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Trane heat pump outside a residential home

Demystifying Heat Pumps: What Is a Heat Pump System?

Heat pumps are a highly efficient and cost-friendly way to heat and cool your home.

December 4, 2023

Heat pumps have been recognized as one of the “most overlooked climate solutions” and as a “critical technology for heat decarbonization” by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The eco-friendly technology is starting to experience a global boom in popularity, but there are still many misnomers about the HVAC system as a whole.

This article helps shed light on why 117 million heat pump systems were installed worldwide last year, up from 90 million in 2010 – and that number continues to rise.

What is a heat pump system?

Unlike the name implies, a heat pump can both heat and cool your home. During winter months, heat pumps absorb heat from the outdoor air and use it to warm your home. When it’s hot during the summer months, a heat pump will do the opposite and remove heat from your home to leave it nice and cool.

Heat pumps are more environmentally friendly than many other options because the process is all electric, and does not burn any fossil fuels; unlike a furnace, which typically uses natural gas, propane or oil to heat your home. While heat pumps are most commonly seen in mild climates where temperatures rarely go below freezing, heat pumps can be combined with furnaces for energy-efficient heating that allows the system to rely on a furnace when it is too cold for the heat pump to operate most effectively. This dual fuel system, also known as a hybrid system, is both energy and cost-friendly.

Types of heat pumps

Trane offers a variety of heat pump options that are known for being energy efficient, quiet, and cost effective.

Air-source heat pumps

Air-source heat pumps are the most common type of heat pump. They transfer heat between your house and the outside air. Air-source heat pumps are incredibly energy efficient and can reduce your electricity use for heating by an estimated 50 percent compared to furnaces or baseboard heaters. They can also dehumidify air better than central air conditioners, reducing energy consumption and increasing comfort.

Ductless heat pumps

For homes without a ducted, central HVAC system, mini-split heat pumps are a ductless version of air-source heat pumps. A ductless heat pump is an efficient and convenient way for homeowners who don’t have ductwork to heat and cool their home. Unlike central air conditioning systems, which feed air through a system of ducts and vents, ductless systems are installed directly in the room they’re intended to heat or cool.

Heat pump SEER and HSPF

A heat pump’s SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating, and HSPF, or Heating Seasonal Performance Factor, provides insight into which products perform best. Trane’s most popular heat pumps are known for their good ratings, Energy Star Qualified designations, and patented technology.

How does a heat pump work?

Heat pumps are very energy efficient and may be an effective way to keep your home comfortable in the summer and winter months. While actual operation varies slightly between heating and cooling modes, the physics of the process is the same. Heat energy naturally wants to move to areas with lower temperatures and less pressure. Leveraging this physical property, heat pumps put heat in contact with cooler, lower-pressure environments, encouraging a natural transfer of heat. Once the heat energy is captured, the heat pump will either direct it inside your home to provide heat during the winter time, or will direct it outside leaving your home cool and comfortable. You can learn some of the differences and how a heat pump, AC, and furnace work together in this video.

Components of a heat pump

Generally, heat pumps consist of two major components, one inside the home and one outside of the home. Both of these major components have several smaller essential components.

Outdoor unit

The outdoor unit has both a coil and a fan. The fan blows outside air over the coil to begin the heat exchange process. Then, depending on if the unit is in heating or cooling mode, the coil acts as a condenser (cooling) or an evaporator (heating).

Indoor unit

Also called an air handler unit, the indoor unit also has a coil and a fan. The fan moves air across the coil and throughout the ducts in the home. The indoor unit acts as an evaporator in cooling, and condenser in heating.

Refrigerant and compressor

The refrigerant is the essential substance that absorbs and rejects heat as it circulates through the system. The refrigerant is moved and pressurized by the compressor.

Reversing valve

The reversing valve is what makes it possible for a heat pump to provide both hot and cold air. It reverses the flow of the refrigerant, allowing the system to switch between heating and cooling.

Benefits of a heat pump system for your home

There are several advantages to using a heat pump system for your home. Many homeowners opt for heat pump systems for their heating and cooling needs because of lower operating costs, less maintenance, increased safety, reduced carbon emissions, and a long life span.

Federal tax credits and rebates for a heat pump

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) makes switching to a heat pump more appealing than ever. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August 2022, incentivizes homeowners to make their homes more energy-efficient by replacing existing heating, cooling, and water-heating equipment with fuel-conserving options.

Individual states will offer their own local IRA guidelines, including point-of-sale rebates on any heat pump for home heating and cooling for low and moderate-income households. Check with your local HVAC dealer to learn about savings opportunities in your area.

Determining if a heat pump is right for you

As temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions rise, heat pumps, which can be easily powered by renewable energy, help to provide a pathway to carbon-free home heating and offer a great heating and cooling option for homeowners.

Heat pumps can be a great choice for many homes, but a professional HVAC technician can help you determine whether one is right for your home and climate. Talk to your local HVAC dealer today about the heat pump systems available in your area.

  1. International Energy Agency (IEA). “Heat Pumps, More Efforts Needed.” Tracking Report, September 2022, Authors and Contributors.
  2. U.S. Department of Energy. “Heat Pump Systems as an Energy Saver.” Heat & Cool, 2022.
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