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“A better way to think of a heat pump is by describing how it works: Heat energy is being ‘pumped’ from one location to another.”

– Piero Caballero

senior product manager

Johnson Controls

As residential heat-pump technology gets better at warming indoor spaces in chillier climates and more resources are deployed to convince the public in Northern states that heat pumps can do the job in the winter, consumers in the South may feel, well, left out in the cold.

In warmer parts of the U.S., where the primary climate-conditioning demand is for cooling rather than heating, HVAC contractors face their own set of challenges when it comes to addressing consumer expectations about heat pumps — not the least of which is the term “heat pump,” which probably doesn’t sound reassuring to a homeowner who is unfamiliar with the technology and whose a/c unit has gone out on a 110°F day in Arizona.

“If there was a better name, people would understand it a little bit better,” said Michael Hyde, general manager at Hydes Air Conditioning in Indio, California, where 100°F-plus days in summer are not unusual and where the cooling season lasts nine months. “And it’s not just the consumer. A couple of years ago, when we had a utility rebate, the people running the rebate didn’t understand what the heat pump was.”


Education is Key

Those who work with heat pumps for a living agree that the term “heat pump” can be confusing to those who don’t know much about them. Educating consumers, experts say, is essential to getting homeowners to more readily accept heat pumps in states where more cooling than heating is needed.

They suggest using terminology that focuses on what heat pumps do — move heat out of a space, or into it, as required.

“The term ‘heat pump’ can be misleading since the word ‘heat’ is in the name, and homeowners typically assume a space is cooled by adding cooler air rather than removing heat,” said Piero Caballero, senior product manager for ducted systems at Johnson Controls. “A better way to think of a heat pump is by describing how it works: Heat energy is being ‘pumped’ from one location to another.”

“When installing, I would start up the system and go over it with the homeowner,” said Rett Jones, a partner and regional manager at Air Pros USA, which is based in South Florida and has locations across the Southeast and in other parts of the country. Jones estimated that he personally has installed between 300 and 400 heat pumps. “If you’re communicating it on the front end to the homeowner, then they understand.”

“It’s an education process when we go out,” said Hyde. “Most people do not know what a heat pump is.”

Charles “Dr. Chuck” Allgood, a technical fellow at refrigerant manufacturer The Chemours Co. who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, suggests the name “reversible air conditioner.”

“Because the term ‘air conditioner’ has been around for so long and is ubiquitous, referring to the ‘heat pump’ system with a more accurate name — a ‘reversible air conditioner,’ for instance — might make it easier for the consumer to grasp the concept,” said Allgood. But, he added, the term “reversible heat pump” is probably more technically accurate.

“Educating consumers about how a heat pump can either add or remove heat is important,” Allgood added.

Its name aside, experts agree, there is practically no difference between the type of cooling a heat pump provides and the type a traditional a/c system provides. In fact, they said, because of advances in technology, the cooling experience and the system’s energy efficiency could be better.

“The type of cooling provided by a heat pump is virtually the same as that provided by a traditional air conditioner,” said Caballero. “Occupants wouldn’t notice any differences in the cooling experience, since both systems can maintain comfortable indoor temperatures and remove humidity from the air.”

“If you’re switching from an a/c and furnace setup to a heat-pump system, you’re not going to notice any difference in the cooling aspect,” said Jones.

YORK HH8 Heat Pump.

HEAT-PUMP HIGHLIGHTS: The YORK HH8 is a variable-speed heat pump with an inverter compressor that’s designed to work with the low-GWP refrigerant R-454B. It’s available in 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-ton sizes. (Courtesy of Johnson Controls)


Sizing, and Other Matters

However, there are some caveats that professionals should communicate to homeowners when a furnace and air-conditioning system is being swapped out for a heat-pump system, even in the South.

Foremost is that consumers should make sure their contractor is sizing heat-pump equipment, and the ductwork for ducted heat-pump systems, properly for both heating and cooling needs, with ACCA’s Manual J (load calculations) and Manual D (residential ductwork design) as guidelines.

Proper sizing is critical, Allgood said, for a heat-pump system to work right.

“If a new heat pump installation is oversized for the cooling mode, it could, in fact, cool the space too quickly — resulting in lack of dehumidification and an uncomfortable environment for the occupants,” he said.

Caballero pointed out some differences in the way heat pumps provide cooling in the Southeast compared to the Southwest. In more hot and humid weather, such as is typical in Southeastern states like Florida, both heat pumps and air conditioners have to work harder to remove moisture from the air, which can affect their efficiency, he said.

“In hot, dry climates like the Southwest, heat pumps perform efficiently thanks to the lower humidity level. The drier air allows the system to operate more effectively in removing heat from the indoors,” Cabellero said. “In hot, humid climates like Florida, modern heat pumps and air conditioners have been designed to remove moisture during the cooling process. However, extreme humidity levels can sometimes make it challenging to achieve the desired comfort levels as efficiently as in drier climates.”

When it comes to providing heat, contractors said, consumers who are replacing a gas furnace with a heat pump should be told that the new system will heat differently, softer, and more slowly, than the furnace. Even in the Southern California desert, where people often don’t use heat during the daytime in the winter, some people find it hard to give up the more intense warming they’re used to experiencing with a furnace.

“They do like that, you know, blasting heat that they know,” said Judy Mueller-Hyde, director of operations at Hydes.

“The house still warms up with a heat pump. It does it more efficiently,” said Jones. “But a lot of the time, if people are used to that gas furnace, the heating (is) a lot quicker.”

But, he added, those former furnace users also see their utility costs go down.

“Most people that have a heat pump are perfectly comfortable with the heat,” he said.

“Heat pump is a softer heat. It doesn’t dry your skin out,” said Michael Hyde. “So that’s a big plus.”

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