Heat pump installation: How to get it done right

Getting a heat pump installed can be a game-changer for your home's comfort and energy efficiency. Whether you're ready for a new HVAC system right now, or just want to start gathering quotes for a future project, we'll show you what to expect at each step of the process, plus some expert insights and practical tips to ensure you're getting good work at a fair price from a reputable contractor.

Upgrade your heating & cooling with a heat pump

The gist of it

  • Look for installers with experience: Installing a heat pump takes a different set of skills than replacing a furnace or mounting solar panels. Start by narrowing down your list of potential contractors to those that can point to success stories with heat pumps and mini splits.

  • Get a few in-home consultations: Someone from the installation company (often a salesperson, sometimes a technician) will come to your home and scope out the project. It's OK to do this weeks or months before you're fully ready to switch to a heat pump.

  • Compare the bids: Obviously you'll want a fair price, but you also need the right heat pump for your home and climate—and it needs to be installed properly. Do a little research into the brands and specific models that each contractor has proposed, and feel free to ask lots of questions about how they plan to set up the system for comfort, efficiency, and long-term reliability.

  • Sit back and enjoy the installation: You don't need to do anything in particular, but if you're curious about the details, check out this video of a whole-house ductless install that we filmed near our office in Boston.

You can find heat pump installers in all the same places that you'd find other kinds of home-service pros: Google, a referral service like Angi, word of mouth, the side of a truck, other types of ads, and so on.

But here's the tricky part: Some contractors haven’t had much training on the best practices for heat pump installations. Just because a company can install a heat pump doesn't mean they'll do a great job. Depending on which government agency you ask, anywhere from 50 percent up to 90 percent of heat pumps are installed incorrectly, leading to higher costs, extra maintenance, substandard comfort, and other problems.

The technology has only recently reached the mainstream in many parts of the US, and it's a little more finicky than traditional HVAC equipment like furnaces, boilers, and even central air conditioners. Thanks to all the free money from the Inflation Reduction Act and other incentive programs, the heat pump industry feels a bit like the Wild West right now, as a few of the industry pros we've spoken to have put it. Loads of new installers have begun to pile into the business, even when they don't have much experience with heat pumps—or at least not the newer high-performance models that qualify for incentives. 

That said, unless you need a new system in a rush, you don't have to worry too much about finding the most competent contractors at this point in the process. You'll get to talk to potential installers in person before committing to one. Your goal, for now, should be to find a few pros that at least seem like they have some experience and success, then schedule an in-home consultation with them. 

Here are some other strategies for finding pretty good contractors:

  • Check customer reviews and testimonials. User reviews on Google and other platforms are great—but look specifically for feedback about heat pumps and mini-splits. It's wonderful if a company has a 4.8-star rating on the strength of its quick and courteous furnace replacements or reasonably priced rooftop solar installs. But heat pump installation is a different discipline than other home services, even other kinds of HVAC.

  • Word of mouth. Ask someone who has a heat pump and is happy with it, whether it's somebody you know, or a local clean-energy advocacy group, for example.

  • Qualified installer lists: If there's a heat pump incentive program in your area, they'll often have a list of qualified contractors. Typically, all that it means is that they're insured and can legally operate an HVAC business. There's no guarantee of a quality install, but it's a start.

  • Certified dealer lists: HVAC manufacturers often have search tools on their websites that can point you toward certified installers in your area. Again, it's no guarantee that they're heat pump savants—some heat pump manufacturers also make central ACs and furnaces, and their certified dealers often mainly work with that traditional equipment—but it's a starting point.

This is the part where the contractor figures out the proper heat pump setup for your house. It's an important step because every house is unique—and a heat pump that doesn't fit your home's needs will be less efficient, less comfortable, less reliable, and more expensive in the long run. 

Plenty of HVAC professionals agree that it's totally fine and actually a good idea to schedule this consultation before your current HVAC system dies or even before you've decided whether you're ready to switch to a heat pump. It gives you more time to comparison shop, and to take care of other upgrades your house might need to make the most of a heat pump, like duct modifications, insulation and air sealing, or electrical work.

It's also a good strategy if you're waiting for the Inflation Reduction Act's huge heat pump rebates to kick in. (No dates have been confirmed, but some states expect them later in 2023 or 2024.) Caleb Pulliam, an Energy Advisor at EnergySage, has heard from a handful of customers who got consultations and quotes and were then coached by installers to wait for the IRA programs to begin.

This in-person meeting is also an excellent chance to spot any red flags with the contractor (we'll point out a few below), but you still don't need to decide who you want to work with just yet.

A good consultation could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Different pros gave us different estimates, but it depends on the size and layout and existing HVAC in your house and whether the consultant is trying to design a system on-site so that they can give you a quote before they leave.

Here's what to expect:

The consultant

Most companies send a salesperson, sometimes called a comfort consultant, for the first visit, though a few firms will send the actual installation technician. Whoever it is, the most essential part of their job, as far as you should be concerned, is to figure out what heat pump will work well for your house. That means taking measurements and asking you some key questions. 

Potential red flag: If the consultant starts using pressure sales tactics at any point in the visit, that's a sign they aren't working in your best interest.

NOT a red flag: It's okay if the consultant doesn't have much experience, says Alex Meaney, an HVAC design expert and proprietor of Mean HVAC Consulting and Design. "There's nothing wrong with a sales rep 'asking the guy back at the office' when they can't answer one of your questions on the spot."

The conversation

Every contractor we've talked to says they start every consultation with a conversation about what the homeowner wants from their heat pump. Do you want one because you think it'll save you money? Are you mainly motivated by energy efficiency or environmental benefits? Is ductless AC the biggest draw? Would you want to keep backup heat? Is your furnace dead, and you need new heat ASAP? Every detail could point toward a different system design. 

Potential red flag: If they don't ask these kinds of questions or seem dismissive of your answers, the chances are higher that you'll end up with a system that doesn't meet your goals. 

The walkthrough

This is the most critical part of the site visit because it's where the contractor will take the measurements that inform the system design. You should feel free to come along for the walkthrough. "We actually prefer that they walk with us," says Sam Williams, Lead Coordinator for 128 Plumbing Heating Cooling and Electric. "It's their house, they know it the best."

If every design engineer did things by the book, they'd do at least a half-dozen individual tests and exams for every whole-house heat pump. In the real world, that basically never happens in retrofits for existing homes. None of the pros we talked to perform blower-door tests, for example. That said, they should at least measure room sizes, look at your electrical panel and your attic insulation, check out your existing ductwork or find spots where new ductless heads could fit, and scope out a location for the outdoor condenser. (There's always a way to fit a heat pump into your home, even if it takes some creative thinking.)

Potential red flag: "Someone who's only in your house for 20 minutes and doesn't take any measurements—that's probably not what you're looking for," says Meaney.

The quotes

Some consultants will whip up a system design and give you some quotes while they're at your home (especially if it's an emergency replacement mid-winter or mid-summer). Others will take the measurements back to the office and follow up with quotes later. Both are normal. 

It's reasonable to expect more than one quote, according to many of the pros we've talked to. "We like to give them three to five options based on what they told us about their goals," says Jonathan Neves, owner of Green Energy Mechanical. One option could be the cost of a rip-out-the-gas-furnace total conversion, and another could be the cost of a hybrid setup, for example. "There are so many ways to do it," Neves says.

Potential red flag: Make sure the heat pump they want to install fits your goals. Not all heat pumps work equally well in cold weather or humid weather, and some heat pumps won't qualify for incentives. Quotes should include detailed info about equipment, so you can make sure you're getting what you want. Don't commit to any project without these details.

A whole-house heat pump is typically a five-figure investment, and it'll dictate how comfortable you are in your home and how much you'll pay for electricity over the next decade or longer.

If you have time on your side (not an emergency replacement), try to get quotes from more than one installer so that you can sniff out what's a fair price and get a better sense of which contractors really know what they're doing. 

Energy Star has a decent checklist of general HVAC-related questions you could ask of each contractor, though based on the pros and homeowners we've talked to, we think that you should focus more on the following:

  • Is the installation price fair? The average cost of a heat pump after incentives sits around $16,000, based on quotes for real-world projects uploaded to our heat pump marketplace. But there's a vast range, and it can depend on the size and layout of your home and whether it's a ducted or ductless system.

  • Is the heat pump the right size? We've written extensively about heat pump sizing in another article. In a nutshell: A mis-sized heat pump won't keep your home as comfortable as it could be. Oversizing is the most common error, and in addition to costing more to install can lead to poor efficiency, poor humidity control, poor comfort on the mildest days of the year, and poor reliability.

  • Can it meet your heating goals? If you want to rely on the heat pump for all of your heating, you'll need a system that works on the coldest day of the year. Will that same system work well on milder days of the year, too? It's often a tricky balance, and a good installer can walk you through the tradeoffs. Ditto if you're keeping a backup or a dual-fuel system—though it's a different set of challenges.

  • How about your ductwork? Leaky ducts with poor airflow are a recipe for discomfort and wasted energy, and heat pumps need bigger ducts than furnaces do, according to Edward Louie, a Building Energy Efficiency Research Engineer at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "At a minimum, I would say half the people would get screwed" without duct improvements, Louie says. "And I would hazard a guess that it's as high as 80 percent." A good installer should check the ductwork and either be able to tell you why your existing ductwork is OK or why you ought to consider some modifications.

  • Does installation include a pressure test and vacuum decay test? According to Louie, any heat pump that can pass both of these trials (using a digital gauge, not the old analog dials) should perform well as long as the system design is decent. These are standard tests that all HVAC contractors should perform on any new system, but sometimes they cut corners or skip the job entirely.

  • Can the installer help with the paperwork for rebates and financing programs? The process can be tricky, but plenty of installers are willing to handle it for you or at least talk you through it. Keep in mind that you'll generally be on the hook to pay the total pre-rebate amount to the installer once the installation is completed, so the work might have to wait for financing to get approved, and you'll often have to wait for rebates or tax credits to come back to you over time.

  • How's the warranty? All heat pumps come with a manufacturer's warranty, but some installers will guarantee the equipment and cost of labor for an extended period. 

Once you feel confident that you're getting a decent deal from a competent contractor, you can get the job scheduled. You'll usually need to put down a partial deposit. 

Lead times of a few weeks are normal, particularly during busy times of the year. (In emergencies, many installers can turn around the work faster, typically for a higher rate.) 

This is also the time to look for financing if you want it or need it. Lots of installers offer payment plans, but some states and utility companies have low- or zero-interest loans for heat pumps. The paperwork can take some time to come through, so get started early.

Now comes the exciting part. Most installations take anywhere from 1 to 5 days, depending on how much equipment needs to get installed and how many installers are on site. Single-zone ductless systems go in quickly, as do most centrally ducted heat pumps. Multi-zone ductless systems can take longer because there's more drilling, mounting, and line-set fiddling involved. Ductwork modifications or electrical upgrades, if you need them, could add a day to the process as well.

This video walks through a whole-house ductless installation, but here's an overview of a typical heat pump project:

Old equipment comes out

If you're getting rid of an old central AC unit, that'll be the first thing to come out. By law, the technician needs to capture the refrigerant from the ports on the old condenser, using a pump and some canisters. Then they can yank out the outdoor condenser and at least the indoor coil, if not the entire indoor air handler.

Ideally, they'll also remove the old copper refrigerant lines (to swap in a fresh set), though that's not always feasible.

The indoor equipment goes in

For a ductless system, this will be the wall-mounted heads, floor consoles, or ceiling cassettes. For a ducted system, it’s the air handler and A-coil. Good installers should put down tarps to catch any screws, sheet metal, drywall dust, or other detritus. Installers should follow a long list of best practices, like ensuring the equipment is leveled and clear of any door’s swing path; any drywall penetrations are spray-foamed for weatherproofing and hidden from view; and ducted air handlers have a tight connection with the ductwork.

A mini-split contractor installing a ductless wall mount.

The outdoor equipment goes in

In snowy climates, it's best if the outdoor unit is installed on a shelf or a stand. It's also fair for you to demand that the outdoor unit doesn't block any doors or windows, and sit at least a couple feet back from any driveways. Installers should follow other best practices, too, like ensuring ample airflow so that the big fans can work efficiently.

Connection time

The installer will link the indoor air handlers to the outdoor unit, with copper lines for refrigerant and electrical lines for power. If you're replacing an older heat pump or AC, the installer should still use a new line set. If needed, line set covers and condensation drain lines are installed.

The installer should run a pressure test to make sure the connections are tight, then a vacuum decay test to make sure the lines are clear of debris and moisture. An electrician will connect the outdoor unit to your electrical panel. The installer will release the refrigerant into the lines if it comes pre-charged, and add additional refrigerant if the system calls for it.

A mini-split installer connecting a copper line set to an outdoor unit.

To wrap up the commissioning process, the contractor might take some airflow and temperature measurements, and tweak a few settings to maximize comfort and efficiency.

Then they should make sure any holes leading out of your home are spray foamed and patched, all the line sets are covered up, and all their trash is collected. If you live in a multi-family building, the highest courtesy would be to ensure your neighbors' HVAC is still working as intended.

All set!

The installer should show you how to use the new system. It might come with a new thermostat or remote controls for some ductless systems, and they ought to run you through all the functions. And then you're good to go!

If you run into any trouble with the new heat pump within the first year of ownership, it's standard practice for HVAC companies to come out for free and do some troubleshooting or any necessary repairs. (Some pros offer longer warranties, though usually for an added cost.)

Upgrade your heating & cooling with a heat pump
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