When compared with traditional HVAC systems that use a furnace for heat and an air conditioner for cooling, a heat pump can offer significant energy savings that result in lower household bills. They also could be called a heat exchanger, because that’s effectively how a heat pump conditions a space.
Using a refrigerant and a compressor, the technology can extract heat from outside—even when it feels quite cool—and pump that warmth into your home. In summer, it can be switched over to provide effective air conditioning. They also can help reduce humidity. Other models are specifically designed for household hot water or for pool heating.
This in-depth guide details key features of heat pumps, including types, capacity, and efficiency, and includes some of the best options to help you find the best heat pump for a home.
- BEST SPLIT-DUCTLESS: Pioneer Wall Mount Ductless Mini Split Heat Pump
- RUNNER UP: Daikin 24,000 BTU Wall-Mounted Ductless Heat Pump
- BEST MULTI-ZONE: Senville Quad Zone Mini Split Air Heat Pump
- BEST POOL HEAT PUMP: Hayward 95,000 BTU Pool Heat Pump
- HIGH QUALITY AIR SOURCE: Goodman 3 Ton 14 SEER Heat Pump
Types of Heat Pumps
Heat pumps can be divided into three main types: air source, split-ductless, and geothermal. While all types use the same basic principle of heat exchange to warm or cool a house, understanding their different strengths helps narrow the choices for the best heat pump for a particular home.
Air source heat pumps sit outside the home and use an internal ducting system much like other HVAC systems that provide hot or cool air inside. When switching from furnace systems to a heat pump, parts of the existing installation can often be used.
An air source heat pump also can provide hot water, but it’s important to note that it is a separate system. An air source hot water heat pump is not the same as a heating and cooling heat pump, so two systems are needed if both functions are wanted. They are very effective in mild and warm areas, but additional heating may be required where the temperature regularly drops below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like air source heat pumps, split-ductless systems (also called mini-splits) have a condenser unit outside paired with a wall-mounted air handler that’s basically a fan inside. Usually the latter is fitted high up near the ceiling. A handheld remote control is used to change settings.
The ducting that causes some heat loss in other systems isn’t necessary, so installation is generally more straightforward. The ductless feature makes it popular for house additions when a house has been extended and the owners don’t want to modify the current HVAC system. The amount of square footage it can condition depends on the unit used, and several units might be necessary to cover an entire house.
Below about 6 feet deep the temperature underground remains constant, regardless of the season. A geothermal heat pump takes advantage of this consistent warmth. Liquid-filled pipes—called a ‘loop’—are buried underground either horizontally or vertically. They pick up the underground temperature that is then pumped around the house.
Also called ground source heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps can be used in areas where other systems are less effective in winter. However, installation costs are high and the ground space needed makes them unsuitable for smaller properties.
What to Consider When Buying the Best Heat Pump
There are more details to consider beyond the different types of heat pumps. The following includes some of the most important heat pump features that are key to maximizing both performance and energy-savings in different situations.
When looking at the main benefits of the best heat pump systems, the main purpose usually is serving as an energy-efficient alternative to furnace and air conditioner combinations for a home. However, there are other areas where heat pumps can provide a cost-effective solution. Fitting a split-ductless heat pump to an extension may be less expensive and easier than stretching an existing HVAC beyond its intended specification.
If you have the space, geothermal heat pumps are a great way to provide hot water. Small air source heat pumps also can provide effective heating for outdoor pools. Although they are less efficient in winter, it’s unlikely that a pool would be in use then anyway.
Whether comparing a heat pump with other HVAC or looking at a more modest installation, both the heating and cooling potential of single units or expanded systems will be important. The standard measurement unit of heat is the BTU (British Thermal Unit). The generally accepted standard is that for both comfortable warmth in winter and sufficient cool air in summer, a system should provide 20 BTUs per square foot per hour.
For example, a 500 square foot space with 8-foot ceilings needs a heat pump rated for 10,000 BTUs. Not all manufacturers provide BTU information, some preferring to use tons to describe a heat pump’s output capacity. A ton is equal to 12,000 BTUs per hour.
A frequent consideration is whether a heat pump can be effectively combined with other heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. While a split-ductless heat pump is a good way to add heating and ventilation when your living space is expanded, you may need to ask the advice of an HVAC expert for a proper assessment of compatibility among systems.
However, there are more advanced hybrid systems that integrate traditional furnace-based HVAC with an electric heat pump. They use the heat pump when the outside air is warm enough to make sense economically, and switch over to the furnace when the temperature drops. Installation is more complex, but the resulting fuel savings can make it worthwhile.
With home energy costs continually rising, any way to manage consumption and save money is helpful. Heat pump efficiency is rated in several ways, and it varies depending on the type. With all systems, higher numbers are better, though the best heat pumps in terms of energy efficiency also tend to cost more.
Most air source and split-ductless models provide two ratings. For heating, this is a Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF). There is a minimum Federal standard of 7.7 HSPF, but the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recommends 8.5 or greater. For cooling, the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) is used. Again, the federal minimum is 14 SEER, though ACEEE recommends 15 or more.
Geothermal heat pump efficiency is rated by the Coefficient of Performance (COP) for heating and Energy Efficiency Rating (EER) for cooling. Respective minimums are 3.1 for COP and 17.1 for EER.
The amount of noise that a heat pump generates varies based on the type of heat pump. Air source and split-ductless heat pumps both have an outdoor fan and compressor. While not aggressively loud like a chainsaw, they can create a constant background hum. The pitch will often rise as the energy demand increases.
Many air source or split-ductless units are under 60 decibels, which is much like normal conversation. However, some exceed 70 decibels, which is compared to traffic noise or a vacuum cleaner. As they’re frequently sited on or near an outside wall, the noise level likely has a significant impact on where the unit is positioned. The indoor fan for split-ductless heat pumps is usually very quiet and unlikely to cause noise problems, even in bedrooms.
Geothermal heat pumps have no external fan. As a result many are almost silent and frequently described as ‘whisper quiet.’
Installation is a very important consideration, because professional installation is strongly recommended with many heat pumps.
A split-ductless heat pump is the easiest type to install, but even with good DIY skills it will take time and patience. As a rough guide, contractors often work in pairs and would expect installation to take around five hours.
Air source heat pumps for pool heating can be self-installed, if you have the required electrical knowledge. Household systems are far more complex, typically requiring a couple of days to install. Unless you have a wealth of experience, it’s a job that’s probably best left to professionals. Several manufacturers warn that their equipment should only be installed by qualified technicians.
That’s also true with geothermal heat pumps. An initial survey is conducted to see if the site is suitable, then there’s substantial groundwork or drilling to install the loop. They are often recommended as an efficient solution for new builds and large, open plots, but installation in well-developed urban areas can be challenging.
Our Top Picks
So far we’ve looked at the types of heat pumps and their various features to help accurately assess the best heat pump for the kind of installation you have in mind. To help with the search, we’ve gathered our Top Picks for some of the best heat pumps that represent excellent performance and value.
Pioneer is one of the top names in split-ductless heat pumps, and models in this range offer a choice of 12,000, 18,000, or 24,000 BTUs. The SEER rating is 19, with a class-leading 10 HSPF. The air handler is very quiet, producing just 30 to 43 decibels.
The clever ‘Follow Me’ feature takes feedback from a sensor in the remote control, and adjusts to provide heat or cooling in that location rather than where the air handler is positioned. The well-thought-out installation kit includes both electrical wiring and copper pipe, and there’s free technical support, too.
Quality is assured by independent testing and certification to Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) standards. Given the high performance, it’s also a remarkably good value.
Daikin is a leading manufacturer widely recognized for experience with household heat pumps. This model produces 24,000 BTU at 17 SEER and 9 HSPF. That’s enough to provide efficient heating and cooling for up to 1,500 square feet. This can be a single room, or combined spaces. For smaller areas, 12,000- and 18,000-BTU models are available.
Inverter technology allows the air handler to constantly monitor the environment, making frequent small adjustments that demand less energy. The wall unit is relatively discrete and produces somewhere between 37 and 51 decibels. A ’Turbo’ mode helps warm or cool rooms quickly when desired. The wireless remote control has a timer function.
While generally used as a single-room solution, more powerful split-ductless heat pumps like this 36,000-BTU unit from Senville can supply as many as four different air handlers. Each has their own remote control, allowing completely independent settings for each room. Performance figures are an impressive 22.5 SEER and 10.2 HSPF. The system is designed to provide consistent warmth, air conditioning, and humidity control throughout an entire home.
Wi-Fi control is not native, but can be added with the purchase of a third party system. While technically similar to single-room mini-splits, the manufacturer does recommend that this model is professionally installed.
Pool pump performance is described using Coefficient of Performance (COP) rather than SEER and HSPF. The use of titanium in the heat exchanger maximizes transfer efficiency and this 95,000 BTU Hayward is rated at 5.7, which is well above the federal recommended minimum of 3.1.
Despite its considerable output, an acoustic compressor cover keeps noise levels down to around 50 decibels, so it doesn’t disturb outside spaces. Tough UV-treated polypropylene is used for the main body, with rust-resistant stainless steel fittings. The water flow rate—necessary for matching with an appropriate water pump—is a versatile 30 to 75 gallons per minute. A digital control panel on the front of the unit provides for quick and easy operation.
While air source heat pumps are not intended for DIY installation, the Goodman heat pump is a favorite with professional installers, with United States manufacturing and excellent support. This unit offers 3-ton performance that is equivalent to 36,000 BTUs, rated at 14 SEER, and 9 HSPF.
At 75 decibels, it is louder than typical split-ductless heat pumps, but compares favorably with competitors. A defrost function prevents winter damage, which can be a problem with low-cost alternatives. The unit’s efficiency is backed by Energy Star certification. Pump pressure can be varied according to the demand of the system, which also helps reduce running costs.
FAQs About Your New Heat Pump
Now that you’ve had the opportunity to read about some of the key features and consider some of the best heat pumps on the market, you may have lingering questions. It’s a complex area so it would be understandable if a few questions remained. The following answers to some of the most common queries may help.
Q. What are heat pumps?
A heat pump is a low-energy way of providing both heating and cooling. They can be used for the whole house or a single room, and to provide hot water or heat your pool.
Q. How do I choose the best heat pump for my home?
To choose the best heat pump, investigate how efficiently it heats and cools a given space, plus the cost and the ease of installation. These and other key considerations are covered in detail above.
Q. Do heat pumps use a lot of electricity?
Heat pumps typically output three to four times more energy than they consume, so they use electricity very efficiently. As with any heating or cooling system, heat pumps need proper management to maximize savings.
Q. Should I turn my heat pump off in extreme cold?
Air source and split-ductless heat pumps can be damaged if they freeze, but many have internal heaters to prevent this. It’s important to check. Properly installed geothermal heat pumps should not be affected because they are deep enough that the cold does not reach them.
Q. How long do heat pumps last?
Heat pump longevity is based on the type. Air source and split-ductless last an average of 15 years, though it is not uncommon for them to last more than 20 years. The indoor unit of a geothermal heat pump can be expected to last 25 years or more, with 50 years usually quoted for the underground loop.