A heat pump is a device that uses work to transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space by transferring thermal energy using a refrigeration cycle, cooling the cool space and warming the warm space. In cold weather a heat pump can move heat from the cool outdoors to warm a house; the pump may also be designed to move heat from the house to the warmer outdoors in warm weather. As they transfer heat rather than generating heat, they are more energy-efficient than other ways of heating a home.
A gaseous refrigerant is compressed so its temperature rises. When operating as a heater in cold weather, the warmed gas flows to a heat exchanger in the indoor space where some of its thermal energy is transferred to that indoor space, causing the gas to condense to its liquid state. The liquified refrigerant flows to a heat exchanger in the outdoor space where the pressure falls, the liquid evaporates and the temperature of the gas falls. It is now colder than the temperature of the outdoor space being used as a heat source. It can again take up energy from the heat source, be compressed and repeat the cycle.
Air source heat pumps are the most common models, while other types include ground source heat pumps, water source heat pumps and exhaust air heat pumps. Large-scale heat pumps are also used in district heating systems.
The efficiency of a heat pump is expressed as a coefficient of performance (COP), or seasonal coefficient of performance (SCOP). The higher the number, the more efficient a heat pump is. When used for space heating, heat pumps are typically much more energy-efficient than electric resistance and other heaters. Because of their high efficiency and the increasing share of fossil-free sources in electrical grids, heat pumps can play a key role in climate change mitigation. Consuming 1 kWh of electricity, they can transfer 3 to 6 kWh of thermal energy into a building. The carbon footprint of heat pumps depends on how electricity is generated, but they usually reduce emissions in mild climates. Heat pumps could satisfy over 80% of global space and water heating needs with a lower carbon footprint than gas-fired condensing boilers: however, in 2021 they only met 10%.
Heat will flow spontaneously from a region of higher temperature to a region of lower temperature. Heat will not flow spontaneously from lower temperature to higher, but it can be made to flow in this direction if work is performed. The work required to transfer a given amount of heat is usually much less than the amount of heat; this is the motivation for using heat pumps in applications such as the heating of water and the interior of buildings.
The amount of work required to drive an amount of heat Q from a lower-temperature reservoir such as ambient air to a higher-temperature reservoir such as the interior of a building is:
The coefficient of performance of a heat pump is greater than unity so the work required is less than the heat transferred, making a heat pump a more efficient form of heating than electrical resistance heating. As the temperature of the higher-temperature reservoir increases in response to the heat flowing into it, the coefficient of performance decreases, causing an increasing amount of work to be required for each unit of heat being transferred.
Air-source heat pumps are used to move heat between two heat exchangers, one outside the building which is fitted with fins through which air is forced using a fan and the other which either directly heats the air inside the building or heats water which is then circulated around the building through radiators or underfloor heating which releases the heat to the building. These devices can also operate in a cooling mode where they extract heat via the internal heat exchanger and eject it into the ambient air using the external heat exchanger. Some can be used to heat water for washing which is stored in a domestic hot water tank.
Air-source heat pumps are relatively easy and inexpensive to install and have therefore historically been the most widely used heat pump type. In mild weather, coefficient of performance (COP) may be around 4, while at temperatures below around −7 °C (19 °F) an air-source heat pump may still achieve a COP of 3.
While older air-source heat pumps performed relatively poorly at low temperatures and were better suited for warm climates, newer models with variable-speed compressors remain highly efficient in freezing conditions allowing for wide adoption and cost savings in places like Minnesota and Maine in the United States.
A ground-source heat pump draws heat from the soil or from groundwater which remains at a relatively constant temperature all year round below a depth of about 30 feet (9.1 m). A well maintained ground-source heat pump will typically have a COP of 4 at the beginning of the heating season and a seasonal COP of around 3.3 as heat is drawn from the ground. Ground-source heat pumps are more expensive to install due to drilling boreholes needed for vertical placement of heat exchanger piping or digging trenches needed for horizontal placement of the piping that carries the heat-exchange fluid (water with a little antifreeze).
A ground-source heat pump can also be used to cool buildings during hot days, thereby transferring heat from the dwelling back into the soil via the ground loop. Solar thermal collectors or piping placed within the tarmac of a parking lot can also be used to replenish the heat underground.
Exhaust air heat pumps extract heat from the exhaust air of a building and require mechanical ventilation. Two classes exist:
A solar-assisted heat pump either integrates a heat pump and thermal solar panels or photovoltaic solar power in a single system. In the case of thermal solar, typically these two technologies are used separately (or are operated in parallel) to produce hot water. In this system the solar thermal panel is the low-temperature heat source, and the heat produced feeds the heat pump's evaporator. The goal of this system is to get high COP and then produce energy in a more efficient and less expensive way.. In the case of photovoltaic solar heat pumps, or solar air conditioners, electricity to run the heat pump is generated from the sun. Either batteries can be used to store excess solar energy generated to run during cloudy or nighttime periods, or grid power can be used during these periods.
A water-source heat pump works in a similar manner to a ground-source heat pump, except that it takes heat from a body of water rather than the ground. The body of water does, however, need to be large enough to be able to withstand the cooling effect of the unit without freezing or creating an adverse effect for wildlife. The largest water-source heat pump was installed in the Danish town of Esbjerg in 2023.
A thermoacoustic heat pump operates as a thermoacoustic heat engine without refrigerant but instead uses a standing wave in a sealed chamber driven by a loudspeaker to achieve a temperature difference across the chamber.
Electrocaloric heat pumps are solid state.
The International Energy Agency estimated that, as of 2021, heat pumps installed in buildings have a combined capacity of more than 1 000 GW. They are used in climates with moderate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) needs and may also provide domestic hot water and tumble clothes drying functions. The purchase costs are supported in various countries by consumer rebates.
In HVAC applications, a heat pump is typically a vapor-compression refrigeration device that includes a reversing valve and optimized heat exchangers so that the direction of heat flow (thermal energy movement) may be reversed. The reversing valve switches the direction of refrigerant through the cycle and therefore the heat pump may deliver either heating or cooling to a building.
Because the two heat exchangers, the condenser and evaporator, must swap functions, they are optimized to perform adequately in both modes. Therefore, the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) of a reversible heat pump is typically slightly less than those of two separately optimized machines. For equipment to receive the Energy Star rating, it must have a rating of at least 14 SEER. Pumps with ratings of 18 SEER or above are considered highly efficient. The highest efficiency heat pumps manufactured are up to 24 SEER.
In water heating applications, a heat pump may be used to heat or preheat water for swimming pools or heating potable water for use by homes and industry. Usually heat is extracted from outdoor air and transferred to an indoor water tank, another variety extracts heat from indoor air to assist in cooling the space.
Large (megawatt-scale) heat pumps are used for district heating. In Europe, heat pumps account for a mere 1% of heat supply in district heating networks but several countries have targets to decarbonise their networks between 2030 and 2040. Possible sources of heat for such applications are sewage water, ambient water (e.g. sea, lake and river water), industrial waste heat, geothermal energy, flue gas, waste heat from district cooling and heat from solar seasonal thermal energy storage. In Europe, more than 1500 MW of large-scale heat pumps were installed since the 1980s, of which about 1000 MW were in use in Sweden in 2017. Large-scale heat pumps for district heating combined with thermal energy storage offer high flexibility for the integration of variable renewable energy. Therefore, they are regarded as a key technology for smart energy systems with high shares of renewable energy up to 100%, and advanced 4th generation district heating systems. They are also a crucial element of cold district heating systems.
There is great potential to reduce the energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions in industry by application of industrial heat pumps. An international collaboration project completed in 2015 collected totally 39 examples of R&D-projects and 115 case studies worldwide. The study shows that short payback periods of less than 2 years are possible, while achieving a high reduction of CO2 emissions (in some cases more than 50%). Industrial heat pumps can heat up to 200°C, and can meet the heating demands of many light industries. In Europe alone, 15 GW of heat pumps could be installed in 3,000 facilities in the paper, food and chemicals industries.
The performance of a heat pump is determined by the ability of the pump to extract heat from a low temperature environment (the source) and deliver it to a higher temperature environment (the sink). Performance varies, depending on installation details, temperature differences, site elevation, location on site, pipe runs, flow rates, and maintenance.
Common performance metrics are the SEER (in cooling mode) and seasonal coefficient of performance (SCOP) (commonly used just for heating), although SCOP can be used for both modes of operation. Larger values of either metric indicate better performance. When comparing the performance of heat pumps, the term performance is preferred to efficiency, with coefficient of performance (COP) being used to describe the ratio of useful heat movement per work input. An electrical resistance heater has a COP of 1.0, which is considerably lower than a well-designed heat pump which will typically be between COP of 3 to 5 with an external temperature of 10 °C and an internal temperature of 20 °C. Because the ground is a constant temperature source, a ground-source heat pump is not subjected to large temperature fluctuations, and therefore is considered the most energy-efficient type of heat pump.
The "Seasonal Coefficient of Performance" (SCOP) is a measure of the aggregate energy efficiency measure over a period of one year which is dependent on regional climate. One framework for this calculation is given by the Commission Regulation (EU) No. 813/2013.
A heat pump's operating performance in cooling mode is characterized in the US by either its energy efficiency ratio (EER) or seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), both of which have units of BTU/(h·W) (note that 1 BTU/(h·W) = 0.293 W/W) and larger values indicate better performance.
|Pump type and source||Typical use||35 °C
(e.g. heated screed floor)
(e.g. heated screed floor)
(e.g. heated timber floor)
(e.g. radiator or DHW)
(e.g. radiator and DHW)
|85 °C |
(e.g. radiator and DHW)
|High-efficiency air-source heat pump (ASHP), air at −20 °C||2.2||2.0||‐||‐||‐||‐|
|Two-stage ASHP, air at −20 °C||Low source temperature||2.4||2.2||1.9||‐||‐||‐|
|High-efficiency ASHP, air at 0 °C||Low output temperature||3.8||2.8||2.2||2.0||‐||‐|
|Prototype transcritical CO
2 (R744) heat pump with tripartite gas cooler, source at 0 °C
|High output temperature||3.3||‐||‐||4.2||‐||3.0|
|Ground-source heat pump (GSHP), water at 0 °C||5.0||3.7||2.9||2.4||‐||‐|
|GSHP, ground at 10 °C||Low output temperature||7.2||5.0||3.7||2.9||2.4||‐|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source −20 °C||5.6||4.9||4.4||4.0||3.7||3.4|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source 0 °C||8.8||7.1||6.0||5.2||4.6||4.2|
|Theoretical Lorentzen cycle limit (CO
2 pump), return fluid 25 °C, source 0 °C
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source 10 °C||12.3||9.1||7.3||6.1||5.4||4.8|
The carbon footprint of heat pumps depends on their individual efficiency and how electricity is produced. An increasing share of low-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar will lower the impact on the climate.
|heating system||emissions of energy source||efficiency||resulting emissions for thermal energy|
|heat pump with onshore wind power||11 gCO2/kWh||400% (COP=4)||3 gCO2/kWh|
|heat pump with global electricity mix||436 gCO2/kWh (2022)||400% (COP=4)||109 gCO2/kWh|
|natural-gas thermal (high efficiency)||201 gCO2/kWh||90%||223 gCO2/kWh|
electricity by lignite (old power plant)
and low performance
|1221 gCO2/kWh||300% (COP=3)||407 gCO2/kWh|
In most settings, heat pumps will reduce CO2 emissions compared to heating systems powered by fossil fuels. In regions accounting for 70% of world energy consumption, the emissions savings of heat pumps compared with a high-efficiency gas boiler are on average above 45% and reach 80% in countries with cleaner electricity mixes. These values can be improved by 10 percentage points, respectively, with alternative refrigerants. In the United States, 70% of houses could reduce emissions by installing a heat pump. The rising share of renewable electricity generation in many countries is set to increase the emissions savings from heat pumps over time.
Heating systems powered by green hydrogen are also low-carbon and may become competitors, but are much less efficient due to the energy loss associated with hydrogen conversion, transport and use. In addition, not enough green hydrogen is expected to be available before the 2030s or 2040s.
Vapor-compression uses a circulating refrigerant as the medium which absorbs heat from one space, compresses it thereby increasing its temperature before releasing it in another space. The system normally has 8 main components: a compressor, a reservoir, a reversing valve which selects between heating and cooling mode, two thermal expansion valves (one used when in heating mode and the other when used in cooling mode) and two heat exchangers, one associated with the external heat source/sink and the other with the interior. In heating mode the external heat exchanger is the evaporator and the internal one being the condenser; in cooling mode the roles are reversed.
Circulating refrigerant enters the compressor in the thermodynamic state known as a saturated vapor and is compressed to a higher pressure, resulting in a higher temperature as well. The hot, compressed vapor is then in the thermodynamic state known as a superheated vapor and it is at a temperature and pressure at which it can be condensed with either cooling water or cooling air flowing across the coil or tubes. In heating mode this heat is used to heat the building using the internal heat exchanger, and in cooling mode this heat is rejected via the external heat exchanger.
The condensed, liquid refrigerant, in the thermodynamic state known as a saturated liquid, is next routed through an expansion valve where it undergoes an abrupt reduction in pressure. That pressure reduction results in the adiabatic flash evaporation of a part of the liquid refrigerant. The auto-refrigeration effect of the adiabatic flash evaporation lowers the temperature of the liquid and-vapor refrigerant mixture to where it is colder than the temperature of the enclosed space to be refrigerated.
The cold mixture is then routed through the coil or tubes in the evaporator. A fan circulates the warm air in the enclosed space across the coil or tubes carrying the cold refrigerant liquid and vapor mixture. That warm air evaporates the liquid part of the cold refrigerant mixture. At the same time, the circulating air is cooled and thus lowers the temperature of the enclosed space to the desired temperature. The evaporator is where the circulating refrigerant absorbs and removes heat which is subsequently rejected in the condenser and transferred elsewhere by the water or air used in the condenser.
To complete the refrigeration cycle, the refrigerant vapor from the evaporator is again a saturated vapor and is routed back into the compressor.
Over time, the evaporator may collect ice or water from ambient humidity. The ice is melted through defrosting cycle. An internal heat exchanger is either used to heat/cool the interior air directly or to heat water that is then circulated through radiators or underfloor heating circuit to either heat or cool the buildings.
Heat input can be improved if the refrigerant enters the evaporator with a lower vapor content. This can be achieved by cooling the liquid refrigerant after condensation. The gaseous refrigerant condenses on the heat exchange surface of the condenser. To achieve a heat flow from the gaseous flow center to the wall of the condenser, the temperature of the liquid refrigerant must be lower than the condensation temperature.
Additional subcooling can be achieved by heat exchange between relatively warm liquid refrigerant leaving the condenser and the cooler refrigerant vapor emerging from the evaporator. The enthalpy difference required for the subcooling leads to the superheating of the vapor drawn into the compressor. When the increase in cooling achieved by subcooling is greater that the compressor drive input required to overcome the additional pressure losses, such a heat exchange improves the coefficient of performance.
One disadvantage of the subcooling of liquids is that the difference between the condensing temperature and the heat-sink temperature must be larger. This leads to a moderately high pressure difference between condensing and evaporating pressure, whereby the compressor energy increases.
Pure refrigerants can be divided into organic substances (hydrocarbons (HCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and HCFOs), and inorganic substances (ammonia (NH
3), carbon dioxide (CO
2), and water (H
2O)). Their boiling points are usually below −25 °C.
In the past 200 years, the standards and requirements for new refrigerants have changed. Nowadays low global warming potential (GWP) is required, in addition to all the previous requirements for safety, practicality, material compatibility, appropriate atmospheric life,[clarification needed] and compatibility with high-efficiency products. By 2022, devices using refrigerants with a very low GWP still have a small market share but are expected to play an increasing role due to enforced regulations, as most countries have now ratified the Kigali Amendment to ban HFCs. Isobutane (R600A) and propane (R290) are far less harmful to the environment than conventional hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) and are already being used in air-source heat pumps. Propane may be the most suitable for high temperature heat pumps. Ammonia (R717) and carbon dioxide (R744) also have a low GWP. As of 2023[update] smaller CO
2 heat pumps are not widely available and research and development of them continues.
Until the 1990s, heat pumps, along with fridges and other related products used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as refrigerants, which caused major damage to the ozone layer when released into the atmosphere. Use of these chemicals was banned or severely restricted by the Montreal Protocol of August 1987.
Replacements, including R-134a and R-410A, are hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) with similar thermodynamic properties with insignificant ozone depletion potential (ODP) but had problematic GWP. HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Dimethyl ether (DME) also gained in popularity as a refrigerant in combination with R404a. More recent refrigerants include difluoromethane (R32) with a lower GWP, but still over 600.
|refrigerant||20-year GWP||100-year GWP|
Devices with R-290 refrigerant (propane) are expected to play a key role in the future. The GWP of propane is about 500 times less than conventional HFC refrigerants and thus extremely low. The flammability of propane requires additional security measures. This issue can be targeted with a reduced charge. By 2022, an increasing number of devices with R-290 were offered for domestic use, especially in Europe.
At the same time, HFC refrigerants still dominate the market. Recent government mandates have seen the phase-out of R-22 refrigerant. Replacements such as R-32 and R-410A are being promoted as environmentally friendly but still have a high GWP. A heat pump typically uses 3 kg of refrigerant. With R-32 this amount still has a 20-year impact equivalent to 7 tons of CO2, which corresponds to two years of natural gas heating in an average household. Refrigerants with a high ODP have already been phased out.
Financial incentives aim to protect consumers from high fossil gas costs and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and are currently available in more than 30 countries around the world, covering more than 70% of global heating demand in 2021.
Food processors, brewers, petfood producers and other industrial energy users are exploring whether it is feasible to use renewable energy to produce industrial-grade heat. Process heating accounts for the largest share of onsite energy use in Australian manufacturing, with lower-temperature operations like food production particularly well-suited to transition to renewables.
To help producers understand how they could benefit from making the switch, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) provided funding to the Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity (A2EP) to undertake pre-feasibility studies at a range of sites around Australia, with the most promising locations advancing to full feasibility studies.
In 2022, the Canada Greener Homes Grant provides up to $5000 for upgrades (including certain heat pumps), and $600 for energy efficiency evaluations.
Purchase subsidies in rural areas in the 2010s reduced burning coal for heating, which had been causing ill health.
As of 2022: heat pumps have no VAT although in Northern Ireland they are taxed at the reduced rate of 5% instead of the usual level of VAT of 20% for most other products. As of 2022[update] the installation cost of a heat pump is more than a gas boiler, but with the "Boiler Upgrade Scheme" government grant and assuming electricity/gas costs remain similar their lifetime costs would be similar.
The High-efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program was created in 2022 to award grants to State energy offices and Indian Tribes in order to establish state-wide high-efficiency electric-home rebates. Effective immediately, American households are eligible for a tax credit to cover the costs of buying and installing a heat pump, up to $2,000. Starting in 2023, low- and moderate-level income households will be eligible for a heat-pump rebate of up to $8,000.
In 2022, more heat pumps were sold in the United States than natural gas furnaces.
In November 2023 Biden's administration allocated 169 million dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act to speed up production of heat pumps. It used the he Defense Production Act for doing so, because according to the administration, energy that is better for climate, is better also for national security.
Some US states and municipalities have previously offered incentives for air-source heat pumps: