Why Do Heat Pumps Rely on Refrigerant?

October 20, 2022
Heat Pump in Olathe, KS

Heat pumps have slowly gained popularity here in Olathe, KS, in recent years. They deliver heating and cooling efficiency that conventional systems can’t match. That’s not all. They’re also environmentally friendly and require less maintenance than conventional heating and cooling systems. Despite that, we’ve noticed that many homeowners don’t quite understand how heat pumps work. One of the facets of their operation that we get the most questions about has to do with their use of refrigerant. As soon as we mention that heat pumps require refrigerant to operate, we get some puzzled looks. So we decided to offer this article to elaborate on refrigerant use in heat pumps.

Aren’t Refrigerants Cold?

To cut right to the chase, we’ll address the main source of confusion people have about refrigerants. Since the word most people associate with the root of the word refrigerant is a refrigerator, they immediately assume refrigerants are all about making things cold. They’re only partially correct.

In reality, refrigerants are nothing more than a fluid that can move heat from one place to another. In refrigerators, refrigerants carry heat from the interior of the unit and expel it into the surrounding air. That’s the same way they work in conventional air conditioning systems. In that case, they carry the heat from inside your home and expel it into the outside air. At that stage, however, the refrigerant in an air conditioner is hot, not cold.

How Refrigerant Works in a Heat Pump

In cooling mode, the refrigerant in a heat pump works just like it would in any air conditioner. Heat energy from the warm air inside your home is absorbed by the liquid refrigerant in a coil, and the refrigerant turns into a gas because it has been heated. The cooled air returns to your house. The refrigerant, now in gas form, goes through a compressor, which increases the pressure. At high pressures, a gas refrigerant is higher energy than the outside air, so it sheds heat to the outdoors as the refrigerant condenses back to a liquid. The refrigerant, which is now a warm liquid, goes through an expansion valve to relieve pressure. This reduction in pressure cools the liquid refrigerant down and prepares it to return back to your home to absorb more heat.

That’s where the similarities with conventional air conditioners end, however. Heat pumps, unlike air conditioners, have a valve that allows them to run the process above in reverse. In heating mode, the refrigerant absorbs heat from the outdoor air and carries it into your home. Inside, the cold air in your home absorbs the heat from the refrigerant. Heat pumps can extract heat from the outdoor air even when it’s as cold as 35 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Below that, they rely on an auxiliary heating unit to augment the heat they provide to your home.

Refrigerants Make Heat Pumps Efficient

The process described above is what makes heat pumps such an efficient heating option for homes here in Olathe. In normal operation, they neither create nor destroy heat. They only carry it from one place to another. By comparison, conventional heating systems either convert electricity into radiant heat or burn natural gas or oil to produce heat.

The efficiency of heat pumps is astounding when compared to those other methods. Oil heat, for example, operates at about 70% to 80% efficiency. That means they waste as much as 30% of the energy you put into them. Natural gas does a bit better, with efficiency rates of up to 90%. While that sounds good, those efficiency rates have nothing on heat pump systems.

Air-source heat pumps are capable of efficiency rates as high as 300%! Since they’re not using energy to create heat, they use less energy overall. That’s only the beginning, though. Ground-source heat pumps, which extract heat from underground, can feature efficiency rates of 400% or higher. In other words, heat pumps are the efficiency champions, hands down.

Contact the Heat Pump Experts

Hopefully, we’ve done a good job of helping you understand more about how and why heat pumps use refrigerants. At [campany_name] we have been serving Olathe and the surrounding areas for 18 years. In addition to installing and maintaining heat pumps, we are air conditioner, indoor air quality, water boiler, geothermal, and furnace service experts.

You may have been thinking about installing a heat pump to save money on utility bills and reduce your carbon footprint. Give the experts here at Mike Bryant Heating & Cooling a call today, and we’ll be happy to help you explore the latest heat pump options for your heating and cooling needs.

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