It’s a revolution! More accurately, its an evolution. For eons, mankind has been constantly improving the way we maintain comfort throughout seasons and weather. From seeking shelter in caves to harnessing the wonder of fire. Ancients had fireplaces in huts with a hole in the roof. Then came hearths and chimneys. The Romans had heated floors. The dark ages, as the name suggests, sent us back to fires in huts.
By the industrial revolution, metals began to become affordable and stoves and stove pipe start to appear. New fuels beyond wood start to make their way into widespread use. About the same time, industrial ice production starts to replace ice harvesting with the invention of practical ice machines powered by giant steam engines. By the time the world went to war, we start to see advanced distribution systems in widespread use with furnaces making hot air and boilers making steam for radiators. About the same time, refrigeration starts making its way into the homes of grateful people all around the world as well.
This new technology spurns a great deal of advancement for all sorts of uses and even then, many saw the potential opportunity for refrigeration in the pursuit of comfort. Air conditioning soon followed as did the first heating appliances using refrigeration technology; heat pumps.
An air conditioner, a refrigerator, a heat pump, or any other refrigeration machine for that matter, essentially does one thing: It pumps heat from one place to another. We give the machine different names depending on what it is doing, but they all basically do the same thing. The refrigerator in your kitchen fundamentally works the same way as the heat pump you might use to heat your home.
Allow me to explain. Your refrigerator is “cold” inside and your house is much warmer (I hope). Heat is constantly working its way from your kitchen into the box of your refrigerator either by working its way through the insulation, when you open the door and let heat in, or add a warm item to the cold refrigerator. The mechanism inside the appliance, typically a compressor based unit although in smaller appliances like wine refrigerators, its not unusual to see solid state cooling devices called Peltier or thermoelectric cooling chips. Once common in household refrigerators, but now basically relegated to recreational vehicles are adsorption refrigerators.
These use a chemical reaction powered by a heat source, in much the same way as a bubbler is used to run a filter in a small fish tank) to facilitate the cooling process. Whatever the mechanism, the process is to capture heat from inside the box and move it outside. Wash, rinse, repeat. A radiator type devise, typically hidden, inside the box is made cooler than the interior of the box by the refrigeration process allowing heat to move from the air in the box into the radiator. Remember, heat always flows from hot to cold and not necessarily “up” as we often say. This heat is then carried by force to another radiator outside the box where it is allowed to dissipate back into the kitchen. This cycle repeats endlessly until the thermostat in the box says it is cold enough for now.
A heat pump for your home works the same way. There is a radiator outside of the home, either a coil in a condenser parked on a pad or a bracket in the yard or a loop of pipe buried in the ground in the case of a geothermal or ground source heat pump. This radiator (coil) is made colder than the outside air (or ground) so that heat will travel from the air (ground) into the coil. The refrigerant is pumped back into the house where that heat is dissipated into the home via another radiator (coil) in some sort of air handler or heat exchanger. Pretty basic if you ignore the magic that happens when the refrigerant is made to boil and condense to facilitate the big temperature changes.
So where are we today and why is it a revolution? For decades, fuel sources and heating plants have been markedly cheaper than using a heat pump to heat a home in northern climates. Heat pump technology has also struggled to provide a machine capable of cooling a house when its 100F and then six months later heat the same house when it is -10F. That has all changed. Today we have equipment from most major manufacturers that can handle these extremes with ease. Mitsubishi Electric/Trane, for example, has pioneered the low-temperature market with their H2i, or Hyper Heating technology guaranteeing performance to -15F. Not only do they operate at cold temperature, but they also produce plenty of heat and do it cost effectively (depending on what you pay for electricity). No longer are we limited to geothermal heat pumps as the only cold weather heat pump solution. With the growing popularity of air source heat pumps like the Mitsubishi H2i, manufacturers now offer a wide variety of indoor units giving us great options for new construction with conventional ductwork as well as retrofit applications with ductless solutions.
To see if heat pumps make sense for you, you might start with our fuel cost comparison calculator linked here. If you need help with the numbers or would like us to talk with you further about your project, we would be delighted to help.