Heat pumps are a hot topic in the world of home appliances and systems today—and for good reason. They are energy efficient and reduce utility costs, and new tax incentives are becoming available through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act that offset up-front costs. You will find heat pump technology in clothes dryers and water heaters, but the most popular application is for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. 

As a leading sustainable building nonprofit, Southface Institute frequently uses heat pumps for temperature control in both new construction and renovation projects. Southface Technical Principal Mike Barcik remarks, “Any time there’s an advancement in technology for major systems in a home, people want to know how it works.”

Barcik explains that, in the hotter months, a heat pump operates just like a standard air conditioner: “They both take heat from your home, transfer it into a refrigerant, and send the refrigerant outside to release the heat outdoors. You are pumping heat ‘up the hill’ from your relatively cooler home to the hotter air outside.” 

The biggest differentiator is evident in colder weather; a heat pump replaces both air conditioners and furnaces. Using a device called a reversing valve, a heat pump can function like an air conditioner running backwards. Even when it’s cold outside, there’s still energy in the air. The heat pump extracts this heat energy from the outdoor air, transfers it to the refrigerant, and releases it indoors to heat the house.

According to the International Energy Agency, air-to-air heat pumps are three to four times more energy efficient than fuel-based or electric resistance systems because they transfer heat rather than generating it. While efficiency may decrease below freezing temperatures, a new study from Oxford University and the Regulatory Assistance Project reports that heat pumps perform significantly better even in temperatures approaching -22º F.

“Heat pumps are good for people and the planet,” adds Southface Technical Services VP Nathan Bessette. “That’s what drives sustainable progress—solutions that work for everyone.”

About Southface Institute

Southface Institute is a sustainable building nonprofit based in Atlanta, Ga., with a satellite location in Sarasota, Fla. Since 1978, Southface has collaborated with other nonprofits, businesses, builders, developers, universities, government agencies, and communities to deliver sustainability and resiliency solutions that work for everyone. Join Southface in building sustainably for life at southface.org. Plus, connect with us on LinkedInX (Twitter)Facebook, and YouTube.

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  1. Unfortunately this article is not completely accurate. Heat pumps are efficient until cold weather sets in. Then the electric heat strips kick in and your using way more electricity than is needed for a gas furnace. Anything below 35 degrees the heat pump is useless from an energy saving standpoint. Heat pumps are great in warmer areas like south Florida where the winter temps stay above 35 degrees. Do your research.

  2. This is a very good article on explaining on how a heat pumps works in the Smmer and Winter by Mike Barcik. I had the privilege of taking several classes from Mike Barcik at Southface and he is a good instructor.

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