Finding the Best Heat Pump Contractor
Most people know what an air conditioner is, and many can describe its basic components. But tell the average homeowner that you’re installing a heat pump, and he or she may look at you blankly.
Air conditioners provide cooling during hot weather. Their cold-weather counterparts—furnaces—provide heat, and the two components together (with ductwork for delivery) comprise the typical HVAC system.
Heat pumps provide both cooling and heat. When you have a heat pump, you don’t need an air conditioner. You might need a furnace, however, to supplement the warmth that the heat pump provides. Why? When outside temperatures fall below freezing, many heat pumps are not able to deliver enough heat. Therefore, some HVAC systems comprise a heat pump, furnace, and ductwork. In milder climates, a heat pump may be able to handle the warming needs of the house by itself.
How Heat Pumps Work
Heat pumps are made up of two units—an indoor “wall cassette” and an outdoor condenser unit. A refrigerant line connects the two parts.
Heat pumps are powered by electricity and use refrigerant to move heat from either the indoors or the outdoors. When the thermostat is switched to heat, the heat pump extracts heat from outside (from the air, ground, or water, depending on what type of pump it is). The extracted heat goes through the refrigerant line. The coolant in the line gets compressed and heated; air passes over the hot coolant and goes into the house as warm air.
When the need is for cooling, the heat pump pulls hot air out of the house and directs it outside.
Types of Heat Pumps
Heat pump types vary according to the sources from which they extract heat.
Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP)
Air source heat pumps extract or absorb heat that is present in air. Pulled in from the outside, heat interacts with coolant in such a way as to produce warm air inside the house. When heat is extracted from inside air and taken outside, again interacting with coolant, it results in cooled indoor temperatures.
Geothermal, Earth-Coupled, Ground or Water Source Heat Pumps
Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) are interchangeably called GeoExchange heat pumps, earth-coupled heat pumps, or ground-source or water-source heat pumps. They’ve been in use for 80 years.
Instead of extracting heat from air, these heat pumps extract heat from the ground or from water. This works because in most regions of the United States, the ground maintains a constant temperature a few feet below the surface. In the winter, the ground at this depth is warmer than the air above it; in summer, the ground at this depth is cooler than the air above it. Heat exchange technology allows for heat or coolness in the ground to get transferred into a house or building.
Water-source heat pumps operate on the same principles, extracting heat or coolness from bodies of water.
Absorption Heat Pumps
These heat pumps are basically air source heat pumps powered not by electricity but by a fuel source such as propane, natural gas, or heated water. Most absorption heat pumps are fueled by natural gas, so they’re commonly called gas-fired heat pumps.
Pros and Cons of Heat Pumps
- Cheaper to Operate
Because heat pumps operate more efficiently than furnaces and air conditioners, they draw less energy, and are thus cost less to run. Yes, the upfront equipment cost with installation can be high, but over time, running a heat pump is easier on the budget than running the standard HVAC system.
- Require Less Maintenance
Heat pumps do not require as much servicing as their standard HVAC counterparts. Whereas air conditioners and furnaces should be inspected and serviced annually, heat pumps can go three to five years without professional attention.
- Safer Than Furnaces
Heat pumps are powered by electricity and don’t involve any kind of combustion or burning of fuel. This makes them safer to operate than furnaces.
- Kinder to the Planet
Using a heat pump reduces a home’s carbon footprint. Because heat pumps don’t burn fuel, they are a more environmentally conscious choice for heating and cooling.
- One Unit; Two Outputs
Heat pumps produce either cool air or warm air, functioning as air conditioners or furnaces according to season. They require much less space inside the home for installation.
The average heat pump functions at full capacity for at least 14 or 15 years, and some last for decades. Their dependability and longevity make them an attractive alternative to standard HVAC systems.
- Tax Credits
Some states offer tax credits to homeowners for installing energy-efficient heat pumps.
While heat pumps inarguably provide the most efficient means of heating and cooling a home, they do have some disadvantages.
- Costly Upfront Purchase
Heat pumps are more expensive than standard air conditioners and furnaces. The higher upfront cost dissuades some homeowners from taking the plunge to purchase them.
- Complex Installation
There are different types of heat pumps (i.e., air source and ground- or water-source heat pumps) and it takes study to determine which one is best for a given location. Because energy is drawn from outside air, ground, or water for heating and cooling, the heat pump setup is more complicated than simply placing and connecting a furnace or ac compressor.
- Not Completely Sustainable
If non-biodegradable fluids are used in heat transfer, heat pumps become less environmentally friendly. Care must be taken to use environmentally responsible fluids if one is going to claim that heat pumps are a sustainable heating and cooling option.
- Installation is Disruptive
Heat pumps, which transfer energy from air, ground, or water, can involve an initial installation mess–holes put through the side of the house or trenches dug through the yard. The heat transfer technology being harnessed is completely different than that used in a standard HVAC system. It makes heat pump installation a whole different animal than placing and connecting ac units and furnaces.
- Lackluster Performance in Very Cold Weather
Heat pumps typically don’t function well in very cold temperatures—meaning they don’t deliver enough heat to warm a house adequately. This means homeowners sometimes must install a furnace in addition to a heat pump. This might beg the question: why install a heat pump at all? It still results in energy savings because the furnace only kicks on as a supplemental heat source. The heat pump remains the primary heating and cooling appliance.
- Carbon Footprint
Because heat pumps run on electricity, it means they’re not completely carbon neutral. They use nonrenewable energy and so leave a carbon footprint, albeit much less than that left by HVAC systems using other fuel sources.
How to Find the Best Heat Pump Contractor
If you’ve decided to install a heat pump, get the professionals to do it. The heat exchange technology involved places this project in the “hire-it-out” category. Don’t try to do it yourself.
Let the Internet Do the Walking
We’re talking online searching here, although you can of course also use paper directories. To find a heat pump installer, put your search engine to work. Type in “heat pumps” or “heat pump installer near me.”
That search will generate a list of mostly HVAC or air conditioning companies who also provide heat pump installation services.
Check the Company’s Credentials
Installing heat pumps is much more involved than installing standard HVAC components. This is especially true if the heat pump is a geothermal unit requiring the installation of coils or rods into the ground or water. You want to make sure you hire an experienced company that knows what they’re doing.
Check out the companies carefully. Take the list of companies that your search query generates and research each one.
- Visit each company’s website and look for evidence that they have installed many heat pumps. Look to see if they hold any special credentials, industry affiliations, or memberships.
- Go to each company’s Google business page, note their ratings, and read their reviews.
- Check out directory and watchdog sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List, the Better Business Bureau, and Thumbtack. Read reviews.
- Go to each company’s social media accounts.
Narrow Your List to Three; Set Up Estimate Visits
Once you’ve gone through the steps above, decide on the top three contenders and call each one to come out to give you an estimate. In the call, ask a few questions:
- How long has the company offered heat pump installation?
- What types of heat pumps do they install? (Air, ground-source, water-source, absorption?)
- Can you get some references to call? (Satisfied customers who have had heat pumps installed)
- What is the cost range for installing a heat pump?
- Do they offer financing?
- What’s the lead time for getting the job done?
- What kind of equipment do they use to bury coils or rods? (Will your landscaping get trashed?)
Evaluate the Estimate Visit
When the company representative comes out to give you an estimate, remember they’re essentially auditioning for the job. Ask the rep the same questions that you asked in the call above. You might be surprised at the variety of answers you receive.
Make sure you get all the basic information. The biggest question may be what kind of heat pump you should install. The representative should be able to clearly explain the differences in the types of pumps. If there are several equal-weight options, the rep can help you decide.
Cost will be a big factor, so make sure you get as many specifics as possible.
Request the quote in writing and get supporting documentation for your records.
Rinse and repeat with two more companies, evaluate your impressions and the quotes, and pick the best heat pump installer to do your job.
Wrapping It Up
Heat pumps are an excellent alternative to the standard HVAC system with an air conditioner and furnace. Initial purchase price and cost of installation makes heat pump systems pricier up front, but long-term savings result because of their energy efficiency.
Search online for a heat pump installer or get word-of-mouth referrals. Ask questions and get estimates from three companies. Then you can determine if installing a heat pump is the right strategy for you.