Are Heat Pumps Efficient in California?
There are many different HVAC systems on the market, so how do you know which one to choose? Is a heat pump a smart choice for California?
Heat pumps have been used for decades to provide energy-efficient heating and cooling, but technology has dramatically improved over the last five to ten years. Variable-speed compressors and other efficiency enhancements enable heat pumps to work efficiently at temperatures at or below 5°F.
Not only are heat pumps extremely efficient in California, heat pump technology has advanced so much that people are even using them in colder, subfreezing regions as well.
In California, the Northwest, and the Southwest, heat pumps can replace your heating system entirely, leading to lower costs and reduced emissions compared to gas furnaces. Heat pumps were always efficient in California, but that statement is even truer today.
What Is a Heat Pump?
Heat pumps are a great option for many homeowners who want reliable heating and cooling in one convenient unit. Using a vapor-compression refrigeration system, a heat pump is able to transfer heat into or out of a building.
The most common type of heat pump is called an air-source heat pump (ASHP). These systems absorb heat energy from the outdoor air to send into your home. In the summer, the process reverses to cool your indoor spaces. ASHPs are traditionally connected to a duct system.
Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner
Heat pumps are very similar to air conditioners. The major difference is that heat pumps can reverse the refrigeration process in order to heat your home. Usually, you only call something a heat pump if it can provide both heating and cooling; however, sometimes people will refer to a refrigerator/freezer or air conditioner as a heat pump.
How a Heat Pump Works in Summer (Cooling Mode)
Let’s start in the compressor, the mechanical heart of the system. The compressor contains a chemical blend called refrigerant, which easily shifts from liquid to gas and back again.
The compressor, powered by electricity, compresses the vapor refrigerant and changes it into a high-pressure hot gas. The hot refrigerant gas exits the compressor and enters the reversing valve, which directs the gas toward the outdoor coil of the unit. As the hot refrigerant moves through the coil, a fan blows air across it, releasing heat and causing the refrigerant to cool down.
After releasing a lot of heat, the still highly-pressurized refrigerant enters a metering device known as an expansion valve to lower its pressure. This expansion process cools the refrigerant even further and evaporates the refrigerant back to its vapor state.
The cold, vapor refrigerant now moves to the indoor evaporator coils, and another fan blows air across it as vapor refrigerant moves through the coils. Since the refrigerant inside the coils is much colder than the indoor air, indoor heat energy is absorbed by the refrigerant. The warm, indoor air blows over the coils, loses its heat, and comes out the other side as cool air.
After the low-pressure refrigerant absorbs enough indoor heat to become gaseous, it gets sent back to the compressor, where the process starts over.
How a Heat Pump Works in Winter (Heating Mode)
The process is almost exactly the same in heating mode, just reversed. The refrigerant starts in the compressor, changes to a hot gas, but when it enters the reversing valve, the valve sends it the opposite direction.
The refrigerant now goes to the indoor coil first, where it releases heat into the home. When the refrigerant cools down and condenses, it travels to the outdoor coil and absorbs heat from the outside air before returning to the compressor.
So going from one mode to the other is a mere matter of switching the direction of the refrigerant, which causes the two coils to swap functions.
How Heat Pump Technology Has Improved
Heat pumps used to struggle to produce heat in freezing conditions, but technology has improved so much that it’s generally not a problem anymore. Still, there is a big difference in efficiency levels based on outdoor temperature levels. That’s why heat pumps are more efficient in more moderate climates, such as California.
In California, one efficient heat pump is all you need. Studies have shown that heat pumps are cost effective compared to electric resistance, propane, or fuel heating.
Despite the many advantages of heat pumps compared to gas furnaces, natural gas is the still the most common fuel used for space and water heating. But fuel-based heating is not as cost-effective or energy-efficient as modern heat pumps on the market today.
California and other areas in the Northwest and Southwest are in a great geographical location for taking advantage of heat pump efficiency and reliability.
Let’s look at the potential benefits of installing heat pumps in new and existing homes in California.
Heat Pumps for Existing Homes
Existing homes with existing HVAC systems are a bit more complicated. For instance, there may be higher initial costs for a retrofit scenario of switching to a ductless mini-split system or going from a furnace and air conditioner to a heat pump. There are additional expenses associated with retrofitting and changing existing HVAC configurations.
Despite the potential added cost of retrofitting your existing system to a heat pump compared with a natural gas furnace, over the lifespan of the unit, you’ll end up saving money and energy.
Still, it’s best to consider the cost and energy savings of heat pump technology in reference to your unique situation. If you have an existing HVAC system and are considering energy-efficient upgrades and retrofits, contact Bell Brothers to evaluate your existing home. After a thorough inspection, we can recommend the best, most cost-effective solutions for your home, comfort, convenience, and savings.
Heat Pumps Are On the Rise
It’s not just iPhones that improved over the last ten years — heat pump technology has been advancing at breakneck speeds.
Now, the capacity and efficiency of newer heat pump units don’t even have to rely on backup heating systems when the temperatures drop below freezing.
Larger swaths of the United States can now install heat pump technology knowing that they won’t need to have a backup heating system in place.
Rebates and Other Incentives to Switch to Heat Pumps
There may be a way to save even more money by switching to heat pump technology. Several states and regions including California, the Pacific Northwest, New York, and New England that have been developing and promoting programs to promote heat pumps as a way to reach their state’s energy efficiency goals.
Check for rebates and other incentives in your local area for deals on energy-efficient upgrades, such as heat pumps. These rebates may be available through your local utility company.
Heat Pump Efficiency Relies on Heat Pump Maintenance
Damage to the Compressor
Proper airflow is vital to keeping the compressor running smoothly. Filters that are not changed regularly, dirty coils, and dirty fans can all restrict airflow, which will damage the compressor. Debris around the outside components should also be cleared to allow proper airflow.
When dirty or broken components restrict the airflow, this damages the compressor and decreases the heat pump’s efficiency levels. Not only is it important to clean your heat pump regularly, but you should also have it checked by a certified heating technician once a year. This will also prevent safety hazards and other hidden issues with the heat pump.
Improper Refrigerant Levels
Most heat pumps are charged with refrigerant at the factory; however, if models that are charged when they are installed are not given the right amount of refrigerant this can affect performance levels. Refrigerant leaks and other common problems can be prevented by scheduling an annual tune-up from a qualified technician.
The Importance of Sizing
Before buying anything, consider the cost of an oversized heat pump. A lot of homeowners opt for the biggest device on the market, but they don’t realize that they’re paying more than necessary for their device. An oversized device cycles on and off more often than is necessary and wears down much faster, resulting in an increased electric bill and faster wear on the device. It’s not good for your heat pump or your wallet.
Proper heat pump sizing depends on a variety of factors, such as square footage, climate zones, insulation levels, and more. Our HVAC professionals will perform a meticulous Manual J load calculation to make sure you are getting the right-sized unit.
All the potential problems of heat pumps can be avoided with basic maintenance and bi-annual professional tune-ups. With proper care, your heat pump will last 20 years or more.
Find Out If a Heat Pump Is Right for You
If you don’t already have a heat pump, you’re probably thinking about getting one at this point. For homeowners in the Sacramento area, Bell Brothers is your local insulation, air sealing, and HVAC company that’s been working in the community for generations.
We can help you make a heating and cooling decision that makes the most sense for you and your home. For instance, if you want to save money on a smaller heat pump, we’d recommend making air sealing and insulation improvements around the home first.
Contact Bell Brothers today for a free in-home analysis of your existing HVAC system.