Many homes today are both heated and cooled with a heat pump, an appliance that came into wide use in the late 1970s when natural gas shortages caused the price of that fuel to spike. The early heat pumps were highly inefficient.
Today, heat pumps are much more efficient and do a much better job of both heating and cooling a home. Because they perform both functions, many consumers favor them over gas or oil heat.
But like any type of appliance, a heat pump will wear out and need replacing. A homeowner needs to know where they are in the lifecycle and what it's going to cost for a replacement.
A heat pump looks a lot like an air conditioner. In fact, an air conditioner is a type of heat pump but only moves temperatures in one direction -- down. The HVAC units we commonly refer to as heat pumps move temperatures in both direction, providing both heating and cooling functions.
Air conditioning in reverse
When a heat pump is in the heating mode, it uses the same refrigeration cycle an air conditioner does, but in the opposite direction. In summer you've probably walked past a window air conditioner and felt the warm air blowing out of the unit. With a heat pump, that warm air is released into the climate-controlled space instead of the great outdoors. The air conditioning function works much the same as any other air conditioner.
The efficiency of a heat pump is measured by the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating. The SEER rating of a unit is the cooling output during a typical cooling-season divided by the total electric energy input during the same period. The higher the unit's SEER rating the more energy efficient it is.
For example, by upgrading from SEER 9 to SEER 13, the unit's power consumption is reduced by 30%. By some estimates, that could translate into a savings of $200 to $300 a year.
10 to 15 year lifespan
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average lifespan of a heat pump is between 10 to 15 years. It's possible to get more life out of a unit but once you pass 15 years you are definitely on borrowed time.
The good news is the new unit is almost certain to be more efficient than the one you are replacing. According to DOE, a new heat pump that has earned the ENERGY STAR label will probably save up to 20% on heating and cooling bills if the unit being replaced is more than 10 years old.
Besides age, performance will also tell you when it's time to replace your heat pump. If your equipment requires frequent repairs and you find that your heating and cooling bills are higher than normal, it may be time to consider a replacement, especially if the unit is 10 years old or older.
Efficiency is another tip-off. If you find some rooms are less comfortable than others, it may mean the unit is struggling to do its job. Heat pumps also tend to become rather noisy in their later years, alerting you to the fact that their days are numbered.
The cost of replacing your heat pump can vary, according to the size of the unit, its efficiency and the cost of installation. And the cost of installation can be a major part of the expense.
Not long ago we replaced the original heat pump in our home with a 3.5-ton 15.5 SEER Lennox system, requiring a four-member crew to work two and a half days to install it. Because of all the complex wiring involved, one of the crew members was a licensed electrician. If the quote for a new heat pump system seems high, that may help explain it. And of course, the quotes will be higher in areas with high labor costs.
What to do
If you think your heat pump is due for replacement, start by having it serviced by a reputable company. Specifically ask the service provider for an assessment of the remaining life in the unit.
If a new unit is recommended, ask two or more companies for quotes. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples, checking the tonnage, SEER rating and brand. Be sure to check out the brands on ConsumerAffairs, reading reviews from other consumers.
Perhaps even more important, make sure you have the best service provider in your area. Heat pumps require proper installation and regular maintenance. You want someone who will install it properly and then offer a service contract that providers for regular inspections and repairs.
A ConsumerAffairs colleague in the Washington, D.C., area recently noticed his relatively new heat pump was making a strange sound. He also noticed his house was cold and his electricity bill was $500, about twice as much as normal.
Vernon Heating & Cooling checked it out and found a chipmunk or other critter had chewed up some crucial circuitry. The repair was covered under the service contract, which costs about $35 per month, but would have been about $1,500 otherwise.
Before making a final decision, check with your local electric utility. Many utilities provide subsidies for homeowners when they replace heat pumps, with the subsidy based on the SEER rating.
Depending on a number of factors, prices for heat pumps and their installation can range from a little as $2,000 to $7,500 for a typical system.