How They Work & Performance Issues with Heat Pumps

Air Source Heat Pumps Heating Cycle vector illustration

A heat pump’s refrigeration system consists of a compressor and two copper or aluminum coils (one indoors and one outside), which have aluminum fins to aid heat transfer. In heating mode, liquid refrigerant in the outside coil removes heat from the air and evaporates into a gas. The indoor coil releases heat from the refrigerant as it condenses back into a liquid. A reversing valve, near the compressor, can change the direction of the refrigerant flow for cooling mode as well as for defrosting the outdoor coil in winter.

The efficiency and performance of today’s air-source heat pumps is a result of technical advances such as the following:

Thermostatic expansion valves for more precise control of the refrigerant flow to the indoor coil

Variable speed blowers, which are more efficient and can compensate for some of the adverse effects of restricted ducts, dirty filters, and dirty coils

Improved coil design

Improved electric motor and two-speed compressor designs

Copper tubing, grooved inside to increase surface area.

Heat pumps can have problems with low airflow, leaky ducts, and incorrect refrigerant charge. There should be about 400 to 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 minimizing energy losses in ducts and insulating ducts.

Refrigeration systems should be leak-checked at installation and during each service call. Packaged heat pumps are charged with refrigerant at the factory, and 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.

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Post time: Jul-09-2022