Wales Daily Life 2021
A heat pump installed outside a house on February 8th, 2018, in Cardiff, Wales.
Image: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The heat pump has been in the news recently. Proponents say the appliance can save you money on your energy bills, fight climate change, and reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas. It is possible that heat pumps will replace air conditioning and heating systems in the future.

Lawmakers are trying to deploy heat pumps wherever they can. President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to boost domestic manufacturing of the technology, and Congress made it easier for Americans to afford them. In Europe, heat pumps are used to move away from Russian fuel.

Lawmakers are scrambling to deploy heat pumps

You might want to know more about the technology that's making headlines. There is a guide on what heat pumps are, what they do, and why they are making a lot of noise.

A heat pump is the first thing that comes to mind.

For simplicity, we'll focus on the appliances that are making the most waves right now. Electric heat pumps are used to heat and cool the air in homes and buildings. Don't be deceived by the name. The same work can be done by heat pumps.

The thing works how it is supposed to.

The defining feature of a heat pump is that it moves heat around to where you want it. Refrigerant draws in heat and redistributes it. Refrigerant has a low boiling point that can absorb heat. They're also used in fridges.

An air-sourced heat pump is the most common type of heat pump.

There is an indoor component and an outdoor one. The indoor component pushes warm air from inside the space to the outside. The heat from the air is absorbed by the Refrigerant. The outdoor component is where the heat is released. The process can begin again after the refrigerant cools down. The process works in reverse when heat pumps are used. The heat is absorbed by the Refrigerant and moved indoors. Thanks to recent developments in heat pump technologies, this works in cold climates because the refrigerant will absorb heat as long as it is cooler than it is outside.

Ground-sourced heat pumps move heat between a home or building and either the ground outside or a nearby source of water.

A diagram of how heat pumps work. Image: Energy Star

It sounds like it's low tech. Have heat pumps been around for a long time?

Yes, that's right. The first documented heat pump system was designed and installed by an Austrian engineer. The first electric ground-source heat pump was invented in the late 1940s by American inventor Robert C. Webber. He diverted the hot water to his boiler so he could heat his home.

Although heat pumps have been around for a long time, they haven't become popular. They only fulfilled 7 percent of global heating demand. Air conditioning and furnaces became more affordable to buy and install as people became more familiar with them. It was cheaper to heat your home with gas. In very cold places, heat pumps don't always work as well as they do in warmer climates.

We're hearing a lot about heat pumps.

The technology has gotten better. That makes heat pumps an ideal tool for dealing with crises.

Russia's war in Ukraine has contributed to a gas shortage. It costs more to heat your home with gas or use a gas-fired power plant.

In Europe, the price of gas has gone up from $5 per million British thermal units to $55 per MMBtu over the past couple of years. Europe has historically been dependent on Russia for its natural gas supplies. Electric heat pumps are a part of the plan to quit that addiction. Most of the gas used for heating in Europe comes from Russia. The commission wants to deploy 10 million heat pumps over the next five years.

That’s made heat pumps seemingly ideal for grappling with several crises

Another transition was already under way. Climate change can be slowed by changing everything from cars to buildings. Once those power sources replace fossil fuels on the grid, they can run on clean, renewable energy. New gas hookups in homes and buildings are not allowed in some cities.

Old-school gas and oil heating was replaced by heat pumps. There are a lot of efforts to promote heat pump adoption. Income-eligible Americans who install a new heat pump in their home will get up to $8,000 in a climate bill Democrats are trying to pass. If you don't qualify for the rebates, you can still get a tax credit for installing a heat pump.

You say that heat pumps are good for the environment.

It's for the majority of the time. Electric appliances are able to run on clean energy. The benefits of the environment are dependent on how clean the grid is. Electricity that is dominated by coal and gas isn't very clean. It's not yet. Climate case for heat pumps is forward looking. If people switch from gas to heat pumps while the grid is being cleaned up, countries will be able to get to their climate goals quicker. More than 30 countries and the European Union have a goal in law to get rid of carbon dioxide emissions. More than 100 countries have made similar proposals, but are still working to reach their goals.

The climate case for heat pumps is forward-looking

The climate benefit of heat pumps is that they are fairly energy- efficient. They are simply moving it around. According to an analysis published in 2020, air-sourced heat pumps are up to 4.5 times more efficient than Energy Star gas furnaces. According to the Department of Energy, ground-sourced heat pumps can cut energy use in half. In cold climates, heat pumps have to work harder to get enough heat from the ambient environment.

70 percent of houses in the US would reduce emissions by installing a heat pump according to one study. The study took both emissions and pollutants into account. If every single- family home in the US used a heat pump, the US would be able to cut residential CO2 emissions by 32%.

I wonder if a heat pump will save me money.

It is dependent once again. Only 32 percent of households would benefit economically if they installed a heat pump.

While the appliance can save you money in the long run through lower utility bills, heat pumps have higher upfront costs than traditional heating or cooling systems. A survey of Consumer Reports members shows that people paid a median of $7,791 to buy and install a heat pump compared to $6,870 for a gas furnace. If you replace a gas furnace and an air conditioning unit with a heat pump system, it will be more cost-competitive. Subsidies are going to be important in the short term to make heat pumps more appealing to consumers.

According to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, heat pumps could be the cheapest clean energy alternative to heating and cooling a home for most US households.

Will a heat pump work for everyone?

It is possible for heat pumps to work just about anywhere. Even when outdoor temperatures reach sub-zero, heat pumps can keep homes warm. The appliances don't work as well in cold weather as they do in warm weather.

Technically, heat pumps can work just about everywhere

Since a heat pump needs to be professionally installed, it will be harder for anyone who doesn't own their own home to turn to it. The next big advancement in heat pump technology is easy to install window units. The new window units can sit in the window sill. The state of New York will pay $70 million to two companies to make 30,000 window heat pump units.

The product will be commercially available this year, according to the company. It doesn't cost a lot. The window heat pump is more expensive than a window AC unit, and it can both heat and cool a house.

This is a big problem when it comes to energy efficient appliances. Many of these technologies have been out of reach for a lot of people, including people who don't have a lot of money to buy a new appliance. That will have to change in order for a heat pump revolution to happen.