Are air source heat pumps worth it?


Do you need a new air conditioner to deal with the heat? That wouldn’t be surprising, as Americans across the country are experiencing higher average temperatures and heatwaves are becoming more common.

Or are you seeking a heating system? Maybe your existing furnace system is reaching the end of its life, or you’re moving into a new home.

In the past, you probably would have sought a separate solution for each situation. Now, however, there’s another option you might want to consider - air source heat pumps, which are more efficient and effective than ever. 

Contrary to what their name suggests, air source heat pumps aren’t just for heat. They are, in design, almost the exact same as air conditioners, with one crucial difference: the ability to provide both cooling and heating. In other words, air source heat pumps can serve as a single solution to keeping your home’s internal temperature comfortable year-round. 

In this blog we take a look at this increasingly popular option and help you figure out if it’s right for your home.

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    Find out if installing solar is worth it where you live

    What is an air source heat pump?

    Put simply, an air source heat pump (ASHP) is an appliance that can move heat either into a space or out of it, thus heating or cooling it. 

    In terms of setup, ASHPs are remarkably similar to regular air conditioners (ACs). Both appliances share almost all their parts, and they both work by transferring heat by applying compression to coils. The main difference is that while ACs can only transfer heat from inside to outside the home - thus cooling the house - ASHPs can also transfer heat from the air outside to the inside of the house, helping to warm it up. 

    In recent years, ASHPs have become very efficient, generating heat with as little as a quarter of the energy required by traditional heat converters. Furthermore, improvements in heat pump technology mean you can now get special cold climate air source heat pumps (CC-ASHPs); these can produce heat in air temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C).

    In some countries, they are also known as ‘reverse-cycle air conditioners’ due to their ability to reverse the direction of heat transfer, depending on whether you’re cooling or heating your house. 

    For a more technical explanation of how ASHPs work, check out the video below: 

    Pros & cons of air source heat pumps

    For those of you who are trying to figure out whether an air source heat pump is right for your needs, we’ve put together a table with all the pros and cons, followed by more details on each. 

    Air source heat pump pros and cons
    Pros Cons
    Energy efficient Efficiency drops as temperature drops
    Lower running costs You may need extra heating systems on coldest days 
    Lower environmental impact Running a furnace may be cheaper for some households
    Only slightly more expensive than AC  
    Better air control with zones (for ductless setups)  
    Easy to install  
    Rebates that reduce costs  
    Cold climate air source heat pumps can operate at temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit  

    Let’s now take a closer look at each point.

    Advantages of air source heat pumps 

    • Energy efficiency: Heat pumps are up to four times more efficient than electric resistance-based heating systems
    • Lower running costs: As a result of their energy efficiency, ASHPs are much cheaper to operate than electric resistance heaters, and in most cases also cheaper than furnace or boiler heaters
    • Less environmental impact: Because of their greater energy efficiency, heating your home with an air source heat pump results in lower energy consumption, and thus a smaller carbon footprint; this benefit is amplified if you have access to clean energy sources, such home solar panels or green power from your utility
    • Not much more expensive than air conditioners: If you are considering buying an AC cooling system anyway, you might as well pay roughly 10-15% extra to upgrade to an air source heat pump
    • Better air control: A single outdoor compressor/conditioner can be connected to as many as eight indoor air handlers; this allows the creation of zones; you can separately adjust the temperature for each of them
    • Easy installation: If you’re installing a ductless air source heat pump, you will only need a three-inch hole for the conduit; this makes for an easier and quicker installation that can typically be done within a few hours. Central ASHPs systems are also relatively easy to install if ductwork is already installed
    • Rebates may be available: Many local governments and utilities offer rebates as part of their efforts to encourage energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions

    Disadvantages of air source heat pumps 

    • Efficiency drops in low temperatures: While cold climate heat pumps can extract heat from outdoor air even in sub-freezing temperatures, their efficiency starts to drop the colder it gets; that means the efficiency advantage of air source heat pumps falls, or disappears completely, on very cold days
    • Supplementary heating may be required in the coldest climates: If you live in a cold climate that experiences temperatures below 0F, you may require an additional heat source to supplement the air source heat pump
    • Lower efficiency than ground source heat pumps: Another type of heat pump system - ground source (geothermal) heat pumps - are actually more efficient at generating; that said, ground source systems are almost much more expensive upfront)
    Find out if installing an air source heat pump is worth it based on electric costs in your area

    Types of air source heat pumps

    Air source heat pumps are a flexible heating/cooling option since they can be installed in many different configurations. The two most common types of setup are ducted and ductless.

    Ducted (central) 

    A ducted air source heat pump connects to the home’s central systems of ducts and vents to provide either cool or heating to the entire house. 

    Ducted systems tend to have better air circulation and can work without the need for air handlers that can eat up living space. Ducted ASHPs can be installed from scratch or as a retrofit to a home with an existing ducted furnace system.

    Ductless (mini-split) 

    In non-ducted or mini-split systems, an outdoor compressor/condenser unit is connected to one to eight indoor units. Non-ducted ASHPs are easy to install, typically requiring only a three-inch bore in the wall for the conduit. 

    Having separate indoor units allows you to control the temperatures of individual rooms or spaces. Having different ‘zones’ in this house gives you greater control of your environment and also allows you to turn off the heating and cooling for unused spaces, thus saving energy. 

    How much do air source heat pumps cost?

    One of the reasons that air source heat pumps are rising in popularity is that they are often the most cost-effective option, both in terms of upfront costs as well as running costs. We look at figures for both below. 

    Installation costs 

    The air source heat pump installation typically costs $5,000 - $6,000. This is for a central system for a home with existing ductwork, or a two-zone ductless system. 

    However, prices can vary greatly depending on the size of the house, the level of insulation, and the complexity of installation. If you need to install ducting for a central air source heat pump, total costs will be somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000. 

    On the other hand, if you’re looking for a large ductless ASHP that can cover four zones, typical costs are between $8,000 and $10,000.

    Note: The costs we’ve mentioned above are full installation costs that cover equipment, materials and labor. Materials and labor costs for ASHP installations often account for half of the total cost, given the need for approved materials for ducting, transitions, fitting, skilled and licensed technicians, and specialized tools.

    Operating costs 

    The average operating cost for an ASHP is just $500 for a single winter season. This compares favorably with a natural gas furnace ($850), and electric furnace ($900), and is less than a third the running cost of a propane furnace ($1,550). 

    In other words, homeowners who switch from furnace systems to ASHPs will see hundreds of dollars in energy savings in their annual energy bills. 

    An easy way to further reduce ASHP running costs is by installing solar panels. In fact, it’s possible to install home solar panels systems that eliminate most or all of your electricity consumption

    Is an air source heat pump right for you?

    There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to heating and cooling your home. That’s because each home has different needs based on the local climate, the relative costs of energy where they live, and the requirements specific to each home and its layout. Only a qualified energy consultant or local HVAC company can give you a detailed cost and savings breakdown.

    That said, here is a quick guide to help you decide if an air source heat pump might be right for your needs. 

    It’s a great idea if: 

    • You want a single solution for heating and cooling: For many homeowners, an ASHP is the only HVAC solution they need; ASHPs can switch between heating and cooling modes with the flick of a remote
    • You’re thinking of buying an air conditioner: For not too much extra, you can get a system that offers the same cooling but adds the ability to heat your space, as well
    • For air quality: An electric heating option is best for indoor air quality as they work without the combustion required by furnace or boiler systems
    • Reduce your environmental impact: Furnaces and boilers rely on burning fossil fuels to produce your heat, while ASHPs only need electricity; unless your utility power relies heavily on dirty fuel sources, an ASHP will have a lower carbon footprint

    It’s probably worth it if: 

    • Your furnace or boiler needs replacing: Given the heating efficiencies that ASHPs can achieve, chances are that you can save money by opting for an air source heat pump

    Might not be the best option if: 

    • Energy costs favor furnace heating: If electricity is expensive where you live, and heating fuel is cheap, it may be cheaper to use furnace or boiler heating instead of an ASHP
    • You have no need for cooling: If you don’t need air conditioning - perhaps it doesn't get very warm where you live, or you already have efficient ACs - then you may be better off with a dedicated heating option 
    See what it would cost to power an air source heat pump + your entire home with solar panels

    Key takeaways

    • Air source heat pumps are electrical appliances that can both heat and cool your home.
    • Ducted ASHPs can work as a full central heating and cooling solution.
    • Ductless (or mini-split) ASHPs can be used to heat or cool spaces, with the ability to customize temperatures for each ‘zone.’ Ductless systems are also relatively easy to install.
    • Newer ASHPs are very energy efficient, and can effectively provide heating even in sub-zero temperatures.
    • ASHPs offer a high level of heating and cooling efficiency; by consuming less energy, they deliver substantial cost savings to homeowners.
    • If you live in a cold climate, you may need to supplement the heat pump with an additional heating source, such as a furnace.
     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Zeeshan Hyder

    SolarReviews Blog Author

    Zeeshan is passionate about promoting renewable energy and tackling climate change. He developed these interests while studying at beautiful Middlebury College, Vermont, which has a strong focus on sustainability. He has previously worked in the humanitarian sector — for Doctors Without Borders — and in communications and journalism.

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