🌎⚡️ The best heat pump you can buy.
How they work, what they cost, hot magma
The best heat pump you can buy.
The best heat pump you can buy is…a heat pump.
As a conscious consumer Shit Giver, choosing a heat pump over a gas-powered furnace is not only an investment in your home's comfort but also a substantial personal, social, and systemic step towards kicking climate change in the teeth.
Heat pumps are efficient as hell and environmentally friendly, as they use electricity to transfer heat from the outdoors to your home, instead of burning fossil fuels — see our other guides on heat pump water heaters and dryers, which literally work in the exact same way.
This delightful review — another in our partnership with Rewiring America — will guide you through the process of selecting the right heat pump for your needs.
What To Consider
⚡️Type: Central, ductless, or geothermal
⚡️ Energy efficiency: Learn about Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF)
⚡️ Budget: Consider upfront costs, installation fees, IRA help, and ongoing maintenance
How does a heat pump work, anyways?
At the simplest level, which is more or less where I operate 24/7, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another.
In cooling mode, a heat pump acts like an air conditioner, moving the heat from inside your home to the outside.
In heating mode, heat pumps go into reverse-mode and pump heat from the air outside your home to the inside.
It’s pretty rad.
That might seem a bit counterintuitive, of course. After all, genius, how can something move heat from the outside air when it’s 20 degrees outside?
But heat is just energy, and there’s energy in the air all the way down to absolute zero, which is -465°F, no thank you.
Heat pumps designed for extreme cold climates can keep your home warm — without a backup heating source — even when outside temperatures are below -20°F.
The big question: Is a heat pump worth it?
Let’s go get one.
How to prepare your home for a heat pump
Unlike, say, a 120v heat pump water heater, replacing your furnace with a heat pump is quite a bit of work. But don’t be dismayed. It’s totally worth it.
Before installing a heat pump, it's pretty pretty pretty important to prepare your home to ensure the system operates efficiently and effectively.
Here are some steps to take care of:
Get a home energy assessment (or “home energy audit”): If your climate is super warm or super cold, this is an even smarter move. For $100-$300, a pro comes out to do some tests to see how well your home is insulated and seated against air leaks and drafts, etc.
Here’s a cool Department of Energy video on what to expect when you’re expecting (a home energy audit). Your local utility may offer a discount. Check it out.
Insulate your home, fam: Like both of my wife’s TV shows, proper insulation is criminally underrated. Insulation reduces heat loss and helps maintain consistent indoor temperatures, making it easier for your heat pump to maintain comfort levels and saving you cash.
So check and upgrade insulation in walls, attics, and crawlspaces, and seal any gaps or leaks around doors and windows. You can do it yourself, or hire someone like John Semmelhack to do it for you.
Ensure proper ductwork: For central heat pumps, well-sealed and insulated ducts are crucial to prevent heat loss and maintain system efficiency. Mine were, until recently…not that.
Anyways, have a professional inspect them and, if necessary, repair or replace your ductwork before installing a heat pump.
Choose energy-efficient windows: Upgrading to energy-efficient windows can reduce heat loss and improve your home's overall energy efficiency, while also reducing some noise. So in one fell swoop, you’ve complemented your heat pump's performance and ensured your children can smash each other to bits outside while you remain blissfully unaware inside.
Get some quotes. Check with your state or utility for contractors who regularly install heat pumps. Working with a state-certified contractor might also help unlock additional state and local rebates.
And make sure you ask for quotes on “inverter-driven” heat pumps from major brands like Carrier, Bryant, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Trane, and American Standard (here’s a guide).
Live in super cold climates? Check out NEEP’s (Northwest Energy Efficiency Partnerships) Cold Climate Air Source Heat Pump List.
Your contractor has to know how to properly size your heat pump, which requires knowing how much energy your home gains and loses over the course of a day — known as the “load calculation.”
A quick note on SEER ratings
When selecting the best heat pump for your home, consider the SEER rating, which measures the cooling efficiency of the system. Higher SEER ratings indicate more efficient heat pumps.
Central Heat Pumps
Central heat pumps are popular, widely available, and ideal for homes with existing ductwork. They efficiently heat and cool multiple rooms simultaneously, with one system.
These systems typically have a SEER rating of 14-21 and an HSPF rating of 8-10, providing good energy efficiency for 10-15 years. However, they can be more expensive to install and maintain than other options.
It’s important for your contractor to check your existing ducts to see if they’ll work well with a heat pump. They might be: poorly designed (lots of bends), undersized, oversized, dirty, leak air, run through cold spaces (like an attic), under-insulated, or some combo.
Central heat pumps also need an air handler, and those are typically 240V.
Your current furnace already has an air handler, but it’s likely 120V. Womp womp. Request a model that has an electric line from the outdoor unit that powers the indoor unit, which also frees up your old furnace air handler circuit for other electrification projects.
Ductless Heat Pumps
Ductless heat pumps, or mini-splits, are a commonly-available and versatile option for homes without ductwork or for room-specific heating and cooling. These units consist of an outdoor compressor and one or more indoor air handlers that can be individually controlled.
Mini-splits have a SEER rating of 16-30 and an HSPF rating of 9-12, offering excellent energy efficiency. Although they may have a higher upfront cost, their targeted heating and cooling capabilities can save you money in the long run.
Geothermal Heat Pumps
It’s very difficult for me to not freak out over how cool it must be to pull your energy FROM HOT MAGMA.*
*Ok, so maybe it’s not magma, but you get the point. Geothermal heat pumps harness the earth's stable temperature to provide consistent heating and cooling.
While they’re not as widely available as central or ductless heat pumps (yet — growth mindset, people!), they offer unparalleled efficiency and eco-friendliness. That said, they come with a higher initial investment and more complex installation requirements.
Heat pump options for renters
While some home electrification solutions are at the whim of your landlord, renters have a couple of different electric heating options.
Packaged heat pumps are all-in-one units, that include both the evaporator and condenser coils, and kind of look like a window air conditioner, except the heat pump can reverse direction.
One option we’re currently testing: Gradient’s new window unit.
There’s also portable standalone heat pumps, that can come with hoses that mount in your window.
Plug-in space heaters and electric blankets are also options to make your rental extra cozy.
Big Questions To Ask
I don’t even want to tell you what he thought a heat pump was
What’s the average cost of a heat pump?
Heat pump costs can vary widely, depending on the type, size, and efficiency. Central heat pumps average between $3,500 and $7,500, ductless heat pumps between $1,500 and $3,500 per indoor unit, and geothermal heat pumps between $10,000 and $30,000.
What are the downsides to a heat pump?
Some heat pumps may struggle in extreme cold temperatures, requiring either a unit specially designed for extreme cold (again, you can find a plethora of them here), or potentially, a backup heating system. Additionally, installation costs can be high, especially for geothermal systems.
What size heat pump do I need?
Heat pump size depends on your home's square footage, insulation, and climate. A professional HVAC contractor can work with you to understand how you use your current system (if you have one), and perform a load calculation to determine the appropriate size for your needs.
More detail for my home energy nerds:
The size of the unit you’ll need will be measured in units of “tons” or BTU/hour.
For a mild climate, here are unit size estimates based on floor area:
500 square feet: 1 ton (12,000 BTU/hour)
1,000 square feet: 2 tons (24,000 BTU/hour)
1,500 square feet: 3 tons (36,000 BTU/hour)
These sizes might be much lower than your current furnace, because the furnace has to turn on at 3,000°F and then turn off before it melts. This “cycle” happens three to eight times an hour, even when it’s working well.
Variable speed (inverter driven) heat pumps put out constant heat at about 120-130°F, so they can be right-sized to stay on and operate quietly. They adjust their fan speed and compressor speed to keep the home temperature stable, which is much more energy efficient, and also makes the space feel more comfortable than with a furnace that keeps turning on and off.
If you have central air conditioning, you can use its capacity as a rough guide to what you’ll need in a heat pump (which is just a reversible air conditioner).
So if you need 3 tons of cooling, you need 3 tons of heating too.
How many years does a heat pump last?
The average lifespan of a heat pump is 10-15 years for central and ductless systems, and 20-25 years for geothermal systems. Proper maintenance can extend the life of your heat pump. Obviously.
At what temperature is a heat pump no longer efficient?
Most heat pumps can operate efficiently all the way down to 20°F, but below that, a system designed for extreme cold or a backup heating source may be needed.
Should you turn off your heat pump in extreme cold?
Turning off your heat pump during extreme cold is not recommended, as it may cause strain on the system when it restarts. Instead, rely on a backup heating source to supplement the heat pump during these conditions.
Do heat pumps require a lot of maintenance?
Nothing out of the ordinary. Heat pumps require regular maintenance, such as cleaning filters, coils, and outdoor units.
Is a heat pump better than a furnace?
Yes. For you, and for me, and the entire human race. Heat pumps are generally more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly than gas-powered furnaces, as they transfer heat rather than generating it through combustion.
Can I heat my whole house with a heat pump?
Hell yes! A properly sized heat pump can effectively heat your entire home. Central heat pumps are designed for whole-house heating, while ductless systems can be used in combination to cover multiple rooms. Geothermal heat pumps provide consistent heating throughout the home due to their stable heat source — MAGMA.*
*Again, it’s not magma
What does IRA mean for heat pumps?
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) offers tax credits for homeowners who invest in energy-efficient home improvements, including heat pump installations.
Want to cut to the chase and see what you qualify for, right now? Check out Rewiring America’s trusty IRA Calculator to see which incentives will be most helpful to save money on your heat pump.
Through the IRA’s High-Efficiency Electrification Rebates (HEEHRA) program, rebates are available only if you’re replacing a non-electric appliance (i.e., replacing an oil boiler with a heat pump. Unfortunately, this means that households with inefficient electric resistance heating cannot receive HEEHRA rebates for a heat pump.
However, households with electric resistance heating are prime candidates for the Whole Home Energy Reduction Rebate Program, which is also featured in the calculator. Additionally, there is also the 25D Clean Energy Tax Credit in the IRA, which is an uncapped 30 percent tax credit that includes geothermal heat pumps.
Either way, the IRA can help offset the initial costs of purchasing and installing a heat pump, making it a way more financially viable option for homeowners and landlords everywhere. As always, be sure to consult a tax professional to understand the specific requirements and benefits of the incentives.
For more home electrification support, check out our other guides:
BONUS: Listen to our conversation with home electrification wiz John Semmelhack for a comprehensive overview of the whole process (or watch the episode on YouTube!)
Got questions? Shoot us an email at [email protected].