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How Does a Heat Pump Work?

How does a heat pump work?You may have heard of people using heat pumps in their homes as an energy efficient alternative (or supplement) to furnaces and air conditioners. Despite the name, a heat pump can both cool and heat a home and they are great for those with moderate heating and cooling needs. So how does a heat pump work?

Heat Pump: Your Home’s Refrigerator And Reverse Refrigerator

Just like an air conditioner takes heat from inside the home and pushes it outside in the summer, so does a heat pump. The difference is that a heat pump also has the ability to flip the process in the winter and act as a heating unit. How does that work?

Our local expert Keith Hill, manager of technical support for Minnesota Air says in the summer an AC and heat pump both work in a similar process as a freezer or refrigerator.

“A refrigerator takes heat from where it’s not wanted – such as your beer and other essential food staples – and rejects it to outside the appliance into your kitchen,” he says. “An air conditioner does a similar thing, extracting heat from the airstream flowing through your duct system and rejecting it to the great outdoors. A heat pump does exactly the same thing when it’s in cooling mode, but it has additional components that allow it to ‘reverse’ to heating mode.”

When it’s flipped into the heating mode, it extracts heat from the outdoors and rejects it into the air flowing in your duct system, which will heat your home. Keith says even when it’s cold outside, the refrigeration system can take heat from 30- or 40-degree outdoor air and bring that heat indoors.

“It works similar to a freezer that takes heat from that melting 32-degree ice cream that you just brought home from the store and cools it down to a balmy 10 degrees in just a few minutes,” he says. “It’s truly amazing how a refrigeration system can seemingly do the impossible – extract heat from 30-degree air!”   

A heat pump on its own can work wonders in moderate climates, but in cold climates – like Minnesota – it can be just as efficient when paired with a gas furnace in the winter. Carrier calls these systems Hybrid Heat systems – or Dual Fuel systems. The furnace will automatically kick on once your temperature drops below freezing, but for all the other days above 32 degrees, you’ll have the efficiency of your heat pump.

Keith notes that the temperature value for these systems can be variable. "Some contractors set up the gas furnace to come on at 20 degrees, some at 30, some at 40 degrees," he says. "The decision is based on knowledge of the fuel costs and the homeowner's expectations."

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “because they move heat rather than generate heat, heat pumps can provide equivalent space conditioning at as little as one-quarter of the cost of operating conventional heating or cooling appliances.”

Now that’s a great investment if you are looking to save money and make your home more energy efficient year ‘round. To find out if a heat pump is right for you, talk to an HVAC professional like the experts at

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