What is a Heat Pump? The Heat Pump Crash Course from ASM-air

What is a Heat Pump? The Heat Pump Crash Course from ASM-air

What is a heat pump?  We are asked a lot of questions on the job, and it wasn't uncommon to get this question, even from people who owned a heat pump!  In its simplest form, a heat pump uses outside air to warm your house in the winter, and cool it in the summer.  So, what's the catch?  We'll get there...but for those of you who haven't read our articles, we started as a small U.S. Veteran owned and operated heating and air conditioning company, and built our reputation on giving honest, straight answers.  This article will be no different.  To answer the question, what's a heat pump, we must first know how a heat pump works.  Then, we'll discuss some of the pros and cons of a heat pump, and finally, we'll take a look at how to know if a heat pump is right for your home.


What is a Heat Pump?

So, what is a heat pump?  In its simplest definition:

  • A heat pump is a form of central heating and cooling that uses outside air to heat your home in the winter, and cool it in the summer.

That's the easy part.  What you might not know is that you probably already have a heat pump in your home!  You see, air conditioning is a form of a heat pump.  

Huh?  I know...it's confusing...let's discuss.

Also try:

Heat Pumps as Defined by Engineering vs Heat Pumps Defined by the HVAC Industry

what is a heat pump - heat pump cutoutOk...I'm doing my best not to write this in a confusing manner, because it's really easy; I'm just a bad writer.  But, here we go... 

  • To an engineer, a heat pump is any machine that absorbs heat in one location and transfers it to another.
  • To a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician, a heat pump is a specific type of heating and air conditioning unit that uses outside air to both cool your home, as well as heat it.

Clear as mud?  Didn't think so...to be a bit clearer, by an engineering definition, your air conditioner is a heat pump!  But, when your HVAC technician shows up and starts talking about heat pumps, that's not what he means...he's talking about a specific type of unit called a heat pump.

Why did I just waste three minutes of your time explaining this?  Because...there are lots of people with engineering degrees (or who think they do), and I want to make sure that they avoid the predictably awkward conversation:

Customer: "What are you talking about?"

Anonymous HVAC Technician: "Wait, what are you talking about...?" 

My thoughts on the subject, exactly:

So, to be perfectly clear, when an HVAC technician comes over and starts talking about heat pumps, now you know...he isn't talking about your air conditioner (ahem...engineers...cough, cough).  He is talking about a specific type of heating and air conditioning unit that is designed specifically to exchange heat with the outside air, and it is called a heat pump.

The ASM-air Definition of a Heat Pump

Our definition of a heat pump is a little bit simpler...maybe our minds are a little bit simpler, as my wife would say...I digress...

  • A heat pump is an air conditioner that can run in reverse, heating your home instead of cooling it.

Hey, we are veterans...some of us got hit in the head a lot, so what can I say?  We keep it simple.

Also try:

What is a Heat Pump?  The Pros and Cons

So, what's a heat pump?  We have already defined a heat pump for you...it's a mysterious machine, that magically transforms electric energy into heat.  But if there really is a machine that both air conditions your home and heats it, why bother with anything else like a furnace or boiler?

Because..there's a catch...but first, we'll look at the pros:

What is a Heat Pump - Heat Pump Pros and Cons graph

Heat Pump Pros:

Part of understanding what a heat pump is, is understanding the pros and cons of owning one. Let's take a look at a few of the pros to owning a heat pump:

  1. Heat pumps use electricity and are better for the environment.  One of the advantages of a heat pump is that they don't need fossil fuels, and can therefore be green on the environment.
  2. Heat pumps don't need fossil fuels.  Some areas of the country don't have access to natural gas or propane...but they do have electricity.  This can be very advantageous, and is cheaper than installing natural gas or a propane tank!
  3. Heat pumps are 100% electric, and run no risk of carbon monoxide leakage (see: Furnace Smells Like Gas - Now What?).  This isn't a huge problem in modern furnaces, but there you have it.
  4. Heat pumps take up less room than furnaces or boilers, meaning you can use them in tight spaces and houses with limited accessibility.
  5. Heat pumps are a single piece of equipment.  They are simply an air conditioner with a reversing valve, so they can run their refrigerant (like Freon, or R-410a Puron) the opposite direction and heat your home instead of cool it!  

Heat Pump Cons

Now, let's look at a few of the considerations when thinking about getting a heat pump:

  1. Heat pumps have a shorter lifespan than furnaces!  Furnaces typically last 20-30 years, whereas the lifespan of a heat pump - like your air conditioner - is only around 10-15 (even less by the beach).
  2. Heat pumps don't work well below 30-32 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is the main reason we don't see many heat pumps up north in places like Montana.  Heat pumps are typically found in warmer, more temperate regions like the South, and in coastal areas.
  3. Efficiency is not the same as energy efficiency.  Heat pumps are extremely efficient in that they convert a tremendous amount of the energy you use into usable heat.  But, electricity is typically pretty expensive, so owning a heat pump is like running your air conditioner year round!
  4. Because you only have one piece of equipment - a heat pump - if your system breaks, you lose heat and air conditioning.  For most people reading this, that's not a big deal.  But, for those on a fixed income or budget, you may be willing to live without AC, but can you live without heat?  Furnaces are reliable and sturdy; something to keep in mind.
  5. Furnaces are pretty maintenance free.  Keep the filter changed and that's pretty much it.  Heat pumps, however, have refrigerant, coils, etc. just like your air conditioner, and therefore will require more maintenance than a furnace.  Again, something to keep in mind.

Also read:

Pro Tip: Don't Overpay for Your New Heat Pump

Don't overpay for your new heat pump.  If it's time, make sure you get a fair price; here's a short video on how:


What is a Heat Pump, and is it Right for Me?

Ok, here is where it all comes together.  You've asked, what's a heat pump?  Now you know what it is, as well as some of the pros and cons to owning one.  Now here's the real question you should be asking...is a heat pump right for me?

The biggest factor affecting whether or not a heat pump is right for your home is geographical location.  Do you live by the beach, or in a warmer region like Tennessee or South Texas?  If so, then you probably already have a heat pump, or at least know what one is.  

But, we don't see a lot of heat pumps in the north; why?  The reason is simple...heat pumps don't work that well below freezing, remember?  But what if you don't have access to natural gas or propane?  Enter the supplemental electric strip heat.

Supplemental Electric Strip Heat for Your Heat Pump

what is a heat pump - supplemental electric strip heatSupplemental electric strip heat is a type of supplemental heat that people in Montana use if they have to get a heat pump.  Up north, if you don't have access to fossil fuels, you need to get a heat pump or electric heat.  Supplemental strip heat is a means of making your heat pump into a hybrid of sorts, giving you both the advantages of electric heat and a heat pump.

Basically, supplemental electric strip heat is like a heated coil that goes across your air flow in tandem with your heat pump, and only comes on if it gets below 40-degrees or so (think of these as being kind of like the coils inside of a hair dryer...only safer.  Toasty, right?).  That way, you can have the advantages of a heat pump, but still warm your home in the coldest climates.

They aren't the most efficient things in the world, but you do what you've got to do to stay warm, right?

Also try:

What's a Heat Pump?  Final Thoughts

So, what is a heat pump?  Hopefully you know the answer now!  In this article, we discussed what a heat pump is, how it works, the pros and cons of owning one, and how where you live affects whether you should get a heat pump or not.  For more answers to questions on heat pumps - and other topics - try ASM-air's HVAC Blog.  Now I'm supposed to say, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us...and blah, blah, blah...but we'd really rather you didn't...


Tim K.
About the author
Tim K.

The University of Virginia - 2005 / The Wharton School of Finance - 2016 / U.S. Naval Aviator 2005-2015. At All Systems Mechanical air conditioning and heating, we believe that the experience our clients have is every bit as important as the products they receive. Simply put, our results speak for themselves, and we'd be happy to help. If you're in the market for a new AC or furnace, make sure that you get a fair price! Try our online calculator; click the tab on the top of this page for more information.

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