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What is a Heat Pump & How Does It Work?

Heat pumps are a popular way of keeping your home warm, particularly in areas like California where the winter temperatures don’t reach freezing levels all that often. Heat pumps are often confused for central air conditioning systems because they work on many of the same principles: the system transfers heat by a fluid passing it through a closed loop with several different devices attached. In fact, you may not even know if you have a heat pump for your heater as opposed to a central air conditioner, but there’s an easy way to tell—your outdoor unit will either say “heat pump” on it or it will have both a SEER rating and a Heat Seasonal Performance Factor on it.

So what exactly do these devices do and how do they work? On this blog, we’ll discuss it in greater detail and teach you how they’re so effective at both heating and cooling your home.

How Heat Pumps Work

Unlike many other types of heating solutions, such as boilers, furnaces, and much more, heat pumps don’t actually create heat, but instead the harvest it from one location and move it where you want it. In winter, that means harvesting heat from outside and moving it indoors where you want it. During summer, exactly the opposite.

Your heat pump accomplishes this task by using a fluid known as refrigerant, and then passing this liquid between your indoor and outdoor units where it either harvests heat or expels it. But wait, you think, how can a pump harvest heat from outside when there’s hardly any heat to harvest? True, when the temperatures get frosty, it may not feel like there’s much heat out there, but several clever tricks and a knowledge of physics shows you how this is done.

See, heat is actually just the name we give to the feeling of something that has a lot of thermal energy. For example, if you leave a metal plate in the sun for an hour and then go and touch it, the plate will be scorching hot from having absorbed energy from the sun and the air around it. When you take the plate into the shade, it will eventually cool off. This is because thermal energy is always trying to balance its concentration levels, and it does this by moving heat from areas that have an abundance of it to areas with less. This is why when you take a cold drink out of the fridge and wait a while, the drink will eventually return to room temperature—the air around the drink has transferred enough thermal energy to the drink to bring it back up. This occurs at all temperatures, even particularly cold ones. So no, there’s no such thing as “cold,” just areas with less heat.

The Heat Pump Cycle

Now that we have this principle in mind, we can understand how heat pumps work. Refrigerant starts its cycle inside at your indoor unit. At this point, the refrigerant is usually in a gaseous state, under tremendous pressure, and is extremely hot, which means it radiates the heat that’s then passed throughout your home via your blower fan and air ducts.

From there, the refrigerant travels to an expansion chamber. This alleviates the pressure, which allows refrigerant to rapidly cool, a process that’s known as “exothermic,” or “extruding heat. At this point, the refrigerant becomes extremely cold, condenses back into a liquid state, and is then passed through your outdoor coil. Here in the outdoor coil, the temperatures between your indoor and outdoor unit equalize, which often means the air actually heats the refrigerant in your coils.

After this, the refrigerant then passes through a compressor, which causes the liquid refrigerant to vaporize into a gaseous state and become extremely hot. This process is an endothermic one, which means it absorbs heat. This now extremely hot and high-pressure gas is then fed back inside your home where it’s used to heat your home and the cycle starts over.

Got a problem with your heat pump? Let the Ontario heating services professionals get it fixed! Call All Pro Plumbing, Heating, Air & Electrical at (909) 253-0664 to request a service today.