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Heat Pumps are an Advanced Technology for Energy Conservation

Reverse Cycle Chillers, Split Systems, Cold Climate, and All-Climate Heat Pumps

© 2009 by Kelly R. Smith

Photo of Kelly R. Smith

Geothermal heat pump connection in a new home foundation

Geothermal heat pump connection in a new home foundation

This article was updated on 08/11/21.

What’s the difference between conventional central air conditioners/heaters (HVAC systems) and heat pumps? And what makes them so much more energy efficient?

In a nutshell, these units move heat, while conventional systems generate heat. They manipulate the environment rather than physically changing it, using home energy utilities (electricity and/or natural gas).

In the heating mode, they can use up to 40% less energy! The energy might come from under our feet rather that over our heads, but like solar energy, the supply is overwhelming. And who can't live with that?

The Anatomy of a Heat Pump

These pumps use a refrigeration system consisting of a compressor (advanced ones are scroll compressors), one copper tube coil outdoors and one indoors, both using aluminum fins to help in heat transfer (like a heat sink).

A split system heat pump cooling cycle; photo courtesy US Department of Energy These typical units are called split systems because of this indoor/outdoor coil configuration. They use a central fan to circulate the air.

When operating in the heating mode, the refrigerant in the outside coil absorbs available heat which causes it to evaporate into a gas state. Then, the indoor coil does just the opposite, releasing the heat, and changing the refrigerant back to liquid.

As stated above, heat pumps are best for moderate climes. When the thermometer mercury drops below 40 degrees, electric resistance coils must kick in to help (think of a bread toaster), decreasing efficiency.

Advances in Energy Efficiency

Developments over the past 30 years in air-source heat pumps have delivered 1.5 to 2 times more in energy savings. A few of these tweaked units are the reverse cycle chiller, the cold climate heat pump, and the all-climate heat pump. One of these may be specifically more appropriate to your area than others.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says, "Beginning in 2023, all new residential central air-conditioning and air-source heat pump systems sold in the United States will be required to meet new minimum energy efficiency standards. The most recent minimum energy efficiency standards for these equipment types went into effect in 2015, and for the first time, separate standards were set for cooling central air conditioners sold in the northern parts of the United States and those sold in the southern parts. The new standards continue to set different cooling efficiency levels for air conditioners in the south, and they also require an increase in the heating efficiency of all air-source heat pumps." So as you can see, improvements in energy efficiency is not just driven by consumer demand, it is federally-mandated.

What is a Reverse Cycle Chiller (RCC)?

Best for homes that use electricity rather than gas, these units allow homeowners the flexibility to choose between air distribution systems. Want a radiant (heated) floor system? No problem. How about a forced air system pumped into multiple zones? Ditto.

A large, insulated water tank is integral to the RCC. The pump cools or heats the water, depending on the season. In the winter, coils can deliver hot water to an electric radiant floor heating system.

Some employ a Refrigeration Heat Reclaimer (RHR). It operates in a similar fashion to a desuperheater coil.

What is a Cold Climate Heat Pump?

Because it uses a back-up booster compressor, this unit can operate efficiently down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-9.44 degrees Celsius). Additionally, it uses a heat plate exchanger (economizer), if included, to bring efficient operation to conditions below 0 degrees (-17.77 Celsius).

Preliminary studies show an impressive 60% improvement over standard air-source pumps! The downside? They're not yet available to the general public on a large scale. Look for that to change, hopefully in the very new future.

What is the All-Climate Heat Pump?

The interesting thing about this variation is that it is specifically targeted to very cold climates, rather than a mix of warm/cool environments. This really opens up the market for consumers in the upper reaches of both North America and Europe.

Its downside? The initial cost of the unit is a bit overwhelming. But if the savings predicted by Wenatchee Valley College in Washington, (up to 60%!), prove comparable to residential savings, this unit will pay for itself in short order. There is no doubt that heat pumps are an advanced technology for energy conservation, whether you want to save money, or the planet, or both.

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About the author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation and financial and energy trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at Considered Opinions Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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