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A heat pump is a device that can heat a building (or part of a building) by transferring thermal energy from the outside using the refrigeration cycle. Many heat pumps can also operate in the opposite direction, cooling the building by removing heat from the enclosed space and rejecting it outside. Units that only provide cooling are referred to as air conditioners.
When in heating mode, a refrigerant at outside temperature is being compressed. As a result, the refrigerant becomes hot. This thermal energy can be transferred to a central heating system. After being moved outdoor again, the refrigerant is decompressed. It has lost some of its thermal energy and returns colder than the environment. It can now take up the surrounding energy from the air or from the ground before the process repeats. Compressors, propellers and pumps run with electric energy.
Common types are air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, water source heat pumps and exhaust air heat pumps. They are also used in district heating systems.
The efficiency of a heat pump is expressed as a coefficient of performance (COP), or seasonal coefficient of performance (SCOP). The higher the number, the more efficient a heat pump is and the less energy it consumes. When used for space heating, heat pumps are typically much more energy efficient than simple electrical resistance heaters.
Because of their high efficiency and the increasing share of fossil-free sources in electrical grids, heat pumps can play a key role in electrification, the energy transition, and climate change mitigation. With 1 kWh of electricity, they can transfer 3 to 6 kWh of thermal energy into a building. The carbon footprint of heat pumps depends on how electricity is produced. Heat pumps could satisfy 90% of global heating needs with a lower carbon footprint than gas-fired condensing boilers.
Heat will flow spontaneously from a region of higher temperature to a region of lower temperature. Heat will not flow spontaneously from lower temperature to higher, but it can be made to flow in this direction if work is performed. The work required to transfer a given amount of heat is usually much less than the amount of heat; this is the motivation for using heat pumps in applications such as heating of water and the interior of buildings.
The amount of work required to drive an amount of heat Q from a lower-temperature reservoir such as ambient air to a higher-temperature reservoir such as the interior of a building is:
The coefficient of performance of a heat pump is greater than unity so the work required is less than the heat transferred, making a heat pump a more efficient form of heating than electrical resistance heating. As the temperature of the higher-temperature reservoir increases in response to the heat flowing into it, the coefficient of performance decreases, causing an increasing amount of work to be required for each unit of heat being transferred.
The coefficient of performance, and the work required, by a heat pump can be calculated easily by considering an ideal heat pump operating on the reversed Carnot cycle:
Main article: Air source heat pump
Air source heat pumps are used to move heat between two heat exchangers, one outside the building which is fitted with fins through which air is forced using a fan and the other which either directly heats the air inside the building or heats water which is then circulated around the building through radiators or underfloor heating which release the heat to the building. These devices can also operate in a cooling mode where they extract heat via the internal heat exchanger and eject it into the ambient air using the external heat exchanger. They are normally also used to heat water for washing which is stored in a domestic hot water tank.
Air source heat pumps are relatively easy and inexpensive to install and have therefore historically been the most widely used heat pump type. In mild weather, coefficient of performance (COP) may be around 4, while at temperatures below around −7 °C (19 °F) an air-source heat pump may still achieve a COP of 3.
While older air source heat pumps performed relatively poorly at low temperatures and were better suited for warm climates, newer models with variable-speed compressors remain highly efficient in freezing conditions allowing for wide adoption and cost savings in places like Minnesota and Maine.
Main article: Ground-source heat pump
A ground-source heat pump (British English) or geothermal heat pump (North American English) draws heat from the soil or from groundwater which remains at a relatively constant temperature all year round below a depth of about 30 feet (9.1 m). A well maintained ground-source heat pump will typically have a COP of 4.0 at the beginning of the heating season and a seasonal COP of around 3.0 as heat is drawn from the ground. Ground-source heat pumps are more expensive to install due to the need for the drilling of boreholes for vertical placement of heat exchanger piping or the digging of trenches for horizontal placement of the piping that carries the heat exchange fluid (water with a little antifreeze).
A ground-source heat pump can also be used to cool buildings during hot days, thereby transferring heat from the dwelling back into the soil via the ground loop. Solar thermal collectors or piping placed within the tarmac of a parking lot can also be used to replenish the heat underground.
Main article: Exhaust air heat pump
Exhaust air heat pumps extract heat from the exhaust air of a building and require mechanical ventilation. There are two classes of exhaust air heat pumps.
See also: Solar-assisted heat pump
A solar-assisted heat pump integrates a heat pump and thermal solar panels in a single system. Typically these two technologies are used separately (or are operated in parallel) to produce hot water. In this system the solar thermal panel is the low-temperature heat source, and the heat produced feeds the heat pump's evaporator. The goal of this system is to get high COP and then produce energy in a more efficient and less expensive way.
A water-source heat pump works in a similar manner to a ground-source heat pump, except that it takes heat from a body of water rather than the ground. The body of water does, however, need to be large enough to be able to withstand the cooling effect of the unit without freezing or creating an adverse effect for wildlife.
Hybrid (or twin source) heat pumps draw heat from different sources depending on the outside air temperature. When outdoor air is above 4 to 8 degrees Celsius (40–50 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on ground water temperature) they use air; at colder temperatures they use the ground source. These twin source systems can also store summer heat by running ground source water through the air exchanger or through the building heater-exchanger, even when the heat pump itself is not running. This has two advantages: it functions as a low-cost system for interior air cooling, and (if ground water is relatively stagnant) it increases the temperature of the ground source, which improves the energy efficiency of the heat pump system by roughly 4% for each degree in temperature rise of the ground source.
The International Energy Agency estimated that, as of 2011[update], there were 800 million heat pumps installed for heating on Earth.: 16 They are used in climates with moderate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) needs and may also provide domestic hot water and tumble clothes drying functions. The purchase costs are supported in various countries by consumer rebates.
In HVAC applications, a heat pump is typically a vapor-compression refrigeration device that includes a reversing valve and optimized heat exchangers so that the direction of heat flow (thermal energy movement) may be reversed. The reversing valve switches the direction of refrigerant through the cycle and therefore the heat pump may deliver either heating or cooling to a building. In cooler climates, the default setting of the reversing valve is heating.
The default setting in warmer climates is cooling. Because the two heat exchangers, the condenser and evaporator, must swap functions, they are optimized to perform adequately in both modes. Therefore, the SEER rating, which is the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating, of a reversible heat pump is typically slightly less than two separately optimized machines. For equipment to receive the Energy Star rating, it must have a rating of at least 14.5 SEER.
In water heating applications, a heat pump may be used to heat or preheat water for swimming pools or heating potable water for use by homes and industry. Usually heat is extracted from outdoor air and transferred to an indoor water tank, another variety extracts heat from indoor air to assist in cooling the space.
Main article: District heating
Heat pumps can also be used as heat supplier for district heating. Possible sources of heat for such applications are sewage water, ambient water (e.g. sea, lake and river water), industrial waste heat, geothermal energy, flue gas, waste heat from district cooling and heat from solar seasonal thermal energy storage. In Europe, more than 1500 MW of large-scale heat pumps were installed since the 1980s, of which about 1000 MW were in use in Sweden in 2017. Large scale heat pumps for district heating combined with thermal energy storage offer high flexibility for the integration of variable renewable energy. Therefore, they are regarded as a key technology for smart energy systems with high shares of renewable energy up to 100%, and advanced 4th generation district heating systems. They are also a crucial element of cold district heating systems.
There is great potential to reduce the energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions in industry by application of industrial heat pumps. An international collaboration project completed in 2015 collected totally 39 examples of R&D-projects and 115 case studies worldwide. The study shows that short payback periods of less than 2 years are possible, while achieving a high reduction of CO2 emissions (in some cases more than 50%). High Temperature Heat Pump innovations are emerging to further increase Industrial Heat Pump thermal application range and especially waste heat to energy recovery. Industrial heat pumps that can heat up to 180°C have been demonstrated which could serve the heating demands of many industries.
Main article: Coefficient of performance
When comparing the performance of heat pumps the term 'performance' is preferred to 'efficiency', with coefficient of performance (COP) being used to describe the ratio of useful heat movement per work input. An electrical resistance heater has a COP of 1.0, which is considerably lower than a well-designed heat pump which will typically be between COP of 3 to 5 with an external temperature of 10 °C and an internal temperature of 20 °C. A ground-source heat pump will typically have a higher performance than an air-source heat pump.
The "Seasonal Coefficient of Performance" (SCOP) is a measure of the aggregate energy efficiency measure over a period of one year which it is very dependent on region climate. One framework for this calculation is given by the Commission Regulation (EU) No 813/2013:
A heat pump's operating performance in cooling mode is characterized in the US by either its energy efficiency ratio (EER) or seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), both of which have units of BTU/(h·W) (note that 1 BTU/(h·W) = 0.293 W/W) and larger values indicate better performance. Actual performance varies, and it depends on many factors such as installation details, temperature differences, site elevation, and maintenance.
|Pump type and source||Typical use||35 °C
(e.g. heated screed floor)
(e.g. heated screed floor)
(e.g. heated timber floor)
(e.g. radiator or DHW)
(e.g. radiator and DHW)
|85 °C |
(e.g. radiator and DHW)
|High-efficiency air source heat pump (ASHP), air at −20 °C||2.2||2.0||‐||‐||‐||‐|
|Two-stage ASHP, air at −20 °C||Low source temperature||2.4||2.2||1.9||‐||‐||‐|
|High efficiency ASHP, air at 0 °C||Low output temperature||3.8||2.8||2.2||2.0||‐||‐|
|Prototype transcritical CO
2 (R744) heat pump with tripartite gas cooler, source at 0 °C
|High output temperature||3.3||‐||‐||4.2||‐||3.0|
|Ground source heat pump (GSHP), water at 0 °C||5.0||3.7||2.9||2.4||‐||‐|
|GSHP, ground at 10 °C||Low output temperature||7.2||5.0||3.7||2.9||2.4||‐|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source −20 °C||5.6||4.9||4.4||4.0||3.7||3.4|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source 0 °C||8.8||7.1||6.0||5.2||4.6||4.2|
|Theoretical Lorentzen cycle limit (CO
2 pump), return fluid 25 °C, source 0 °C
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source 10 °C||12.3||9.1||7.3||6.1||5.4||4.8|
The carbon footprint of heat pumps depends on their individual efficiency and how electricity is produced. An increasing share of low-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar will lower the impact on the climate.
|heating system||emissions of energy source||efficiency||resulting emissions for thermal energy|
|heat pump with onshore wind power||11 gCO2/kWh||400% (COP=4)||3 gCO2/kWh|
|heat pump with global electricity mix||458 gCO2/kWh||400% (COP=4)||131 gCO2/kWh|
|natural gas thermal (high efficiency)||201 gCO2/kWh||90%||223 gCO2/kWh|
electricity by lignite (old power plant)
and low performance
|1221 gCO2/kWh||300% (COP=3)||407 gCO2/kWh|
In most settings, heat pumps will reduce CO2 emissions compared to heating systems powered by fossil fuels. 70% of US houses could reduce emissions damages by installing a heat pump.
Heating systems powered by green hydrogen are also low-carbon and may become competitors. However, green hydrogen is not expected to be available in the required dimension before the 2030s or 2040s.
See also: Vapor-compression refrigeration
Vapor-compression uses a circulating liquid refrigerant as the medium which absorbs heat from one space, compresses it thereby increasing its temperature before releasing it in another space. The system normally has 8 main components: a compressor, a reservoir, a reversing valve which selects between heating and cooling mode, two thermal expansion valves (one used when in heating mode and the other when used in cooling mode) and two heat exchangers, one associated with the external heat source/sink and the other with the interior. In heating mode the external heat exchanger is the evaporator and the internal one being the condenser; in cooling mode the roles are reversed.
Circulating refrigerant enters the compressor in the thermodynamic state known as a saturated vapor and is compressed to a higher pressure, resulting in a higher temperature as well. The hot, compressed vapor is then in the thermodynamic state known as a superheated vapor and it is at a temperature and pressure at which it can be condensed with either cooling water or cooling air flowing across the coil or tubes. In heating mode this heat is used to heat the building using the internal heat exchanger, and in cooling mode this heat is rejected via the external heat exchanger.
The condensed liquid refrigerant, in the thermodynamic state known as a saturated liquid, is next routed through an expansion valve where it undergoes an abrupt reduction in pressure. That pressure reduction results in the adiabatic flash evaporation of a part of the liquid refrigerant. The auto-refrigeration effect of the adiabatic flash evaporation lowers the temperature of the liquid and vapor refrigerant mixture to where it is colder than the temperature of the enclosed space to be refrigerated.
The cold mixture is then routed through the coil or tubes in the evaporator. A fan circulates the warm air in the enclosed space across the coil or tubes carrying the cold refrigerant liquid and vapor mixture. That warm air evaporates the liquid part of the cold refrigerant mixture. At the same time, the circulating air is cooled and thus lowers the temperature of the enclosed space to the desired temperature. The evaporator is where the circulating refrigerant absorbs and removes heat which is subsequently rejected in the condenser and transferred elsewhere by the water or air used in the condenser.
To complete the refrigeration cycle, the refrigerant vapor from the evaporator is again a saturated vapor and is routed back into the compressor.
Over time, the evaporator may collect ice or water from ambient humidity. The ice is melted through defrosting cycle. In internal heat exchanger is either used to heat/cool the interior air directly or to heat water that is then circulated through radiators or underfloor heating circuit to either heat of cool the buildings.
Main article: Refrigerant
By 2022, devices using refrigerants with a very low global warming potential (GWP) still have a small market share but are expected to play an increasing role due to enforced regulations. Isobutane (R600A) and propane (R290) are far less harmful to the environment than conventional hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) and already being used in air source heat pumps. Ammonia (R717) and carbon dioxide (R744) also have a low GWP.
Until the 1990s heat pumps, along with fridges and other related products used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as refrigerants that caused major damage to the ozone layer when released into the atmosphere. Use of these chemicals was banned or severely restricted by the Montreal Protocol of August 1987.
Replacements, including R-134a and R-410A, are hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) with similar thermodynamic properties with insignificant ozone depletion potential but had problematic global warming potential. HFC is a powerful greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change. Dimethyl ether (DME) also gained in popularity as a refrigerant in combination with R404a. More recent refrigerators include difluoromethane (R32) with a reduced GWP still over 600.
|refrigerant||20 year global warming potential (GWP)||100 year GWP|
|R-290 propane / R-600a isobutane||3.3|
In 2022, the Canada Greener Homes Grant  provides up to $5000 for upgrades (including certain heat pumps), and $600 for energy efficiency evaluations.
As of 2021: heat pumps are taxed at the reduced rate of 5% instead of the usual level of VAT of 20% for most other products. As of 2022[update] the installation cost of a heat pump is more than a gas boiler, but with the government grant and assuming electricity/gas costs remain similar their lifetime costs would be similar.
Few US states have offered incentives for air-source heat pumps, such as rebates of $1,200 in Maine, up to $4,800 in California, and 0% financing and other rebates in Massachusetts.
The Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (APS) was developed in 2008 to require a certain percentage of the Massachusetts electricity supply to be sourced from specific alternative energy sources. In October 2017, the Massachusetts Department of Energy (DOER) drafted regulations, pursuant to Chapter 251 of the Acts of 2014 and Chapter 188 of the Acts of 2016, that added renewable thermal, fuel cells, and waste-to-energy thermal to the APS.
Alternative Energy Credits (AECs) are issued as an incentive to the owners of eligible renewable thermal energy facilities, at a rate of one credit per every megawatt-hour equivalent (MWhe) of thermal energy generated. Retail electricity suppliers may purchase these credits to meet APS compliance standards. The APS expands the current renewable mandates to a broader spectrum of participants, as the state continues to expand its portfolio of alternative energy sources.
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