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Selecting Your Heat Pump & Performance Issues

How to select a heat pump for your home

Every residential heat pump sold in this country has an EnergyGuide Label, which features the heat pump's heating and cooling efficiency performance rating, comparing it to other available makes and models.

Heating efficiency for air-source electric heat pumps is indicated by the heating season performance factor (HSPF), which is the ratio of the seasonal heating output in Btu divided by the seasonal power consumption in watts. Cooling efficiency is indicated by the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), which is the ratio of the seasonal heat removed in Btu per hour to the seasonal power consumption in watts.

The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rates both the efficiency of the compressor and the electric-resistance elements. The most efficient heat pumps have an HSPF of between 8 and 10.

The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rates a heat pump's cooling efficiency. In general, the higher the SEER, the higher the cost. However, the energy savings can return the higher initial investment several times during the heat pump's life. Replacing a 1970s vintage, central heat pump (SEER = 6) with a new unit (SEER=12) will allow the use of half the energy to provide the same amount of cooling, cutting air-conditioning costs in half. The most efficient heat pumps have SEERs of between 14 and 18.

To choose an air-source electric heat pump, look for the ENERGY STAR® label, which is awarded to those units with SEERs of 12 or greater and HSPFs of 7 or greater. If you are purchasing an electric air-source heat pump and are uncertain whether it meets ENERGY STAR qualifications, look on the bright yellow EnergyGuide label for an efficiency of 12 SEER/7HSPF or greater. For units with comparable HSPF ratings, check their steady-state rating at -8.3 degrees C, the low temperature setting. The unit with the higher rating will be more efficient.

Consider buying a heat pump with an HSPF of at least 7.7. In September 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy will begin enforcing a new standard that will require central heat pumps to have a minimum rating of 7.7 HSPF. In warmer climates, SEER is more important than HSPF; in colder climates, focus on getting the highest HSPF feasible.

These are some other factors to consider when choosing and installing air-source heat pumps:

  • Select a heat pump with a demand-defrost control. This will minimize the defrost cycles, thereby reducing supplementary and heat pump energy use.

  • If you're adding a heat pump to an electric furnace, the heat pump coil should usually be placed on the cold (upstream) side of the furnace for greatest efficiency.

  • Fans and compressors make noise. Locate the outdoor unit away from windows and adjacent buildings, and select a heat pump with an outdoor sound rating of 7.6 bels or lower. You can also reduce this noise by mounting the unit on a noise-absorbing base.

  • The location of the outdoor unit may affect its efficiency. Outdoor units should be protected from high winds, which can cause defrosting problems. You can strategically place a bush or a fence upwind of the coils to block the unit from high winds.

See the section on Selecting and Replacing Heating and Cooling Systems for information about choosing a contractor, and see the section on Sizing Your Heating and Air Conditioning System for proper sizing techniques.

Common heat pump performance issues to be aware of

According to a report on research funded by ENERGY STAR, more than 50% of all heat pumps have significant problems with low airflow, leaky ducts, and incorrect refrigerant charge.

There should be about 400-500 cubic feet per minute (cfm) airflow for each ton of the heat pump's air-conditioning capacity. Efficiency and performance deteriorate if airflow is much less than 350 cfm per ton. Technicians can increase the airflow by cleaning the evaporator coil or increasing the fan speed, but often some modification of the ductwork is needed. See the sections on Minimizing Energy Losses in Ducts and on Insulating Ducts.

Refrigeration systems should be leak-checked at installation and during each service call. Room heat pumps and packaged heat pumps are charged with refrigerant at the factory. They are seldom incorrectly charged. Split-system heat pumps, on the other hand, are charged in the field, which can sometimes result in either too much or too little refrigerant. Split-system heat pumps that have the correct refrigerant charge and airflow usually perform very close to manufacturer's listed SEER and HSPF. Too much or too little refrigerant, however, reduces heat-pump performance and efficiency.

For satisfactory performance and efficiency, a split-system heat pump should be within a few ounces of the correct charge, specified by the manufacturer. The technician must measure airflow prior to checking refrigerant charge because the refrigerant measurements aren't accurate unless airflow is correct. When the charge is correct, specific refrigerant temperatures and pressures listed by the manufacturer will match temperatures and pressures measured by your service technician. Verify these measurements with the technician. If the manufacturer's temperatures and pressures don't match the measured ones, refrigerant should be added or withdrawn, according to standards specified by the EPA.