Which Heat Pump Option is Right for My Home?
Learn the difference between ducted, mini-split and geothermal heat pumpsBy Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen
Heat pump technology has improved a lot over the past 10 to 20 years, and the systems work double-duty, heating your home during winter and cooling during summer months. There are a few different types of heat pumps, so learning about each can help decide what works best for your home and climate. There are a few main types: air-source — both ducted and “mini-split” systems, and ground-source.
1 Ducted heat pump
If your home has a forced air furnace, a centralized air-source heat pump can work well. A compressor outside your home that looks like an A/C unit is connected to your home’s existing duct system. Like your furnace, the temperature is controlled through one main thermostat. This is a solid solution if your system has quality ductwork that heats and cools every room evenly, which is rare.
Ductwork in most homes is not designed to heat or cool every room evenly. Long supply runs provide little air to some rooms, and it’s typical for some rooms to lack return air registers. Also, ductwork is often leaky, which creates comfort issues. If leaky ducts are located in unheated areas such as crawl spaces or attics, it will increase your heating and cooling costs. Poor ductwork will render any kind of central heating or cooling system much less effective. Some HVAC contractors can repair ductwork problems if the ductwork is accessible.
Heat pumps vary in efficiency, and this is measured in two ways. The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rating measures heating efficiency and the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating measures cooling efficiency. The minimum ratings for a new heat pump are HSPF 8.2 and SEER 14. Heat pumps with the Energy Star® rating are significantly more efficient than the minimum standard. The quality of the installation also matters, and some contractors will have more experience and training than others.
Also, newer models of heat pumps can operate effectively in sub-zero weather, but sometimes they do so by switching to electric resistance mode, which is much less efficient. In a colder climate, it may be worth investing in a dual-fuel system, where propane or another fuel provides supplemental heat on extremely cold days.
2Mini-split heat pump
Ductless mini-splits are an excellent option if you don’t have central air ducts, your ducts are leaking, or you only want the new ductless heat pump to heat or cool one portion of the home.
With a mini-split heat pump, tubes connected to the outside compressor carry refrigerant to one or more air handlers, which are mounted high on a wall to distribute air. Thermostats regulate each air handler, providing control of different zones in the home.
In climates that don’t experience extreme cold, a ductless heat pump could supply all the heating and cooling in a small home. They are also often used in combination with a central heating and cooling system.
3 Geothermal (or ground-source) heat pump
Several feet underground, the temperature remains constant year-round — typically between 50 and 70 degrees in North Carolina. Heat is transferred into or out of the ground by pipes buried in a loop 10 feet underground or drilled up to 400 feet into the earth. The pipes carry water to a compressor, which uses a refrigerant to transfer the heat to or from your home’s ducts.
A geothermal heat pump system is extremely energy efficient, since the earth’s temperature is warmer than the outside air in the winter and cooler than the outside air in the summer. But I should note this efficiency comes with a high price tag, which is the initial cost to install the pipe loop or drill the hole for a vertical pipe. For this reason, ground-source systems are relatively rare.
For additional information and guidance on heat pumps, give your electric co-op a call. If you have a qualified energy auditor in your area, an audit could be a great next step, especially if it includes a duct leakage test. Then you’ll be ready to reach out to contractors and request a few quotes.
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