What’s the best heat pump? It really depends on your climate, your budget and your goals for indoor comfort control.
This 2020 heat pump Buying Guide is designed to assist you in choosing the best 2020 heat pump for your situation. Along the way, this guide shares:
- Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner (Brief)
- How Climate Affects Heat Pump Choice
- Heat Pump Capacity and How to Size a Heat Pump
- Heat Pump Performance Options/Stages
- Choosing the Best Heat Pump for Your Setting
- Get it Installed by a Pro
Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner (Brief)
ACs remove heat from your home. The refrigerant evaporates inside the indoor coil, and like water evaporating from your skin makes you cool, the refrigerant collects heat and carries it outside. The indoor coil gets really cold as heat is removed.
Moisture from the air condenses on the coil and is drained away, making the air in your home less humid. Outdoors, the refrigerant is condensed, and the heat is released through the radiator-like outdoor coil, called a condensing coil.
Heat pumps have a reversing valve. In cold weather, the flow of refrigerant is reversed. It collects heat outside, carriers it inside and releases it into your home. Your furnace or air handler distributes the warmed air to the rooms in your house.
Dual fuel heat pump systems work with a gas furnace or oil furnace. In cool weather, the heat pump heats your home. When temperatures drop into the mid-30s F, the system automatically switches to the furnace for heat until outdoor temperatures rise. Heat pump heating is preferred because heat pumps are more energy efficient compared with furnaces in weather that isn’t freezing. But in freezing weather, a furnace will do a better job heating your home.
How Climate Affects Heat Pump Choice
It’s pretty simple.
Warm Climates: The hotter your weather gets and/or the higher the humidity level, the more efficient your heat pump should be.
Why? You’ll pay more for a highly efficient heat pump, but your utility bills will be lower. The time it takes to recoup the extra equipment cost through lower energy cost is called the payback time.
Let’s say you pay $1,000 more for a 20 SEER heat pump than a 15 SEER. The 20 SEER model is 33% more efficient. If you would have spent $500 per hear on electricity with the 15 SEER model, you’ll cut that by $167 with the 20 SEER model.
1000 / 167 = 6
The 20 SEER model has a payback time of 6 years. After that, you’ll save about a third on your energy bill.
Cold Climates: You either want to go with a furnace and AC (if you need AC) system or a dual fuel system with a furnace and a heat pump, as discussed above. Dual fuel systems cost more – turning an AC into a heat pump by installing a reversing valve at the factory costs $350 to $600 extra depending on model.
We recommend dual fuel heat pump with mid-level efficiency – 15-17 SEER. You’ve got single-stage and two-stage performance options in that efficiency range.
What is the best dual fuel heat pump? Three groups stand out. 1. One of the Carrier/Bryant models or, 2). One from the similar ICP brands Heil, Day & Night, Comfortmaker, Tempstar, Keeprite and Arcoaire. 3). The Trane Earthwise hybrid/dual fuel heat pumps are also built with quality components and offer good reliability.
To sum up Heat Pump and Climate, what we said in 2017 still holds true. It's in this next block:
When efficient yet cost-effective heating and cooling is the goal, a Climate Map like this one of the US will help:
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)
OK, on to sizing your heat pump.
Heat Pump Capacity and How to Size a Heat Pump
What size heat pumps are available? Most heat pump models are made in 4-7 sizes of approx.
- 1.5 tons / 18,000 BTUs
- 2.0 tons / 24,000 BTUs
- 2.5 tons / 32,000 BTUs
- 3 tons / 36,000 BTUs
- 3.5 tons / 42,000 BTUs
- 4.0 tons / 48,000 BTUs
- 5.0 tons / 60,000 BTUs
The most popular models are made in the most sizes. Some are made in 2, 3, 4 and 5 tons only.
What size heat pump do I need? Getting the size correct is important for energy efficiency and for indoor comfort. A heat pump sized too large, which is the more common error, will cycle a lot more than it should and create temperature imbalance.
One that is too small will have obvious problems keeping up on the hottest and coldest days.
To get this crucial factor right, ask your HVAC technician to do a load calculations. There are several commonly done, and a Manual J load calculation is the most common. Some technicians will simply exchange the old one with a new heat pump of the same size. That’s guesswork for several reasons.
- 15-20 years ago (and some still do), too many HVAC technicians had a “bigger is better” mentality. If you need a 3-ton heat pump, put in a 3.5-ton or 4-ton unit, “just to be sure” it can handle the load. Bad idea.
- If you’ve made energy efficient upgrades to your home since the last heat pump was installed, you will likely need a smaller model next time. Those upgrades could include adding insulation to the attic, replacing windows and doors with more efficient ones, installing Energy Star roofing shingles and similar upgrades.
Regardless, it makes sense to have one or more load calculations done. It might cost $100-$400 to do one, but it will be worth the money in terms of energy efficiency and indoor comfort when the new heat pump is installed.
Heat Pump Performance Options/Stages
There are three performance levels, and they somewhat correspond efficiency, but there are overlaps.
- 1-stage heat pumps, aka single-stage heat pumps: 13 SEER (sold in the North only) or 14 SEER to 17 SEER
- 2-stage heat pumps, aka two-stage heat pumps: 16 SEER to 19 SEER
- Variable capacity heat pumps, aka modulating and variable-speed heat pumps: 19 SEER to 23.5 SEER at this writing, but efficiencies continue to trend upwards.
Single-stage heat pumps run at 100% of capacity whenever on. They are often paired with single-speed blowers in the air handler or furnace.
- Pros: The most affordable heat pumps.
- Cons: Slight temperature imbalances. They don’t remove as much humidity in AC mode as staged heat pumps. Efficiency levels aren’t as high, but this is changing a little too. 17 SEER is pretty efficient, suitable to all but the warmest and most humid climates.
Two-stage models run on the lower stage when that is sufficient to keep your home cool or warm. Low stage ranges from 65% to 70% of capacity depending on the model.
- Pros: Temperature and climate control. When running at the lower capacity, temperature balance is better and more humidity is removed because the cycles are longer. Mid-priced.
- Cons: They cost more than single-stage heat pumps and aren’t quite as efficient as variable capacity heat pumps.
Variable capacity heat pumps have a lowest capacity between 25% and 40% depending on model. Most have rotary compressors that speed up or slow down. This cycles refrigerant at various rates. The faster the refrigerant flows, the more heat it moves. But the more electricity is used also. So, variable speed heat pumps run at the lowest speed possible to keep indoor temperatures “perfectly” balanced. They adjust in increments ranging from .1% to 1% – in other words, precisely.
- Pros: The best temperature balance and dehumidification.
- Cons: High cost. Many use communicating technology. That’s not WiFi. It means the heat pump and the air handler or furnace communicate climate/temperature data to the thermostat. This feedback allows the thermostat to adjust heat pump compressor speed more precisely. In non-communicating systems, the thermostat “gives orders,” with no feedback. While the potential is there for optimal climate control with communicating technology, the technology is far from perfect. If something goes wrong with the technology, and it often does, the problem can be difficult to find and solve. In the meantime, the system won’t run.
Heat Pump Buying Tips – The Right Heat Pump for Your Home
These heat pump buying tips will help you get this important decision right.
1. Think about efficiency and performance. Do you want to save money on equipment, but has single-stage heating and AC? Or are you willing to spend more for two-stage or variable capacity heating and air conditioning?
2. Climate affects the choice too, not just efficiency and performance. If you’re in a moderate climate, the choice might be between single-stage and two-stage. In a hot climate, the choice might be between two-stage and variable capacity heat pumps.
3. How long do you plan to stay in your current home? If it’s less than 10 years, buying an affordable brand like Goodman makes good sense. If you’re planning to stay where you are, you will be better long-term value from the durability and reliability of a Trane/American Standard, Carrier/Bryant, Armstrong Air/Air Ease.
4. We currently do not recommend Maytag, Broan or other Nortek Global brands. Nor do we recommend Johnson Control brands York, Luxaire and Coleman. Not for 2020.
5. See our 2020 Best Heat Pump Review and our 2020 Most Efficient Heat Pump Review for specific model suggestions.
6. Don’t go cheap on installation, because bad installation can turn a Trane (or any quality brand) into junk.
Get it Installed by a Pro – Professional Heat Pump Installation
The 6th tip above is vitally important. Not all installation quality is the same.
That is why we recommend getting estimates from several experienced installers. If you want a quick, convenient way to do that, use our Free Quotes form.
Once you get the quotes by using our partner service or making your own calls:
1. Ask about the certification of the installers. Are they certification by NATE? Factory trained by the brand?
2. How long have the installers been with the company? Longer is generally better.
3. Is the company licensed and insured?
4. Check reviews on Google, Yelp, Angie’s List and/or the Better Business Bureau.
5. Choose a heat pump installer based on reviews and experience, not just based on cost.