PECO’s Complete Heat Pump System Buying Guide

Have you been thinking about replacing your heat pump system or swapping a furnace split system for a heat pump system? Heat pumps are a lot like a furnace and air conditioner combined; they have the dual function of heating and cooling your home. They do this by absorbing and moving the ambient heat rather than burning fuel or using electrical resistance. Because of this, heat pumps are very energy-efficient and eco-friendly compared to other climate control systems. 

Whether it’s time to replace aging equipment or you’re looking into a different type of heating system, we’ve designed this handy guide to help you find the right heat pump for your home. 

How Do Heat Pumps Work?

Air-source heat pumps are the most common type of heat pump on the market. They work by absorbing heat from the air and moving it indoors (to heat a home) or outdoors (to cool a home)—just like an air conditioner. In fact, they look similar to air conditioners and use nearly all the same parts. The only difference is that they provide both heating and cooling.  Heat pumps are the most efficient at temperatures down to 50 degrees, then the heat pump uses heat strips in the air handler to overcome the cold air when the heat pump reverses the refrigerant cycle to defrost the outdoor unit.

Although they run on electricity, they have a very high-efficiency rating, and many power companies, including Duke Energy, offer rebates and other incentives for homeowners to install them.  

Heat pumps can be used as the sole heating and cooling unit in a home, or they can be combined with an existing furnace system. This is called a dual fuel system and is one of the most efficient systems. The heat pump can be locked out at 50 degrees, and the furnace will provide more consistent heat because there is no defrost cycle at lower temperatures. 

If switching from a furnace system to a heat pump system, the electrical service and wiring in your home are a consideration. The air handler portion of a heat pump system uses heat strips at very cold temperatures; thus, a larger circuit/circuit breaker is necessary for this component.   

The Different Types of Heat Pumps

As mentioned above, air-source heat pumps are the most common type of heat pump used in the United States, especially the subset known as “air-to-air” heat pumps. The most common air-to-air heat pumps include:

Ducted Air-Source Heat Pumps
Ducted air-source heat pumps are the same as central AC units. They have an indoor and outdoor unit, as well as aluminum or copper fins and coils, refrigerant lines, and an outdoor compressor that compresses and recirculates the refrigerant. The indoor unit attaches to the ducts in your home and uses a blower to circulate the warm or cool air throughout your home. Although prices vary based on the manufacturer, the median price for these types of heat pumps at 14 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) is $7,791. They come in 1.5 tons up to 5 tons for residential homes and are priced based upon difficultly of installation or accessories added to the system.

Variable speed air-sourced heat pumps are the new rivals to the other systems listed below. These variable speed, variable capacity systems have built-in compressor modulation to customize your heating and cooling on the fly. In essence, a 3-ton heat pump system can act like a 1-ton system when the temperatures are mild. These systems also have an added bonus of dehumidification features… to keep the air in your home cool and crisp in the summer months. The SEER ratings for these systems are from 16 to 28 SEER—depending upon the tonnage and pairing with an indoor component.

Ductless (Mini-Split) Air-Source Heat Pumps
Mini-splits heat and cool the air just like a ducted model does, but they don’t require ductwork to move the heated or cooled air through your home—and because they don’t use ducts, which can contribute to energy loss, they’re more energy-efficient than ducted heat pumps. Instead of ducts, the outdoor unit connects to indoor handlers or “heads” that are installed throughout the house. These can be installed high on the walls or inside the floor or ceiling. 

Mini-splits can range anywhere from $3,000 to $14,500, depending on the capacity needed and the number of zones in the home. These are designed for single room use only and rooms with a minimum size of 1500 cubic feet or 10×15 room with 10’ ceiling—¾ tons up to 5 tons. These are not recommended as the main home system as there is no central return duct to circulate the air in your home, thus leading to stale dead air in closed rooms.

Less Common Heat Pumps

In addition to the above heat pumps, here are a few less common types that work well for specific situations.

Ground-source or Geothermal Heat Pumps
These heat pumps work by absorbing and releasing heat underground, where the temperature stays consistently between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Since they aren’t compensating for large temperature fluctuations, they’re highly efficient. However, since they’re underground, they can be impractical for some homes, especially small lots or properties with certain types of landscaping or soil. 

Ground-source systems typically cost between $30,000 to $80,000, but the energy savings they offer, as well as government incentives, can potentially offset the cost within 10 years. Added complications are water pumps used to circulate water, digging trenches or deep holes for the in-ground water loop, and specialty contractors to work on them.

Water-source Heat Pumps 
Water-source heat pumps work the same as a ground-source system, but they’re installed at the bottom of a pond. These can be a great option if you have an appropriately sized pond on your property, as they’re easier and a little less expensive to install than ground-source.

Why Should You Consider Buying a Heat Pump?

  • You’re happy having a heat pump, but it’s time to replace your existing system. If your current unit is 10-15 years old, a newer system will be more efficient. 
  • You need to replace your central AC unit or would like to add a new unit. Since heat pumps work the same as an air conditioner on cooling mode (but with the ability to heat your home), too, you may want to consider installing a heat pump and using your existing furnace system as a backup for the coldest days of the year. This will allow you to enjoy your heat pump’s energy-saving benefits on milder days. 
  • You’d like to heat rooms that the main system doesn’t reach. Mini-split heat pumps are an ideal way to heat areas of your home that aren’t set up with ductwork, like attics, bonus rooms, garages, or home additions. 
  • You currently heat your home with delivered fuels, electric-resistance furnaces, or electric baseboard heaters. All of these systems are expensive ways to heat your home; even with the cost of installation, a heat pump will likely save you money over time. 
  • You can take advantage of heat pump subsidies and incentives. Although heat pumps tend to cost more than other heating appliances, state and utility-based subsidies can lower the costs significantly—sometimes to the point where they actually cost less. 

When Are Heat Pumps an Impractical Choice?

Although heat pumps are an ideal solution for many homes, there are some scenarios where they might be too expensive, difficult, or even impossible to install. For example:

  • Your home has no ductwork. Ducts can be challenging and expensive to install in homes that don’t already have them. However, new duct systems with the proper design (like the way PECO installs them) will provide excellent airflow to every room and last for years to come.  
  • Your home is poorly insulated or has air leaks. Since heat pumps are essentially always working to keep your home heated, good insulation is extremely beneficial. If your insulation is poor or you have leaks throughout your home, you’ll likely notice drafts and cold spots with a heat pump than you would with a traditional heating system. If you’d still like a heat pump, it’s recommended to have your insulation upgraded and the leaks sealed.  
  • Your electrical service is underpowered. If you have an older home, it may only have a 100-amp (or even 60-amp) service. Even though you can technically run a smaller-capacity mini-split on low amperage, bigger heat pumps could cause you to trip the breaker. Getting the right heat pump for your heating needs might require upgrading your electrical system to the modern standard of 200 amps. PECO can perform this work as well. 

How to Select a Heat Pump

If you’ve decided to get a heat pump, here are some important factors to help you select the right one for your home.

  • Size/Capacity

A unit that’s too small will struggle to keep your home comfortable while an overly large system will cost more and (depending on the model) may cycle on and off more than it should. Your best bet is to install a heat pump that’s properly sized for your home. Our technicians will perform a load calculation to ensure you have the right size. If you’re planning to use a backup heating system, we can also help you figure out whether an undersized heat pump might be a good option.

  • Compressor Type

The heat pump compressor is the part that’s responsible for actually pumping the heat. A basic heat pump will have a single-speed compressor that is either on or off; this can make the temperature and humidity in your home fluctuate. Some compressors have two speeds; although this helps with the fluctuations, they’ll still be present. 

A variable-speed compressor, however, is designed to run continuously and adjust to deliver only as much heating and cooling as you need. They’re also better at keeping the relative humidity consistent. Another benefit of variable-speed compressors is that they’re also more energy-efficient than single or dual-speed compressors. 

  • Efficiency

Some heat pumps use less energy than others while delivering the same level of comfort. Heating and cooling efficiency is measured by heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) and seasonal energy-efficiency rating (SEER). Although the costs may be higher, higher HSPF or SEER-rated units will typically pay for themselves over time, and may even be eligible for better incentives or rebates than less efficient models. The most efficient heat pumps have a SEER rating of up to 28 or an HSPF of 11.2, depending on the tonnage and indoor component combination.

  • Noise

You can find noise ratings for heat pumps listed on the manufacturer’s website; they’ll typically include different decibel ratings based on outdoor temperatures and fan speeds. A lower rating is better, especially if your heat pump is installed near a bedroom window. The variable speed systems are extremely quiet, and on low speed, you wouldn’t hear it running.

A Note on Heat Pump Maintenance

Like furnaces and air conditioning units, heat pumps should receive regular maintenance to keep them operating efficiently. Once a year, you should have a technician perform the following:

  • Clean and flush the coils
  • Clear the condensate drainage system
  • Vacuum the blower compartments
  • Check that the system is properly charged with refrigerant and that there are no leaks
  • Check that all mechanical components are working properly

You can also perform some basic maintenance yourself, like cleaning the grilles, replacing the filters, and keeping weeds and other debris cleared out from around the base. Check the manufacturer’s directions for how often you need to change the filter; depending on the type, it could be anywhere between every 3 to 12 months. 

For no-hassle maintenance, consider signing up for our planned maintenance agreement!

Contact PECO to Find the Right Heat Pump for Your Needs

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when purchasing a heat pump! As with most heating and cooling systems, your best bet is to work with a professional. The margin of error for heat pumps is smaller than other heating systems, so it’s essential to install the right size for your home. If you’ve decided to switch to a heat pump—or replace an existing unit—the skilled technicians at PECO are ready to help! From helping you choose the right system to expert installation, maintenance, and repairs, we specialize in helping you maximize the comfort of your home. Contact us today at (864) 639-2424 or schedule an appointment online