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How to compare air source heat pump options

Last updated 5/23/2022

When your research, compare options, and work with a contractor on your air source heat pump system design they’ll help you customize it for your property. The solution that’s best for your home or business depends on the existing systems in place, how large the space is, and your long-term heating and cooling needs.

Questions to ask when comparing air source heat pump options

Air source heat pump systems come with various options for setup and equipment. You’ll need to answer the following questions before you can make a final decision about your installation, which a qualified HVAC contractor or plumber can help you with:

  • Will you use air source heat pumps as your sole heating and/or cooling source?
  • Do you want a system with or without ducts?
  • Are you looking to heat an entire building or a single room?
  • Do you want a split or packaged system?
  • For cold climates: will a traditional system be sufficient for your needs, or should you look into a cold-climate system?
  • For cold climates: would you like to maintain a backup heating option in addition to your heat pumps?

Ducted vs. ductless air source heat pump systems

Air source heat pumps can distribute air for heating and cooling throughout your building either with use of ducts or via individual wall-mounted units, also known as mini splits.

Both ducted and ductless air source heat pump systems require an exterior unit that sits outside your home. The biggest difference between the two is that a ducted system uses ductwork inside the walls of your home, while a ductless system doesn’t. In a ducted system, the outdoor unit is connected to an indoor air handler that fans the warm or cool air through your ducts and around your building. The air comes out through the vents your ducts are connected to. Ductless systems, on the other hand, have individual indoor units placed inside a room. These units, also known as mini splits and often referred to as “heads,” are connected directly to the outdoor unit(s) through refrigerant piping lines that transfer the warm or cool air and push it into the room.

When a ducted air source heat pump might be right for you

You may want to consider a ducted heat pump system if:

  • You have existing ductwork in your home you can use for heat pumps. In some cases, however, you may need to make upgrades to your ductwork or electrical system during the installation process to ensure the heat pump efficiently distributes air.
  • You’re concerned with the aesthetics of having individual units on the wall so prefer not to have mini splits visible in your living space. (This is becoming less of an issue as heat pump manufacturers continue to develop newer low-profile heads.)

When a ductless air source heat pump might be for you

You may want to consider a ductless mini splits if:

  • You don’t have existing ductwork. Installing a ducted system will take longer and cost more than a ductless system. Ductless systems have fewer construction requirements and tend to be less expensive than ducted systems.
  • You have a smaller living space to heat and cool.

Short-run air source heat pump systems

Another option that’s a bit of a hybrid between the two is a short-run, or mini-ducted system. Ductwork is involved in this type of installation, but the ductwork only runs through specific portions of the house rather than a central ducted system. Then, you can install ductless units anywhere in your building that isn’t heated and cooled through the existing ductwork.

retrofit air source heat pump diagram sole air source heat pump diagram

Single-zone vs. multi-zone heat pump systems

A single-zone air source heat pump system is meant to heat only a small amount of space, typically one room. Single-zone systems have an outdoor unit that connects to one indoor head to deliver heat or cool the area.

When a single-zone system might be a good fit for you

Single-zone heat pump systems are the way to go if you’re looking to only heat or cool a small area of your home. A common use of a single-zone system is to heat or cool a newly constructed addition to your home when the rest of the house is run on a central air conditioning system. You can choose to install multiple single-zone systems, but if you’re looking to heat or cool many rooms using air source heat pumps it will be more efficient to install a multi-zone system.

When a multi-zone system might be a good fit for you

A multi-zone heat pump system can heat and cool multiple sections of a home with the use of multiple heads in different areas, all connected to a single outdoor condenser. If you install a multi-zone system, you can heat or cool various “zones” within your property at different temperatures at the same time. For example, during hot summer months, you can set the temperature of the room where you spend the most time to a lower temperature, while other zones are set at a higher temperature to reduce your overall energy use.

Split vs. packaged air source heat pump systems

Many heat pump systems today are split, which means they have two coils: one inside, and one outside. The coils of an air source heat pump system are the component that actually heats or cools the air. Split systems exist with both ducted and ductless systems.

By comparison, in a packaged heat pump system, coils and fans are located at the outside unit while heated or cooled air is distributed throughout your home via ductwork. Packaged systems tend to be less efficient than split systems, but the installation is usually less labor-intensive (and therefore less expensive) than split systems. Packaged systems also take up less overall space, and may be worth considering if you have a home with limited available space.

Traditional vs. cold-climate heat pump equipment

It wasn’t too long ago that you might hear someone say that heat pumps can’t work efficiently in cold climates. However, over the last several years cold-climate air source heat pumps have improved and are designed to be more efficient for heating homes in colder regions like New England or the Midwest. Cold-climate air source heat pumps can either be ducted or ductless, single-zone or multi-zone, but in order to be considered a “cold-climate” system, they need to meet certain efficiency criteria. Air source heat pumps that are more efficient are typically more expensive upfront.

Comparing other HVAC systems with air source heat pumps

If your existing heating or cooling system is aging or not working properly, checking out aire source heat pumps might help you more efficiently heat and cool your home. Here are some ways that heat pumps stack up against other HVAC options:

Electric resistance heating (Baseboard heating)

Air source heat pumps use electricity more efficiently for heating than baseboard heating, which leads to an average annual electrical savings of $459 in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic compared to electric resistance systems. Additionally, individual air source heat pump units throughout your home let you set different temperatures in different rooms or zones throughout your home.

Natural gas heating

You can use air source what pumps for a quieter, cleaner, and healthier option compared to natural gas. Fewer emissions help you improve air quality and less noise can increase comfort when both heating and cooling your home. The zoned temperature control also helps you heat more efficiently and usually save money as well.

Fuel oil or propane heating

Some of the highest savings are available when comparing air source heat pumps with oil or propane heating, with Northeastern homeowners saving an average of $948 annually when replacing an oil system with heat pumps. Like with comparing to natural gas, air source heat pumps are also quieter and provide lower emissions and better air quality. Convenience is another benefit touted over oil heat, since you don’t have to schedule fuel deliveries or be concerned about locking in oil prices.

Air conditioners

When looking at cooling, air source heat pumps offer many benefits over traditional air conditioning (A/C) systems. Heat pumps are more efficient at cooling and allow you to zone cool certain areas, so you’re not having to worry about cooling rooms you’re not spending as much time in during the day. If you go with a ductless air source heat pump system, installation is much less intrusive than the extensive ductwork that central A/C systems require. Heat pumps are often also more comfortable since they dehumidify the air better and more efficiently that A/C units.

Window A/C units

Since air source heat pumps cool your home more efficiently than window A/C units, you’ll pay less on your electricity bill each summer. There’s also an added convenience factor since you don’t have to take out air source heat pumps during cold months and re-install them each spring or summer. Window A/C units are also louder and may contribute to air leaks through the windows where you have them installed.

How to evaluate different air source heat pump technologies

Once you’ve decided what type of air source heat pump installation you’re moving forward with, you have to select the equipment you’ll use. There are three ratings & certifications to help you make your decision:

  • SEER rates how efficiently an air source heat pump cools a space.
  • HSPF rates how efficiently an air source heat pump operates in heating mode.
  • ENERGY STAR is a government rating awarded to high efficiency appliances that meet specific standards.

SEER

The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (or SEER) rates a system’s cooling efficiency, making a high SEER rating especially important in warmer climates. Federal regulations require a minimum of 13 SEER for homes in the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, Midwest, and Mountain states. For homes in warmer areas of the country, the SEER requirement is raised to 14. Generally speaking, the higher the SEER, the more expensive the system is, but if you live in an especially warm climate it may be worth paying for a system that’s more efficient for your own comfort.

HSPF

The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rates a system’s heating efficiency, making it is the cold-climate equivalent of SEER. If your property is located in a colder climate you should be shopping for a system with a higher HSPF. A HSPF rating of 7.7 is required under federal law for all air source heat pumps.

ENERGY STAR Label

Air source heat pumps with an ENERGY STAR label are certified by the Department of Energy as having above-average efficiency, making them the best choice for saving energy (and, therefore, saving on your utility bills). Air source heat pumps with the ENERGY STAR level are going to have high SEER and HSPF ratings. To receive an ENERGY STAR label, an air source heat pump must have a SEER above 15 and a HSPF above 8.2 for single packaged systems, and 8.5 for split systems.

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