Inside Home Systems: A Guide to Heat Pumps

Heat pumps offer an efficient alternative to standard HVAC systems and are often a selling point for sustainability-conscious buyers.
Photo of a modern farmhous in a rustic environment with a heat pump on the side of the house

©Michal Rojek / Getty

Homeowners in America installed 4 million heat pumps in 2022, beating out fossil-fuel-powered gas furnaces for the first time ever. Why? Cost savings, efficiency, versatility and safety.

As heat pumps continue to go mainstream, it is increasingly important for real estate professionals to understand why these systems represent a major selling point and what buyers need to know. The best way to market and sell energy-efficient homes is to understand the benefits systems like heat pumps can deliver to builders, developers, homebuyers and the environment.

Heat Pump 101

Heat pumps pull heat from either the air or underground and use it to distribute heat to a home. They flow in reverse and use a refrigerant to also provide cooling. Heat pumps require electricity to run but deliver more energy than they use by concentrating and moving heat rather than generating it directly.

The Three Types of Home Heat Pumps

  1. Cold-climate air-source heat pumps extract heat from the outside air and distribute it throughout your home. During warmer months, this process is reversed to provide cooling by pulling heat out of your interior space. Cold-climate air-source heat pumps are generally best suited for single-family homes (central and ductless options), apartments, additions or those rooms that always seem too hot or too cold no matter what you do to the thermostat.
  2. Geothermal heat pumps, also known as ground-source heat pumps, distribute heat throughout a home by extracting heat from the ground using an underground pipe system. During warmer months, the process is reversed to provide cooling. Geothermal systems are the most efficient type of heat pump and can provide year-round comfort. Since temperatures remain consistent underground regardless of the temperature above ground, these heat pumps are extremely effective in colder climates.
  3. Heat-pump water heaters, also known as hybrid water heaters, use electricity to pull heat from the surrounding air and transfer it to water enclosed in a tank. Because they use electricity to move heat from one place to another, rather than generating heat directly, these water heaters are up to three times more efficient than conventional electric-resistance water heaters. In addition to warm air, heat-pump water heaters draw moisture from their surroundings and can reduce the need to run a dehumidifier in muggy locations.

There are whole-home and partial-home options when it comes to heat pumps.

Whole-home heat pumps take care of all the heating and cooling in a home—no additional systems are necessary. Homeowners often find immediate cost savings if they were previously heating with oil, propane or electric baseboards.

Partial-home or single-room heat pumps are used to supplement an existing system, often in rooms that struggle with temperature control like a second-floor bedroom or an addition.

What Homeowners Need to Know About Heat Pumps

As technology continues to advance, today’s cold-climate heat pumps are all-in-one heating and cooling systems that are environmentally friendly, extremely efficient and affordable to operate. The primary benefit to all homeowners is that heat pumps are designed to work efficiently in cold climates while doubling as a cooling system in the summer, eliminating the need for different systems depending on the time of year.

Typically, homeowners can expect their electric bill to increase when switching to a heat pump, but fuel costs are likely to decrease or disappear. Depending on what type of heat source they are switching from, the decrease in fuel bills could offset the increase in electric bills. It is difficult to identify global cost savings for heat pump installation without taking factors into consideration like each homeowner’s specific location, current heat source, square footage and choice of system, but homeowners may be able to save thousands of dollars with upfront installation incentives, federal tax credits and low-interest financing options.

The Benefits of Heat Pumps Over Fossil Fuels

  • Efficiency: The cost of heating and cooling your home with a heat pump is typically less than oil, propane or electric resistance and is more environmentally conscious.
  • Control: High-performance zoned temperature control allows homeowners to individually control the heating and cooling preferences for different rooms.
  • Safety: There is no combustion of fossil fuels, fuel storage or carbon monoxide emissions associated with heat pumps. And heat pumps have the lowest carbon emission of any heating source.
  • Incentives: Many states and energy companies offer rebates, financing options and other financial incentives to make purchasing and installing heat pumps more affordable for homeowners. Significant federal tax credits through the Inflation Reduction Act provide a tremendous opportunity for homeowners to switch to heat pumps.
  • Ease: Heat pumps require minimal maintenance and eliminate the hassle of scheduling fuel deliveries or seasonally installing/removing AC units.

Maintenance Considerations

Heat pumps require minimal upkeep, but like all home systems, proper maintenance is key to efficient operation. Energy consumption can vary greatly between a well-maintained heat pump and a neglected heat pump. Dirty filters, coils and fans can reduce airflow, decrease system performance and even damage a system’s compressor. Homeowners should have a professional technician service their heat pump annually.

Heat Pumps in Cold Climates

There are unfortunate myths about the reliability of heat pumps to perform in cold climates that stem from outdated information. Newer, more advanced technology has resulted in modern, high-efficiency heat pumps that reliably heat and cool without the need for a backup system.

It is important to be aware that some air source heat pump models are not suited to extremely low temperatures. Geothermal heat pumps and cold-climate air-source heat pumps are specifically rated to perform in cold climates and are perfectly capable of heating homes in even the coldest of temperatures. Homeowners will experience maximum efficiency and comfort by fully weatherizing their homes to improve insulation and air sealing.

When it comes to heating or cooling during a power outage, heat pumps are no different than any other furnace, boiler or air conditioner. A generator or supplemental heating that does not require electricity like a fireplace or woodstove could be beneficial for any homeowner concerned about power outages.

Your clients trust you to stay up to date on the latest technologies and educate them on the advantages of different home systems, like heat pumps, before they make an offer. To learn more about heat pumps specifically for cold climates, contact the energy authorities in your state.