A heat pump may be right for your home – here’s what you need to know

We independently check everything that we recommend. We may earn commissions when you purchase through our links. Learn more>
This guide has been updated to reflect new changes to the Inflation Reduction Act. We have also added a new section on temporary heat pump installations.
Subscribe to the Wirecutter newsletter to receive independent reviews, expert advice and the best deals straight to your inbox.
It’s the cheapest and most efficient way to heat and cool your home, wherever you live. They are also better for the environment. In fact, most experts agree that this is one of the best ways for homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint and reap the benefits of a greener future without sacrificing comfort. In other words, they are win-win.
“We have come to the conclusion that climate solutions like paper straws are worse than we are used to. But there are places where everyone wins, and I think heat pumps are a good example,” Brown University political economist and contributor to 3H Mix. Dr. Alexander Guard-Murray, co-author of The Hot House: An Incentive Plan. Electrifying space heating and reducing energy bills for American homes. “They are quieter. They provide more control. At the same time, they will reduce our energy needs and greenhouse gas emissions. So it’s not just savings. This is an improvement in the quality of life.”
But choosing the right heat pump for you, without even knowing where to start looking, can still be a daunting task. We can help.
“Heat pumps are probably the single most important thing consumers can do to combat the climate crisis,” said Amy Boyd, policy director for Arcadia Center, a regional clean energy policy group in the Northeast Research and Advocacy Organizations. Heat pumps are also one of the quietest and most convenient options for heating and cooling your home.
Heat pumps are essentially two-way air conditioners. In the summer, they work like any other air conditioner, removing heat from indoor air and pushing cold air back into the room. During the cooler months, they do just the opposite, taking heat from the outside air and bringing it into your home to keep you warm. This process is exceptionally efficient as it uses, on average, half the energy of other domestic electrical heat sources. Or, as David Yuill of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln told us, “You can take one watt of electricity and get four watts of heat out of it. It’s like magic.”
However, unlike magic, this result actually has a very simple explanation: the heat pump is simply moving heat rather than burning the fuel source to produce it. Even the most efficient gas furnace or boiler does not convert its fuel into heat 100%, it always loses something in the conversion process. A good resistive heater can be 100% efficient, but it still consumes watts to generate heat, while a heat pump is just moving heat around. According to the US Department of Energy, on average, a heat pump can save about $1,000 (6,200 kWh) per year compared to oil heating, or about $500 (3,000 kWh) compared to electric heating.
In states where the power grid is increasingly dependent on renewables, electric heat pumps also emit less carbon than other heating and cooling options, while still providing two to five times more heat on average than you put into it. Thus, a heat pump is an environmentally friendly HVAC system that is also good for your wallet. Most heat pumps also use inverter technology, which allows the compressor to run at a finer and more variable speed, so you only use as much energy as you need to live comfortably.
Almost any homeowner can potentially benefit from a heat pump. Take Mike Ritter, who moved his family into a 100-year-old two-family home in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood in 2016. Ritter knew the boiler was smoking even before he bought the house, and he knew it would have to be replaced as soon as possible. After he received several offers from the contractor, he had two options: he could spend $6,000 a new fossil fuel plant. a storage tank in the basement or he could buy a heat pump. Although the total cost of a heat pump looks about five times higher on paper, the heat pump also provides $6,000 thanks to state benefits in Massachusetts dollar rebates and seven years of zero revenue. – an interest-bearing loan to cover the remaining costs encourages a heat pump conversion program.
Once he did the math—comparing skyrocketing gas and electricity costs, as well as environmental impacts and monthly payments—the choice became clear.
“To be honest, we were blown away that we were able to do this,” says Ritter, a freelance photographer who has owned a heat pump for four years. “We don’t make money from doctors or lawyers, and we don’t expect to be the kind of people who have central heating and cooling in their homes. But there are a million ways to split the costs and get rebates and energy credits. It’s no worse than having you now. How much more is being spent on energy already.”
Despite these benefits, each year nearly twice as many Americans buy one-way air conditioners or other inefficient systems than heat pumps, according to a study by Alexander Hard-Murray. After all, when your old system fails, it makes sense to simply replace the previous system, as Ritters probably did. We hope this guide will help you plan for a real upgrade and budget. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with another inefficient, high-carbon HVAC for the next decade. Nobody needs it.
I’ve been writing for Wirecutter since 2017, covering portable and window air conditioners, indoor fans, heaters and other topics (including those that have nothing to do with heating or cooling). I have also done several climate reporting for publications such as Upworthy and The Weather Channel, and in partnership with UN News, I covered the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. In 2019, Cornell University commissioned me to write a feature-length play about communities responding to climate change.
Like Mike Ritter, I am a homeowner in Boston and I was looking for an affordable and sustainable way to keep my family warm during the winter. While my house’s current electric heating system is currently working fine, I’m wondering if there are better options, especially since the system is quite old. I’ve heard of heat pumps – I know my neighbor has one – but I have no idea how much they cost, how they work, or even how to get them. So when I started reaching out to contractors, politicians, homeowners, and engineers to find the most efficient HVAC system for my home and figure out what it would do to my wallet in the long run, this guide was just getting started.
All in all, a heat pump is an objectively good idea. But when you’re trying to narrow down your choices to which heat pump you should buy, the decision can get a little confusing. There’s a reason most people don’t just go to Home Depot and bring home any random heat pump they find on the shelf. You can even get free shipping on Amazon, but we don’t recommend that either.
If you’re not already an experienced home decorator, you’ll need to find a contractor to help you with your heat pump – what’s right for your situation will depend on many factors, including the type of home you live in and your local climate. and incentive programs. That’s why, instead of recommending the best heat pump for most people, we’ve come up with some basic criteria to guide you through the process of upgrading your HVAC system in your home.
For the purposes of this guide, we will only focus on air source heat pumps (sometimes called air-to-air heat pumps). As the name suggests, these models exchange heat between the air around you and the air outside. Air-to-air heat pumps are the most common choice in American homes and are the easiest to adapt to different living situations. However, you can also find other types of heat pumps that draw heat from different sources. For example, a ground source heat pump takes heat from the ground, for which you need to dig the ground in your yard and drill a well.
The size you need depends on the size and layout of your home, your energy needs, your insulation, and more.
The performance of an air conditioner is usually measured in British thermal units or Btu. When you buy a window air conditioner or a portable air conditioner, you usually need to choose based on the size of the room you plan to use it in. But choosing a heat pump system is a bit trickier. It’s still partly based on square footage – the experts we interviewed agreed with the general calculation that you’d need about 1 ton of air conditioner (which equals 12,000 BTUs) for every 500 square feet in your home. In addition, there is a set of standards maintained by the American Trade Association of Air Conditioning Contractors called Guide J (PDF), which calculates the effects of other factors such as insulation, air filtration, windows, and local climate to provide you with more information about exact load. Size for a specific house. A good contractor should be able to help you with this.
You also have some monetary reasons for properly sizing your system. Most government programs base their incentives on system efficiency—after all, more efficient systems use less electricity, which helps reduce fossil fuel consumption. In Massachusetts, for example, you can recover up to $10,000 by installing a heat pump throughout your home, but only if the system meets certain performance standards (PDF) set by the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI). HVAC system and trade association used by refrigeration professionals. In other words, an inefficient home with an undersized or large system can effectively disqualify you from the rebate and increase your monthly energy bill.
A heat pump will almost certainly work in your home because heat pumps are modular in design. “They basically go with everything,” says Dan Zamani, director of standard plumbing, heating and cooling in Boston, who worked on the Ritter home. “Whether it’s a really old house or we’re limited in the building we do in people’s homes without causing too much damage – there’s always a way to make it work.”
Zamanji goes on to explain that the heat pump condenser—the part that is outside—can be mounted on a wall, roof, ground, or even on a stand or level ground using brackets. Ductless systems also give you plenty of room for indoor installation (assuming you don’t already have ducting or room to add one). Things can get a little tricky if you live in a crowded row house in a historic district, limiting what you can put on the front, but even so, a savvy contractor can probably figure it out.
When you buy something as expensive and durable as a heat pump, you need to make sure you are buying from a reputable manufacturer who can provide you with excellent customer support for years to come. For example, Daikin, LG HVAC and Mitsubishi/Trane offer warranties up to 12 years, while Carrier and Rheem offer warranties up to 10 years.
That being said, the heat pump you end up choosing may have more to do with finding a good contractor than it does with your personal preferences. Typically, your contractor or installer will procure the parts. There may be some models that have better performance or distribution in certain geographic areas. And you need to make sure that the contractor is familiar with this expensive equipment that they constantly install in your home.
All of the manufacturers we mentioned above also have some sort of Preferred Dealer program—contractors specially trained on the product to provide manufacturer-approved services. Many Preferred Dealers also have priority access to parts and equipment. Dan Zamani of the Boston Standard, who is Mitsubishi and Trane’s installer of choice, says: “We try to stick to multiple brands so the installer has repeatability and knows the equipment. The same goes for the sales team so they can all have their own opinion about it.” opinion and are well trained to work with the product.”
In general, it’s best to start by finding a good contractor of choice and then use their experience to work with a brand they know well. The service also usually has better guarantees. There’s nothing good about falling in love with a particular heat pump only to find out that no one in your area knows how to fix or install it.
Looking at your heat pump’s rating can help, but don’t get hung up on it. Since almost all heat pumps have such great advantages over conventional equipment, it is often not necessary to look for the absolute top score in the heat pump category.
Most heat pumps fall into two different efficiency classes. The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) measures the cooling capacity of a system compared to the energy required to run the system. In contrast, the seasonal heating efficiency factor, or HSPF, measures the relationship between a system’s heat output and its energy consumption. The Department of Energy recommends looking for higher HSPF in cooler climates or higher SEER in warmer climates.
ENERGY STAR qualified heat pumps must have a SEER rating of at least 15 and an HSPF of at least 8.5. High quality heat pumps with SEER 21 or HSPF 10 or 11 are not uncommon.
As with a heat pump, the ultimate energy efficiency of your entire home will depend on many factors other than the heat pump itself, such as weather conditions and air filtration, the climate you live in, and how often you plan to use your system.
Yes, if your home already has a central air conditioning system, you can use your existing duct to vent the heat pump. And you don’t really need ductwork: Air source heat pumps are also available in ductless mini splits. Most manufacturers offer both options, and a good contractor can suggest different areas of your home to ensure maximum comfort and get the most out of what is already installed in your home.
Heat pumps serve a variety of purposes when retrofitting existing plumbing, and can also work in hybrid systems with ducted and ductless units, driving a single compressor located outside the home. For example, when the Ritter family upgraded their Boston home with a heat pump, they used existing air conditioners to create a new duct system on the second floor, then added two small duct splitters to span the office and bedrooms upstairs from the living room. master, all connected to the same source. “This is a somewhat unique system,” Mike Ritter told us, “but in our case it worked best.”
In general, try to get a few different ideas from your contractor on how to set up an existing HVAC system. This may save you some money, or it may not be worth the effort or expense. One of the encouraging factors we found in our research is that your existing system, no matter what type, should not prevent you from using your heat pump to supplement, offset or replace your existing system. If you (your contractor, really) know what you’re doing, you can install a heat pump in almost any home layout.
Yes, but we do not recommend such models. Of course, if you live in a year-round warm climate, adding a new heating system to your home may seem like overkill. But such a system is “essentially the same hardware with a few extra parts that you can swap with very little extra effort,” home performance consultant Nate Adams told The New York Times. These extra parts only cost a few hundred dollars more, and that markup is likely to be covered by discounts. There is also the fact that the efficiency of a heat pump increases exponentially as the temperature in the house approaches the comfort zone in the mid-60s. So, on those rare days when the temperature drops to 50 degrees, the system needs almost no energy to heat your home. At this point, you basically get calories for free.
If you already have an oil or natural gas heat source that you don’t want to replace, there are several ways you can set up a hybrid or dual heating system that uses these fossil fuels as a backup or supplemental heat pump. This type of system can save you some money on particularly cold winter days – and believe it or not, it’s actually the best option for cutting carbon emissions. We have a separate section with more details below.
The contractor you hire to install your heat pump may be more important to your overall experience (and cost) than the heat pump itself. “When everyone is shopping, you end up with a very low-level contractor,” says Dan Zamani of the Boston Standard. “Perhaps the third biggest purchase people make in their home is a heating and cooling system, you don’t do the same with a car or buying a house. People try to mess with it, but you get what you pay for.” In other words, if you’re paying someone tens of thousands of dollars to make your home more comfortable, affordable, and better for the planet, you need to make sure they’re doing it right.
Unfortunately, it is not easy for everyone to find the help they need. Therefore, we have compiled a few recommendations to help you get on the right track.
The fact that you are reading this guide already gives you an edge. For this guide, we spoke to several contractors and they all told us the same thing: only about half of their heat pump customers knew ahead of time that they specifically wanted to install a heat pump.
“It’s good to just know that a heat pump is an option,” Alexander Guard-Murray, co-author of 3H Hybrid Heat Homes, tells us. “I think the most important thing a consumer can do is actively try to find a heat pump contractor who can give them a clear idea of ​​what is available for their current model and current climate zone.”
However, we do not recommend making all decisions before you find a contractor. You may choose a specific heat pump model, but find that parts and service for that model are hard to come by in your area (especially in a world already facing other supply chain issues). A good contractor will know what’s available, how its performance compares to more traditional HVAC options, and what’s best for the climate you live in.
One of the best ways to find a contractor is to find other people who work with a contractor they like. If you see a friend or neighbor with a heat pump, ask them about their experience. Also visit your local community’s social media forums on Facebook or Neighbors. People may even suggest that you try different contractors or give you some advice on unexpected issues that will surprise them, all of which can be helpful too.
“Find people you know who have installed a heat pump and ask them about it,” Gard-Murray says. “Basically, anyone who installs a heat pump will be thrilled with it and you will hear more and more about it. It’s like an avalanche of excitement about heat pumps. I think the consumer experience is the most important factor. in their sale.
Many heat pump manufacturers, including Carrier, Daikin, LG HVAC and Mitsubishi/Trane, have some sort of Preferred Independent Contractor Partner Program. To qualify, these contractors must reach a level of standard using equipment that meets the manufacturer’s ideal expectations. If the contractor has one or more manufacturer’s seals of approval, this is a good sign.
A contractor’s membership in such a program not only demonstrates their knowledge and skills, as these contractors also tend to offer better parts and job guarantees (and develop relationships to ensure they can get the parts they need). While most standard Trane ductless heat pumps come with a 10-year warranty (PDF), for example, heat pumps installed by a Trane Certified Comfort Technician typically carry a 12-year warranty on the unit, as well as an additional warranty on parts and labor directly. . through your contractor.
A good sign of a reliable contractor is their willingness to prepare a written document for you detailing potential projects and costs without any obligation or payment from you. A representative may come to your home for a site visit and give you a visual estimate of the cost of the project, but if they don’t get it down on paper – before you start negotiating – it’s a huge red flag.
Before Mike Ritter agreed with the Boston Standard to upgrade his heat pump, both parties went through six rounds of proposals over the course of three months before finding a solution that worked. The Boston Standard presents a range of different ideas—ducted and unducted, zoning options, and more—and the costs associated with each. The documents even include information about the guarantees and potential kickbacks that Ritter can expect to receive after the project is completed. It was this attention to detail that convinced him to take the step despite the higher upfront costs. “We knew very little about heat pumps beforehand,” Ritter told us. “Originally, we planned to just replace the boiler, but when we spoke to the Boston Standard, we began to realize that installing a heat pump and eliminating the air conditioner could actually work.”
Heat pump systems are impressively modular and there should be a way to make them work in just about any home environment. But it’s also your home we’re talking about, and you’ll have to put up with any changes the contractor makes to it. A good contractor should be on the lookout for any potential issues or concerns during the first site visit. This means that you deserve answers to a lot of questions. For example, do they pay attention to the amperage on the breaker? Did they give you an initial look at how and where to install the equipment? Are their project proposals accurate and detailed?
“Many contractors will find themselves installing these systems without doing the proper measurements and things to consider,” Boston Standard’s Zamani told us. He specifically mentions factors such as the software contractors use to size systems and whether they take windows and weather into account. There are also acoustical considerations: while heat pumps are generally quieter than other HVAC systems, outdoor units still have fans, compressors, and other mechanical parts that can cause problems in an alleyway or next to a bedroom window. These are the questions you should be asking, but you should also ask the contractor for things you weren’t expecting.

Post time: Mar-27-2023