How does a heat pump work?
Thinking a heat pump but you want to know how it works? We get this question a lot from customers who are thinking about adding AC to their home, or have heard the benefits of heat pump technology. The answer can be complicated or simple, depending on your level of interest. Generally, our focus is on Air-source heat pumps, which use properties of refrigeration to absorb heat and transfer it somewhere else. A heat pump is often described as an air-conditioner with a reversing valve, moving heat from inside the house to the outside in warm weather, or taking heat from outside to the inside during cold weather. Even though it might be cold outside, there is still energy in the air and the equipment is designed to transfer it where you need it.
I’ll be updating this page as I have time, but in the mean time, take a look at this resource, taken from Natural Resources Canada (http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/efficiency/heating-heat-pump/6825):
What Is a Heat Pump and How Does It Work?
Section 2 – Heating and Cooling with a Heat Pump
A heat pump is an electrical device that extracts heat from one place and transfers it to another. The heat pump is not a new technology; it has been used in Canada and around the world for decades. Refrigerators and air conditioners are both common examples of this technology.
Heat pumps transfer heat by circulating a substance called a refrigerant through a cycle of evaporation and condensation. A compressor pumps the refrigerant between two heat exchanger coils. In one coil, the refrigerant is evaporated at low pressure and absorbs heat from its surroundings. The refrigerant is then compressed en route to the other coil, where it condenses at high pressure. At this point, it releases the heat it absorbed earlier in the cycle.
Refrigerators and air conditioners are both examples of heat pumps operating only in the cooling mode. A refrigerator is essentially an insulated box with a heat pump system connected to it. The evaporator coil is located inside the box, usually in the freezer compartment. Heat is absorbed from this location and transferred outside, usually behind or underneath the unit where the condenser coil is located. Similarly, an air conditioner transfers heat from inside a house to the outdoors.
The heat pump cycle is fully reversible, and heat pumps can provide year-round climate control for your home – heating in winter and cooling and dehumidifying in summer. Since the ground and air outside always contain some heat, a heat pump can supply heat to a house even on cold winter days. In fact, air at –18°C contains about 85 percent of the heat it contained at 21°C.
An air-source heat pump absorbs heat from the outdoor air in winter and rejects heat into outdoor air in summer. It is the most common type of heat pump found in Canadian homes at this time. However, ground-source (also called earth-energy, geothermal, geoexchange) heat pumps, which draw heat from the ground or ground water, are becoming more widely used, particularly in British Columbia, the Prairies and Central Canada.
How Does an Air-Source Heat Pump Work?
An air-source heat pump has three cycles: the heating cycle, the cooling cycle and the defrost cycle.
The Heating Cycle
During the heating cycle, heat is taken from outdoor air and “pumped” indoors.
- First, the liquid refrigerant passes through the expansion device, changing to a low-pressure liquid/vapour mixture. It then goes to the outdoor coil, which acts as the evaporator coil. The liquid refrigerant absorbs heat from the outdoor air and boils, becoming a low-temperature vapour.
- This vapour passes through the reversing valve to the accumulator, which collects any remaining liquid before the vapour enters the compressor. The vapour is then compressed, reducing its volume and causing it to heat up.
- Finally, the reversing valve sends the gas, which is now hot, to the indoor coil, which is the condenser. The heat from the hot gas is transferred to the indoor air, causing the refrigerant to condense into a liquid. This liquid returns to the expansion device and the cycle is repeated. The indoor coil is located in the ductwork, close to the furnace.
The ability of the heat pump to transfer heat from the outside air to the house depends on the outdoor temperature. As this temperature drops, the ability of the heat pump to absorb heat also drops.
At the outdoor ambient balance point temperature, the heat pump’s heating capacity is equal to the heat loss of the house.
Below this outdoor ambient temperature, the heat pump can supply only part of the heat required to keep the living space comfortable, and supplementary heat is required.
When the heat pump is operating in the heating mode without any supplementary heat, the air leaving it will be cooler than air heated by a normal furnace. Furnaces generally deliver air to the living space at between 55°C and 60°C. Heat pumps provide air in larger quantities at about 25°C to 45°C and tend to operate for longer periods.
The Cooling Cycle
The cycle described above is reversed to cool the house during the summer. The unit takes heat out of the indoor air and rejects it outside.
- As in the heating cycle, the liquid refrigerant passes through the expansion device, changing to a low-pressure liquid/vapour mixture. It then goes to the indoor coil, which acts as the evaporator. The liquid refrigerant absorbs heat from the indoor air and boils, becoming a low-temperature vapour.
- This vapour passes through the reversing valve to the accumulator, which collects any remaining liquid, and then to the compressor. The vapour is then compressed, reducing its volume and causing it to heat up.
- Finally, the gas, which is now hot, passes through the reversing valve to the outdoor coil, which acts as the condenser. The heat from the hot gas is transferred to the outdoor air, causing the refrigerant to condense into a liquid. This liquid returns to the expansion device, and the cycle is repeated.
During the cooling cycle, the heat pump also dehumidifies the indoor air. Moisture in the air passing over the indoor coil condenses on the coil’s surface and is collected in a pan at the bottom of the coil. A condensate drain connects this pan to the house drain.
The Defrost Cycle
If the outdoor temperature falls to near or below freezing when the heat pump is operating in the heating mode, moisture in the air passing over the outside coil will condense and freeze on it. The amount of frost buildup depends on the outdoor temperature and the amount of moisture in the air.
This frost buildup decreases the efficiency of the coil by reducing its ability to transfer heat to the refrigerant. At some point, the frost must be removed. To do this, the heat pump will switch into the defrost mode.
- First, the reversing valve switches the device to the cooling mode. This sends hot gas to the outdoor coil to melt the frost. At the same time the outdoor fan, which normally blows cold air over the coil, is shut off in order to reduce the amount of heat needed to melt the frost.
- While this is happening, the heat pump is cooling the air in the ductwork. The heating system would normally warm this air as it is distributed throughout the house.
One of two methods is used to determine when the unit goes into defrost mode. Demand-frost controls monitor airflow, refrigerant pressure, air or coil temperature and pressure differential across the outdoor coil to detect frost accumulation on the outdoor coil.
Time-temperature defrost is started and ended by a preset interval timer or a temperature sensor located on the outside coil. The cycle can be initiated every 30, 60 or 90 minutes, depending on the climate and the design of the system.
Unnecessary defrost cycles reduce the seasonal performance of the heat pump. As a result, the demand-frost method is generally more efficient since it starts the defrost cycle only when it is required.
Want to read more? Go to http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/efficiency/heating-heat-pump/6825