Last Updated on June 23, 2023
Looking to save energy and money? Along with home solar power, a heat pump is one of the smartest ways to slash your energy use (and utility bills). While heat pumps have many advantages over standard heating and cooling equipment, there are a few potential disadvantages you need to be aware of as well. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of heat pumps for your home.
- What is a heat pump?
- Benefits of heat pumps
- Disadvantages of heat pumps
- Costs and rebates available
Let’s start this investigation of the pros and cons of heat pumps by looking more closely at what exactly heat pumps are.
WHAT IS A HEAT PUMP?
While ‘heat pump’ may sound like something used to make heat, in fact they’re more often used as air conditioners to remove heat from indoor spaces. One of the slickest things about heat pumps is that they can move heat in either direction, making them work both for heating and cooling. Pretty cool! (And pretty warm.)
Unlike a standard furnace, which typically burns a fossil fuel like oil or gas to produce heat, a heat pump simply moves heat from one place to another, no combustion involved. In cold weather, the pump compresses the air to extract its heat, and in warm weather it reverses and pulls warmth from inside and releases it outdoors.
This process is far more efficient — up to 4 times as efficient as combustion for producing heat and significantly more efficient than standard air conditioning for cooling air in the home.
Heat pumps may transfer heat using water or air. If you have central air in your home, you’ll get a heat pump designed to heat and cool air, while if your home is heated with water (typically using radiators, but also in-floor heating systems), the heat will transfer to the water. In addition to space heating, some heat pumps can also heat water used in the home for things like showers and laundry.
AIR SOURCE VS GROUND SOURCE HEAT PUMPS
As their names suggest, air source heat pumps move heat from the air, while ground source heat pumps — often called ‘geothermal,’ though the term isn’t quite accurate — use heat taken from the ground. Some loops for ground source heat pumps extract heat from water, like ponds or lakes.
Though ground source heat pumps are considerably more efficient than air source heat pumps, they’re also considerably more expensive to install.
Ground source heat pumps usually require drilling. Air source heat pumps, on the other hand, are similar to whole-house air conditioning units and can be installed without all the mess and permitting required for ground source heat pumps.
If you’re thinking of adding or replacing your central air conditioning, you should definitely investigate air source heat pumps before you install a conventional air conditioner that will you likely cost you much more over its working life, even if the sticker price is lower.
Here’s an overview from the Department of Energy if you’d like to know more.
Now that we’ve got those nuts and bolts clarified, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of heat pumps.
PROS AND CONS OF HEAT PUMPS
As with anything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with installing heat pumps. Here’s what to know about the pros and cons of heat pumps
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF HEAT PUMPS?
The number one advantage of heat pumps is that the process of moving heat from place to place is far more efficient than the combustion of fossil fuels.
Heat pumps can be up to 400% efficient, meaning that for every unit of electricity they consume, they can produce up to 4 units of heat. A super-efficient natural gas furnace, on the other hand, might be 98% efficient which sounds pretty good until you learn that you can do way better than 100% efficiency.
2. Lower cost of heating and cooling compared to standard equipment
Greater efficiency will generally mean lower cost, though how much lower depends on what source you currently use for heat. Oil costs a good deal more than natural gas, for instance, so someone replacing an oil-burning furnace will save more than someone replacing a natural gas system. Both people will save over the long run, but the person who had been heating with oil will save more. The cost of electricity in your area is also a factor.
3. Provides heating and cooling
Unlike furnaces, heat pumps can be used to cool as well as heat your home. Remember that what they do is move heat? So in winter, they move heat into your house, and in summer they move it out.
So when you’re comparing the overall savings of replacing a conventional air conditioner with a heat pump, you need to take into account the extra-efficient heating you’ll get as well.
Or if you’re installing the heat pump primarily as an alternative heating source, the fact that you get efficient air conditioning should be taken into account as well.
4. Low maintenance
Heat pumps generally don’t require much maintenance and can last for decades, often considerably longer than their less efficient conventional counterparts. Some sources note, however, that the fact that a heat pump serves double duty means it’s operating more than a conventional furnace plus air conditioner, affecting its expected lifespan.
5. Environmental Benefits
Greater efficiency also means less climate-polluting emissions associated with heating and cooling. If your electricity comes from solar or wind, you might get to zero emissions for your home. However, a lot of electricity generation in the United States currently comes from burning fossil fuels, so a heat pump can’t in that case be considered emission free. Still, you won’t be burning fossil fuels in your home as you would with a gas furnace, and getting 3 to 4 times the efficiency is still a great improvement.
WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF HEAT PUMPS?
The great news about installing heat pumps today is that many of the downsides associated with heat pumps have been remedied in the newer generation of machinery. Generous incentives and new technology have addressed nearly all the cons of heat pumps that used to exist.
1. Upfront cost
A heat pump will probably cost more to install than other types of heating and cooling systems. However, the Inflation Reduction Act includes a sizable discount on upfront costs as well as generous tax rebates to bring heat pumps in reach for more American households. In fact, lower income households may be able to get heat pumps almost entirely paid for with these incentives. You can find out about eligibility here. In addition, even without all the incentives, you should recoup the added expense over time. More on this issue below.
2. Use in very cold climates
Though older heat pumps had difficulty producing heat when temperatures fell below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, new heat pumps designed for use in cold climates reportedly work — though not at peak efficiency — in subzero temperatures. The heat they produce will come out of the register at a lower temperature as the outside temperature falls, which can take some getting used to if you tend to keep your house very warm in winter.
On colder days, it’s possible you’ll need to use an additional source of heating, especially if you like to keep your house warmer than average. That doesn’t mean heat pumps don’t make sense in these climates, just that you need to take those colder days into account. Plenty of people in Minnesota, where temps often hover around 0 for days on end, find heat pumps an efficient way to heat much of the year. And they’re more efficient than air conditioners for cooling in summer as well.
In less extreme climates, though, this limitation is a non-issue.
Some articles evaluating the pros and cons of heat pumps mention that older models may be on the noisy side, but an outdoor heat pump unit you’d be buying today will likely make about the same amount of noise as comparable air conditioning units. Inside, you’ll hear about what you would from a standard furnace running, and it should be considerably quieter than a window air conditioning unit.
If you’re concerned about noise, look at the decibel rating of the heat pumps you’re considering and choose accordingly.
HOW MUCH DO HEAT PUMPS COST? ARE HEAT PUMPS WORTH IT?
The math when you’re calculating the cost of new higher-efficiency equipment can be a little tricky, but in general when you’re considering investing in greener energy, you need to take several factors into account beyond the sticker price of whatever you’re buying. Don’t let a heat pump’s price tag deter you, as it can be very misleading.
Yes, a new heat pump will cost more than a new air conditioning unit, but you need to subtract what you’ll get back in tax rebates and how much you save each year using more efficient equipment. The Inflation Reduction Act includes up to an $8000 discount (set to become available in late 2023) on a heat pump’s upfront costs as well as $2000 in tax rebates. If you qualify for all those rebates, the initial costs could come close to zero.
Your long-term savings will depend on the cost of electricity in your area and what type of fuel you use to heat your home. If your home is currently heated with oil, you stand to save the most, around $1000 per year, according to Carbon Switch. Homes with electric or propane heating will save a bit less, and those with natural gas furnaces will save the least.
If you will also use the heat pump for air conditioning, you need to factor in those savings as well.
This calculator might help you determine how long it will take you to recoup the investment. After the break-even point, your heat pump will be saving you money on heating and cooling year in and year out.
We have a ground source heat pump that we installed more than 12 years ago. A generous federal rebate (renewed in the Inflation Reduction Act) knocked off a third of the cost, and the significant savings of heating and cooling with this ultra-efficient machine helped us hit our break-even point many years ago. Now we just pay waaaaaay less in heating and cooling than everyone else in our neighborhood, freeing up hundreds of dollars per year we can spend on other things.
Using similar calculations, our solar panels paid for themselves in under 4 years and now provide free electricity — which helps to power our heat pump!
So you need to take the long view when thinking about the costs of greener energy for your home. Yes, it will likely cost more upfront, but you will also likely wind up with more money in your pocket in the long run than if you hadn’t made the investment in a heat pump.
WHAT REBATES ARE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FOR HEAT PUMPS?
You’ll find the most up-to-date information about rebates available at Energy.gov’s rebate finder. You may find additional ones in the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
The federal government is currently offering $300 tax rebates on heat pumps, and your state and local utility company might offer additional incentives. However, when the new Inflation Reduction Act incentives go into effect in late 2023, upfront discounts on heat pumps can go up to $8000, possibly negating all the costs for eligible households (those with incomes under 80% of median income in their area; those earning between 80-150% of median income qualify for half of the cost, up to $8000). Additionally, there’s a 30% tax credit (up to $2000).
If you wind up taking advantage of these programs, please leave a comment to let the rest of us know how it worked out for you. On paper, it looks like qualifying households may get a heat pump essentially for free, and you’d better believe the rest of us would like to know if that’s true!
You might also have access to competitive loan programs called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) designed for environmentally-favorable home upgrades.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BUYING A HEAT PUMP
One of the smartest ways to save energy is not to let any go to waste. So buying a high-efficiency heat pump to heat and cool a drafty home, while wasting less energy than less efficient equipment, still wastes energy. Avoid this!
In addition to investing in a heat pump, I highly recommend having a professional home energy audit, which will pinpoint where your house has energy-wasting leaks or areas needing more insulation. I cannot recommend energy audits highly enough — besides quickly paying for themselves in energy savings, they offer an eye-opening tour of how your house uses (and wastes) energy.
After you know where you need to seal and insulate, get the work done as soon as you possibly can so you can stop wasting money and energy. You’ll find rebates for insulation and other energy-saving improvements in the databases mentioned above as well.
In addition, try some of these simple ways to save energy you can do yourself right now to cut down on wasted energy right away.
If you love finding ways that doing right by the environment saves you money, be sure to read the ways to go green and save. If you’re planning a remodel, be sure you know the ins and out of green remodeling. You might also want to investigate the benefits of fuel efficient cars and learn the most effective ways to shift to sustainable living.
Now that you know the pros and cons of heat pumps, will you look into them for your home?
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Pros and cons of heat pumps photo credits: onepony
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.