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Heat Pump Buyers Guide 2017

There’s no perfect heat pump, but there is a right heat pump category or class for your heating and air conditioning demands. This 2017 heat pump buyers guide, now in its fifth year of providing consumers the research they need, will assist you in the process. We thoroughly cover:

  • The Right Heat Pump Efficiency for You
  • Heat Pump Performance Options
  • Heat Pump Capacity and Sizing
  • Heat Pump Buying Tips
  • Why Proper Installation is So Important

 Your Climate and Heat Pumps

If you’re sold on getting a heat pump, then you are likely familiar with the information in this section. If you’re debating a heat pump vs. a gas furnace, then consider this: Heat pumps are far more efficient than gas furnaces when heating capacity is the same.

Without going into too much detail, here’s why:

  • Gas furnaces burn natural gas or propane to create heat.
  • Heat pumps don’t burn anything to generate heat. Instead, they use electricity to circulate refrigerant that captures heat outdoors and releases it indoors (and reverses the process in air conditioning mode).

Most electricity is still generated with coal, so there is energy expended. But, here’s why heat pumps are so efficient – they create 2.75 to 3.5 times the heating units used to generate the electricity that circulates refrigerant and runs the fan. That’s known as the coefficient of performance (COP or CP or CoP).

Now, it’s difficult to compare electricity production and cost-effectiveness to fossil fuel efficiency because they are different fuels with fluctuating prices. But most agree that furnaces cost about 1.5 to 2.5 times as much as heat pumps to operate over the course of a winter.

Equipment cost is competitive too. A heat pump and air handler combination costs about the same or less than a central air conditioner and gas furnace combination when quality and relative efficiency (14 SEER heat pump vs. 80% furnace or 20 SEER vs. 96%, for example) are the same. So, if you don’t need a gas furnace, a heat pump is the cost-effective choice in equipment and in efficiency.

When do you need a gas furnace? Today’s heat pumps pull heat out of colder air than has been possible in the past, but they are still not effective or efficient when temperatures are well below freezing. The electric resistance coils fitted in most air handlers in cold climates are for emergency heat only should the outside condensing unit stop working. Therefore, in climates with winter temps consistently below freezing, a gas furnace is a necessary choice. But what about both?

Dual fuel (a heat pump AND a gas furnace) systems are the most efficient systems of all. The efficient heat pump does the heating when temperatures are above freezing; the furnace takes over in colder temperatures. These systems switch back and forth automatically, so you can forget about it. The most efficient switch point for most systems is about 35 degrees F, so slightly above freezing. Now, because equipment costs are higher, dual fuel systems are not cost-effective in warm-to-moderate climates. Why spend $1,200 extra for a dual fuel system in Orlando or San Diego to save $15 per year in heating costs?

In cool climates where you’re saving $75 to $150 per year, the higher cost of the system is paid back in 7-12 years. Where winters are very cold, the payback time is 5-8 years when savings of $200 per season or better are possible. Beyond the payback point, you’re saving money every month you heat and having less environmental impact too.

If you weren’t sold on a heat pump or dual fuel system, perhaps know you see why heat pump systems are growing in popularity.

 The Right Heat Pump Efficiency for You

If your commitment is to heat and air condition your home using as little energy as possible, then the most efficient heat pump within your budget is the right choice.

When efficient yet cost-effective heating and cooling is the goal, a Climate Map like this one of the US will help:

IECCmap_Revised (1)

Zones 1 and 2 are HOT:

  • Best Option: 20+ SEER heat pump and air handler
  • 2nd Option: 20+ AC and inexpensive 80% furnace

Zones 3 and 4 are WARM:

  • Best Option: 16-19 SEER heat pump, mainly for the cooling, and air handler
  • 2nd Option: 14-15 SEER heat pumps in very moderate climates where heating/cooling bills are the smallest anywhere

Zone 5 is COOL:

  • Best Option: 16-18 SEER heat pump
  • 2nd Option: 16-18 SEER heat pump and a 90% furnace (Dual fuel)

Zones 6 and 7 are COLD:

  • Best Option: 16+ SEER heat pump plus a 92%+ gas furnace (Dual fuel)
  • Second Option: 95%+ gas furnace and a 13-16 SEER AC (or no AC)

For related information, see our recent posts on:

 Heat Pump Performance Options

The purpose of this section is to help you decide if you want to choose a heat pump with performance beyond what you need based on your climate.

13-15 SEER heat pumps are ALL single-stage units, i.e., they run at full capacity. This means they are nosier and they often heat or cool past the thermostat set point, so create noticeable temperature fluctuations. Most are paired with single-speed or multispeed blower motors in the air handler or furnace, so noise and temperature fluctuation is made worse.

16-18 SEER heat pumps are almost all two-stage heat pumps. They run at the low setting, which is about 65% capacity, when that setting allows them to keep up with heating and air conditioning demands. They switch to high – full capacity – when temperatures change rapidly outdoors or when you change the thermostat setting to call for more heat or AC. Two-stage models produce evener temperatures than single-stage units and they provide better dehumidification when in air conditioning mode. Two-stage heat pumps can be paired with variable-speed blowers that ramp up and down to prevent blasts of unheated air when heating or warm air when air conditioning at the start or end of a cycle.

Currently, ALL heat pumps with 19 SEER and higher ratings are variable-capacity models (aka variable-speed and modulating). This means their compressors fluctuate in capacity delivered from about 40% to 100%. They change in 1% or less increments, rising or falling to exactly match the heating or air conditioning required to produce the most even temperatures possible. They are all paired with variable-speed blowers in premium systems to produce the very best climate control in terms of balance, humidity control, quiet operation, air flow and air filtration.

 Heat Pump Capacity and Sizing

There’s no need to spend a lot of time here. Every model heat pump comes in six or seven sizes, starting either at 18,000 (aka 1.5 tons) or 24,000 BTU (2 tons) up to 60,000 BTU (5 tons).

It’s very important to have a heat pump installed that is properly sized for your home. To do otherwise is to risk mechanical failure and reduced efficiency. We’ve covered this topic at length in the Gas Furnace Buyers Guide 2017 and elsewhere. We’ll conclude here by suggesting that you ask your HVAC technician to conduct a Manual J load calculation to determine the best heat pump size for your home. This is especially true if your home’s energy efficiency has been updated through adding insulation and/or replacing windows and doors.

Heat Pump Buying Tips

Let’s summarize what we’ve said and add a few more tips:

  • The hotter your climate is, the higher the heat pump’s SEER rating should be for efficient cooling
  • Where freezing temperatures are common and a furnace is a necessity, installing a gas furnace alone will reduce equipment cost but have higher operating costs than a dual fuel heat pump and gas furnace
  • In any climate, the longer you intend to stay in your current home, the more cost-effective efficient equipment is
  • If you plan to sell, you won’t get the value out of efficient equipment, so less efficient/less costly equipment is attractive—but keep in mind that buyers, especially in extreme climates, might be looking for efficient HVAC equipment
  • Choosing more efficient equipment than your climate requires is often done for the climate control advantages such as better summer dehumidification, quiet operation and balanced temperatures

 Why Proper Installation is So Important

When an HVAC component or system isn’t properly installed, several things can go wrong:

  • It won’t run as efficiently as it should
  • The indoor comfort control won’t be as precise
  • The system will be prone to mechanical failure

While most HVAC installers do an adequate job, there are a few inexperienced and/or poorly trained companies and crews out there. To ensure that you hire a qualified contractor to install your heat pump or entire HVAC system, we recommend requesting estimates from several companies with a good reputation and interviewing each about the experience of the technicians that will be installing the heat pump. A quick and convenient way to find an installer with a proven track record is to use the 3 Free Estimates tab. Fill out a quick form, and you’ll receive estimates from some of the top HVAC companies in your area. They’re licensed, insured and prescreened for quality. They know they’re competing for the work, and there is no cost or obligation for using the service.


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