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How Do Heat Pumps Work in the Winter? Types, Facts & FAQs

Two heat pumps outside the house

A heat pump may be the answer if you’re tired of spending too much on energy bills throughout the year. Typically, a heat pump is more energy-efficient than an air conditioning system and a gas furnace.

But knowing how a heat pump creates hot air when it’s cold outside is an important factor when deciding if it will work in your situation. A heat pump relies on outside air regardless of whether it’s heating or cooling, so the climate determines whether a heat pump is worth it.

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What is a Heat Pump?

The most common type of heat pump is an air-source pump. It takes heat from the air, cycles it through its pressurized refrigerant system, and releases the hot air. Depending on whether you’re heating or cooling is what determines which direction the air flows.

white and gray heat pump
Image By: Carlos Lindner, Unsplash

Heat Pump During the Winter

Using a heat pump to heat your home in the winter is advantageous for its incredible efficiency compared to a gas furnace or electric heater.

Even during the winter, there is still heat in the air. The heat pump draws air from outside and cycles it through the refrigerant. The high pressure creates more heat in the air, which is released inside.

Heat Pump During the Summer

During summer use, the heat pump performs the same job as winter; it absorbs heat from the air. The difference is that it runs in reverse. So, it’s pulling air from inside your home, then pushing it outside.

Compared to a traditional air conditioning system, heat pumps are almost always a better option for cooling because they use less energy and they can heat and cool. Some new air conditioning units have heating functions, but they are rarely as good as a heat pump’s heating.

heat pump outside the house
Image Credit: HarmvdB, Pixabay

A Heat Pump as an Alternative to Other Heating Methods

Using a heat pump is often a more efficient and better way to heat and cool your home. However, they do have their limitations. When the outdoor temperature drops too low, a heat pump will no longer be a more efficient option.

As a rule, when the temperatures hit 40° F (4° C) or lower, the heat pump will have to work way harder to actually produce hot air. In addition, you run the risk of the condenser freezing up. So, if you live in a climate where temperatures dip low in the winter, you won’t be keeping your furnace off entirely.

Hybrid Heat Pump Systems

If you’re stuck on using a heat pump, even if temperatures tend to get cold where you live, there is a way to do it. Hybrid heat pump systems are a great way to reap the energy-efficient benefits with the added consistency of a secondary heat source during cold weather.

The nice thing about this type of heat pump is that the switch is typically automatic. The secondary source kicks in to assist the heat pump when the temperature gets to a pre-determined low. There are several types of hybrid systems, but the most common are:

Hybrid systems
  • Gas: The heat pump system is connected to a natural gas furnace that assists when the temperature gets too low.
  • Electric: Also called resistance heating, an electric addition to your heat pump’s HVAC system is an efficient option. Typically, an electrical hybrid will have heating elements that help heat up the air, enabling the heat pump to run at its maximum efficiency.

Even if you don’t install a true hybrid system that’s connected to the heat pump, having another system in the home to assist with heating will ultimately save you money in the long run over those cold winters.

man fixing the heat pump
Image Credit: Dziurek, Shutterstock

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Heat pumps may be the answer when you’re looking for an efficient way to heat and cool your home. Keep in mind that you may have to install a secondary system to maintain the heat pump’s efficiency if the winters get cold where you live.

Featured Image Credit: Nimur, Shutterstock


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