heat pumps only require standard household voltage to operate, and installation is fairly straightforward.
Air-to-air system: Most of the consumer-level heat pumps sold today use an air-to-air system. This means that the heat pump pulls heat molecules from the outside air and brings them indoors, or sends heated interior air outside. This exchange of heated air sources can be compromised if the ambient outdoor air temperature falls below freezing for a long period of time.
Ground-to-air system: This heat pump takes advantage of geothermal energy for the heat supply. Long tubes filled with liquid coolant are submerged deep in the ground in a loop, where the natural heat warms the liquid. The heat pump transfers this heat to interior spaces. This process doesn’t depend on ambient outdoor air temperatures, but it can be expensive to install and isn’t a universally viable option.
Shopping for a new heat pump is a lot like shopping for a new air conditioner or heating unit. It’s still a question of energy costs, efficiency, ease of maintenance and performance. Here are some features you should consider:
Heating and cooling power: The performance of a heat pump is generally measured in British thermal units (BTU), the same standard used for air conditioners and furnaces. The higher the BTUs, the more heating or cooling power the model has. This BTU rating shouldn’t override every other consideration, however. The total size of a whole house unit, often expressed in tons, shouldn’t exceed the space to be heated and cooled. Consult a professional for estimates based on total square footage of the home.
Electronic controls: Whole house units tend to have one centralized thermostat that controls everything from heating or cooling modes to fan speed to temperature. They may also have independent controls on each zone vent. Window units often include remote controls that change fan speeds, temperature settings, and “sleep” timers.
Some whole house units have wireless or smart connections that enable individual zone vents to coordinate their output. One very useful feature is the ability to communicate with the heat pump system remotely through an app.
Filters: The air entering and leaving the heat pump system should be as free of contaminants as possible, so there are filters at vital points in the process. These filters need to be changed or cleaned periodically to keep the heat pump working efficiently and safely. A good-quality model should have an alarm or sensor that notifies you when the filters need attention.
Dehumidifiers: Some window and portable heat pumps are also dehumidifiers. Moisture in the air condenses around the heat pump’s compressor and drips into a small collection tank. This tank must be emptied periodically or attached to a drainage system. Some heat pump units don’t have a dehumidifying feature, but excess moisture can still collect around the compressor and create problems if the unit isn’t completely level or equipped with a drain.
Ease of use: Higher-end whole house heat pumps can be expensive to install, especially if additional ductwork is required. However, the end result is usually very easy to maintain. One centralized thermostat controls most of the settings, and one filter might need to be changed periodically. If performance at a traditional HVAC level is the goal, a whole house heat pump is the best way to go.
Mid-range portable heat pumps might be the easiest to use straight out of the box because they require no installation and work off standard household current. Many are designed to perform several functions, including air conditioning, dehumidifying, ventilating, and pumping heated air. The major drawback is capacity. Most portable heat pumps only produce enough BTUs to heat or cool one or two average rooms.
Inexpensive window or wall-mounted models are challenging to install, but not impossible. These can also be great at multitasking, providing both refrigerated and transferred air to the room. Remote controls and sleep timers also improve the versatility of these units. However, the operational noise is a consideration, and many are only rated for 350 square feet or less.
Almost all higher-end heat pump systems will require professional installation, so the retail price point is only part of the equation. You can expect to pay from less than $500 to $2,000 for a consumer-grade heat pump system.
Inexpensive: For $500 or less, you can find basic window or wall-mounted units rated for one or two rooms. A few models could have remote control, filter alarms, or sleep timers. Occasionally a manufacturer will offer a “mini” version of an outdoor heat pump with a single interior vent at this price, but it might not be the best investment.
Mid-range: Between $500 and $1,500, you’ll find portable heat pumps. The window/wall units tend to be more multifunctional, with remote controls standard. The BTU ratings for both window and portable heat pumps rise significantly as you near $1,500. There could also be some versions of outdoor heat pumps available, but not the whole house models many homeowners seek.
Expensive: For more than $1,500, you’ll find deluxe window and portable units, as well as most of the affordable whole house heat pump systems, which means a heavy-duty outside heat pump rated at least 2.5 tons, along with the pipes, thermostats, and internal hardware needed for proper zone heating and cooling. Many manufacturers now offer “ductless” systems that replace expensive ductwork with more manageable pipes.
Use the emergency heating setting as little as possible. When the emergency heat option is activated, electric heating coils provide additional heating during especially cold weather. However, this form of radiant heating is very inefficient and expensive to produce. It’s often cheaper to find an alternative heat source, such as an oil-based furnace, insulated blankets, or wood-burning fireplace.
Allow a heat pump to adjust to a new temperature setting. The heating and cooling effects of a heat pump can take more time than a traditional HVAC unit. Once the thermostat has been set to a higher or lower room temperature, allow plenty of time for the heat pump to transfer enough heat to reach that setting.
Consider setting the thermostat several degrees higher or lower than normal. Many homeowners with existing HVAC systems have become accustomed to certain temperature settings, such as 72°F in winter and 68°F in summer, but these might not be optimal settings for a heat pump. You’ll want to experiment to find a comfortable temperature range.
Change or clean filters regularly. A heat pump’s efficiency can be reduced considerably if the filter fills with dust, pet hair, pollen, and other contaminants. Some heat pumps automatically remind you when it’s time to replace or clean the air filters. For others, it’s up to you to remember this important task.
Q. I’m not sure if my rental home has a traditional central HVAC unit or a heat pump. How can I tell the difference without bothering my landlord?
A. Many modern whole house heat pump units do resemble their traditional air conditioning and heating cousins. One fast way to identify a heat pump is to look at the thermostat. If it has a setting for “emergency heat,” it’s a heat pump.
Q. My current heat pump doesn’t seem to provide enough heat for every room in my house. Can I order a larger model and attach it to my existing ductwork?
A. That wouldn’t be a good idea, even if you could retrofit the new unit to the ductwork. The ideal size of a heat pump system is primarily determined by the total square footage of the interior rooms. Installing a larger or smaller model might create other problems, such as excessive humidity. If performance is an issue, you might want to check your system for blockages or thermostat issues before investing in a larger unit.
Q. I like my bedroom to be ice cold in summer and toasty warm in winter. Will a window-mounted heat pump deliver those conditions?
A. A heat pump shouldn’t be confused with an air conditioner or a forced-air heater, but it should be able to provide a comfortable air temperature for most people in most climates. As a heat sink, a heat pump removes hot air from a room but doesn’t necessarily refrigerate it. If extremely cold air is an important factor, consider investing in an air conditioning unit with a heat pump inverter option.