How Does an Air-Source Heat Pump Work?
Beginning in the 1970s, air-source heat pumps came into common use. They have the advantage of no combustion, and thus no possibility of indoor pollutants like carbon monoxide. Heat pumps provide central air conditioning as well as heating as a matter of course. And they are installation-cost competitive with a central combustion furnace/central air conditioner combination.
Heat pumps operate by moving or transferring heat, rather than creating it. During the summer, a heat pump captures heat from inside a home or business and transfers it to the outdoor air through a condensing unit. During the winter, the process is reversed. Heat is captured from outdoor air, compressed, and released inside.
Much less electricity is used to move heat rather than create it, making heat pumps more economical than resistance heating. However, in all but the most moderate climates, the heating ability of the heat pump is limited by freezing outdoor temperatures. So electric resistance heat is used to supplement outdoor heat pump during the coldest weather, preventing “cold blow.”
Depending on climate, air-source heat pumps (including their supplementary resistance heat) are about 1.5 to 3 times more efficient than resistance heating alone. Operating efficiency has improved since the 70s, making their operating cost generally competitive with combustion-based systems, depending on local fuel prices. With their outdoor unit subject to weathering, some maintenance should be expected.