You’ve probably heard the term “heat pump” thrown around a lot – and it’s no surprise. The devices are incredibly efficient, with only about 10 percent of energy going to waste as heat. That means when you use an air-to-water heat pump, you’re actually using less electricity than if you were running your heater on its own.
That efficiency can be particularly useful in places where weather patterns are inconsistent or where there isn’t enough natural sunlight for heating in the winter months. When you combine that with the fact that they’re quiet, they don’t require any maintenance, and you can install them almost anywhere, it makes sense to consider an air-to-water heat pump for your home.
A typical air-to-water heat pump consists of two parts: An indoor unit (or evaporator) sits inside your home and draws heat from the space by moving water through it. This moisture is then condensed into liquid form by a cooling coil, and this liquid is pumped back out into a tank located outside your home. In its most basic form, the system works like this: You run cold water through the coils, which causes it to condense and become steam. The hot steam is then pumped outside your house and reabsorbed by the outdoor coil, turning it back into cold water. It’s simple, effective, and very low tech.
When you use an air-to-water heat pump, it’s called an immersion chiller because you literally chill your water by running it through these coils. If you want to go full-steam ahead, you can get a hybrid unit that also includes a compressor, but that’s not necessary.
The beauty of an air-to-water heat pump is that it’s extremely efficient. According to Energy Star, the average cost per kilowatt hour to operate a standard forced-air furnace is about $0.085, while a standard window air conditioner costs about $0.11. Meanwhile, the energy costs associated with an air-to-water heat pump hover at just over half those figures.
There are a few downsides to an air-to-water heat pump, however. To start, it’s not always as easy to install as an air conditioner. While we’ve seen plenty of A/Cs installed in tight spaces like under stairs, they typically have to be built into their own box and mounted onto the wall. Air-to-water heat pumps, on the other hand, can take up more square footage, so they usually need some elbow room. They also tend to be heavier, since they can weigh several hundred pounds.
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On top of that, they often need to be placed in areas that receive good natural light. And if you do live in a place where temperatures are consistently below freezing (like in Alaska), you’ll have to make sure your tank has enough capacity to handle the higher amount of water needed to cool your house.
Still, even though they may take up a little more space, they’re much more efficient than traditional furnaces, meaning you’ll save significantly more money throughout the year. As such, it’s easier to justify the upfront investment.
How does an air-to-water heat pump work?
If you’ve ever seen a picture of one of these things, you’ll notice that it looks kind of like a giant fish tank. There’s a cooling coil sitting right at the bottom, and the tank itself holds water. Whenever you turn on the unit, the water begins to move through the coils and turn into steam. The hot steam is then pulled out of the tank and pushed through another set of coils, where it turns back into water and is released into your tank again.
This is all pretty straightforward stuff, but there are a couple of different ways that your heat pump functions. If you look closely, you might see some fins sticking out of the cooling coil. These are used to help keep the water flowing smoothly through the coils without creating too much agitation; this prevents bubbles from forming and allows the heat exchanger to function properly.
But how exactly does it work?
Most air-to-water heat pumps are based off of a vapor compression cycle. The vapor compression cycle involves compressing refrigerant gases like CO2 and R134a (which is commonly found in home HVAC systems). The compressed gas becomes superheated and is injected into a closed loop where it passes through a condenser. Here, the gas condenses into a liquid and is cooled down by the ambient temperature outside your home. Once this process is complete, the liquid is sent through a separate expansion valve, where it turns back into a gas once again. This gas is then passed through an evaporator coil, where it absorbs heat from the surrounding environment.
Once the water is heated, it flows through a return line back into your tank. When the water is moved through the evaporator coil, it absorbs heat from the air circulating in the house, then releases that heat when it goes through the condenser.