Air source heat pump

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Air source heat pump
Heat pump on balcony of apartment

An air source heat pump (ASHP) is a heat pump that can absorb heat from air outside a building and release it inside; it uses the same vapor-compression refrigeration process and much the same equipment as an air conditioner, but in the opposite direction. ASHPs are the most common type of heat pump and, usually being smaller, tend to be used to heat individual houses or flats rather than blocks, districts or industrial processes.

Air-to-water heat pumps use radiators or underfloor heating to heat a whole house and are often also used to provide domestic hot water. Air-to-air heat pumps provide hot or cold air directly to rooms, but do not usually provide hot water.

An ASHP can typically gain 4 kWh thermal energy from 1 kWh electric energy. They are optimized for flow temperatures between 30 and 40°C (86–104°F), suitable for well insulated buildings. With losses in efficiency, an ASHP can even provide full central heating with a flow temperature up to 80 °C (176 °F).[1]

As of 2023 about 10% of home heating worldwide is from ASHPs. They are the main way to phase-out gas boilers from houses, to avoid their greenhouse gas emissions.[2]


Air at any temperature above absolute zero contains some heat. An air source heat pump transfers some of this from one place to another, for example between the outside and inside of a building.

An air-to-water system can provide space heating and hot water.[3]

An air-to air system can be designed to transfer heat in either direction, to heat or cool the interior of the building in winter and summer respectively. Internal ducting may be used to distribute the air.[4] For simplicity, the description below focuses on use for interior heating.

The technology is similar to a refrigerator or freezer or air conditioning unit: the different effect is due to the location of the different system components. Just as the pipes on the back of a refrigerator become warm as the interior cools, so an ASHP warms the inside of a building whilst cooling the outside air.

The main components of a split-system (called split as there are both inside and outside coils) air source heat pump are:

  • An outdoor evaporator heat exchanger coil, which extracts heat from ambient air
  • One or more[5] indoor condenser heat exchanger coils, which transfer the heat into the indoor air, or an indoor heating system such as water-filled radiators or underfloor circuits and a domestic hot water tank.[clarification needed]

Less commonly a packaged ASHP has everything outside, with hot (or cold) air sent inside through a duct.[6]

Air source heat pumps can provide fairly low cost space heating. A high efficiency heat pump can provide up to four times as much heat as an electric resistance heater using the same amount of electricity.[7] The lifetime cost of an air source heat pump will be affected by the price of electricity compared to gas (where available). Burning gas or oil will emit carbon dioxide and also NOx, which can be harmful to health.[8] An air source heat pump issues no carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide or any other kind of gas. It uses a small amount of electricity to transfer a large amount of heat.

Unlike an air conditioning unit, most ASHPs are reversible and are able to either warm or cool buildings[citation needed] and in some cases also provide domestic hot water.


Air source heat pumps are used to provide interior space heating and cooling even in colder climates, and can be used efficiently for water heating in milder climates. A major advantage of some ASHPs is that the same system may be used for heating in winter and cooling in summer. Though the cost of installation is generally high, it is less than the cost of a ground source heat pump, because a ground source heat pump requires excavation to install its ground loop. The advantage of a ground source heat pump is that it has access to the thermal storage capacity of the ground which allows it to produce more heat for less electricity in cold conditions.

Home batteries can mitigate the risk of power cuts and like ASHPs are becoming more popular.[9] Some ASHPs can be coupled to solar panels as primary energy source, with a conventional electric grid as backup source.

Thermal storage solutions incorporating resistance heating can be used in conjunction with ASHPs. Storage may be more cost-effective if time of use electricity rates are available. Heat is stored in high density ceramic bricks contained within a thermally-insulated enclosure;[10] storage heaters are an example. ASHPs may also be paired with passive solar heating. Thermal mass (such as concrete or rocks) heated by passive solar heat can help stabilize indoor temperatures, absorbing heat during the day and releasing heat at night, when outdoor temperatures are colder and heat pump efficiency is lower.

Replacing gas heating in existing houses[edit]

As of 2023 ASHPs are bigger than gas boilers and need more space outside, so the process is more complex and can be more expensive than if it was possible to just remove a gas boiler and install an ASHP in its place.[2][11] If running costs are important choosing the right size is important because an ASHP which is too large will be more expensive to run.[12]

It is difficult to retrofit conventional heating systems that use radiators/radiant panels, hot water baseboard heaters, or even smaller diameter ducting, with ASHP-sourced heat. The lower heat pump output temperatures would mean radiators would have to be increased in size or a low temperature underfloor heating system be installed instead.

Alternatively, a high temperature heat pump can be installed and existing heat emitters can be retained, however as of 2023 these heat pumps are more expensive to buy and run so may only be suitable for buildings which are hard to alter or insulate, such as some large historic houses.[13]

In cold climates[edit]

The outdoor unit of an air source heat pump operating in freezing conditions

Operation of normal ASHPs is generally not recommended below −10°C.[14] However ASHPs designed specifically for very cold climates (in the US these are certified under Energy Star[15]) can extract useful heat from ambient air as cold as −30 °C (−22 °F), however below −25°C electric resistance heating may be more efficient.[14] This is made possible by the use of variable-speed compressors, powered by inverters.[15] Although air source heat pumps are less efficient than well-installed ground source heat pumps in cold conditions, air source heat pumps have lower initial costs and may be the most economic or practical choice.[16]

  • Conventional air source heat pumps lose their capacity as the external temperatures fall below −10 °C (14 °F). CC-ASHPs (see above) may operate efficiently in temperatures as low as −30 °C (−22 °F), although they may not be as efficient in cooling during the summer season as conventional air source heat pumps. If a conventional air source heat pump is used in colder climates, the system needs an auxiliary source of heat to supplement the heat pump in the event of extremely cold temperatures or when it is simply too cold for the heat pump to work at all.
  • An auxiliary heat/emergency heat system, for example a traditional furnace, is also important if the heat pump is malfunctioning or being repaired. In colder climates, split-system heat pumps matched with gas, oil or pellet fuel furnaces will work even in extremely cold temperatures.

At outdoor temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F) a heat pump is less efficient,[17] but still more efficient than fossil fuel heating.[18]

In some weather conditions condensation will form and then freeze onto the coils of the heat exchanger of the outdoor unit, reducing air flow through the coils. To clear this the unit operates a defrost cycle, switching to cooling mode for a few minutes, heating the coils until the ice melts. Air-to-water heat pumps use heat from the circulating water for this purpose, which results in a small and probably undetectable drop in water temperature;[19] for air-to-air systems heat is either taken from the air in the building or using an electrical heater.[20] Some air-to-air systems simply stop the operation of the fans of both units and switch to cooling mode, so that the outdoor unit returns to being the condenser such that it heats up and defrosts.


An air source heat pump requires an outdoor unit containing moving mechanical components including fans which produce noise. Modern devices offer schedules for silent mode operation with reduced fan speed. This will reduce the maximum heating power but can be applied at mild outdoor temperatures without efficiency loss. Acoustic enclosures are another approach to reduce the noise in a sensitive neighbourhood. In insulated buildings, operation can be paused at night without significant temperature loss. Only at low temperatures, frost protection forces operation after a few hours.

In the United States, the allowed nighttime noise level is 45 A-weighted decibels (dBA),[21] and in the UK 42 measured from the nearest neighbour.[22] In Germany the limit in residential areas is 35, which is usually measured by European Standard EN 12102.[23]

Another feature of air source heat pumps (ASHPs) external heat exchangers is their need to stop the fan from time to time for a period of several minutes in order to get rid of frost that accumulates in the outdoor unit in the heating mode. After that, the heat pump starts to work again. This part of the work cycle results in two sudden changes of the noise made by the fan. The acoustic effect of such disruption is especially powerful in quiet environments where background nighttime noise may be as low as 0 to 10dBA. This is included in legislation in France. According to the French concept of noise nuisance, "noise emergence" is the difference between ambient noise including the disturbing noise, and ambient noise without the disturbing noise.[24][25]

By contrast a ground source heat pump has no need for an outdoor unit with moving mechanical components.


An internal view of the outdoor unit of an air source heat pump
A: indoor compartment, B: outdoor compartment, I: insulation, 1: condenser, 2: expansion valve, 3: evaporator, 4: compressor

Heating and cooling is accomplished by pumping a refrigerant through the heat pump's indoor and outdoor coils. Like in a refrigerator, a compressor, condenser, expansion valve and evaporator are used to change states of the refrigerant between colder liquid and hotter gas states.

When the liquid refrigerant at a low temperature and low pressure passes through the outdoor heat exchanger coils, ambient heat causes the liquid to boil (change to gas or vapor). Heat energy from the outside air has been absorbed and stored in the refrigerant as latent heat. The gas is then compressed using an electric pump; the compression increases the temperature of the gas.

Inside the building, the gas passes through a pressure valve into heat exchanger coils. There, the hot refrigerant gas condenses back to a liquid and transfers the stored latent heat to the indoor air, water heating or hot water system. The indoor air or heating water is pumped across the heat exchanger by an electric pump or fan.

The cool liquid refrigerant then re-enters the outdoor heat exchanger coils to begin a new cycle. Each cycle usually takes a few minutes.[26]

Most heat pumps can also operate in a cooling mode where the cold refrigerant is moved through the indoor coils to cool the room air.

Efficiency ratings[edit]

The efficiency of air source heat pumps is measured by the coefficient of performance (COP). A COP of 4 means the heat pump produces 4 units of heat energy for every 1 unit of electricity it consumes. Within temperature ranges of −3 °C (27 °F) to 10 °C (50 °F), the COP for many machines is fairly stable.

In mild weather with an outside temperature of 10 °C (50 °F), the COP of efficient air source heat pumps ranges from 4 to 6.[27] However, on a cold winter day, it takes more work to move the same amount of heat indoors than on a mild day.[28] The heat pump's performance is limited by the Carnot cycle and will approach 1.0 as the outdoor-to-indoor temperature difference increases, which for most air source heat pumps happens as outdoor temperatures approach −18 °C (0 °F). Heat pump construction that enables carbon dioxide as a refrigerant may have a COP of greater than 2 even down to −20 °C, pushing the break-even figure downward to −30 °C (−22 °F). A ground source heat pump has comparatively less of a change in COP as outdoor temperatures change, because the ground from which they extract heat has a more constant temperature than outdoor air.

The design of a heat pump has a considerable impact on its efficiency. Many air source heat pumps are designed primarily as air conditioning units, mainly for use in summer temperatures. Designing a heat pump specifically for the purpose of heat exchange can attain greater COP and an extended life cycle. The principal changes are in the scale and type of compressor and evaporator.

Seasonally adjusted heating and cooling efficiencies are given by the heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) and seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) respectively. In the US the legal minimum efficiency is 14 or 15 SEER and 8.8 HSPF.[15]

Refrigerant types[edit]

Pure refrigerants can be divided into organic substances (hydrocarbons (HCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and HCFOs), and inorganic substances (ammonia (NH
), carbon dioxide (CO
), and water (H
)[29]).[30] Their boiling points are usually below -25 °C.[31]

In the past 200 years, the standards and requirements for new refrigerants have changed. Nowadays low global warming potential (GWP) is required, in addition to all the previous requirements for safety, practicality, material compatibility, appropriate atmospheric life[clarification needed], and compatibility with high-efficiency products. By 2022, devices using refrigerants with a very low global warming potential (GWP) still have a small market share but are expected to play an increasing role due to enforced regulations,[32] as most countries have now ratified the Kigali Amendment to ban HFCs.[33] Isobutane (R600A) and propane (R290) are far less harmful to the environment than conventional hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) and are already being used in air-source heat pumps.[34] Ammonia (R717) and carbon dioxide (R744) also have a low GWP. As of 2023 smaller CO
heat pumps are not widely available and research and development of them continues.[35]

Until the 1990s, heat pumps, along with fridges and other related products used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as refrigerants, which caused major damage to the ozone layer when released into the atmosphere. Use of these chemicals was banned or severely restricted by the Montreal Protocol of August 1987.[36]

Replacements, including R-134a and R-410A, are hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) with similar thermodynamic properties with insignificant ozone depletion potential but had problematic global warming potential.[37] HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.[38][39] Dimethyl ether (DME) also gained in popularity as a refrigerant in combination with R404a.[40] More recent refrigerants include difluoromethane (R32) with a lower GWP, but still over 600.

refrigerant 20 year global warming potential (GWP) 100 year GWP
R-290 propane[41] 0.072 0.02
R-600a isobutane 3[42]
R-32[41] 491 136
R-410a[43] 4705 2285
R-134a[43] 4060 1470
R-404a[43] 7258 4808

Devices with R-290 refrigerant (propane) are expected to play a key role in the future.[44][45] The global warming potential (GWP) of propane is about 500 times less than conventional HFC refrigerants and thus extremely low. The flammability of propane requires additional security measures. This issue can be targeted with a reduced charge.[46] By 2022, an increasing number of devices with R-290 are offered for domestic use, especially in Europe.

At the same time, HFC refrigerants still dominate the market. Recent government mandates have seen the phase-out of R-22 refrigerant. Replacements such as R-32 and R-410A are being promoted as environmentally friendly but still have a high GWP.[47] A heat pump typically uses 3 kg refrigerant. With R-32 this amount still has a 20 year impact equivalent to 7 tons of CO2, which corresponds to 2 years of natural gas heating in an average household.

Refrigerants with a high ozone depletion potential (ODP) have already been phased out.

Impact on decarbonization and electricity supply[edit]

Heat pumps are key to decarbonizing home energy use by phasing out gas boilers.[11][26]

While heat pumps with backup systems other than electrical resistance heating are often encouraged by electric utilities, air source heat pumps are a concern for winter-peaking utilities if electrical resistance heating is used as the supplemental or replacement heat source when the temperature drops below the point that the heat pump can meet all of the home's heat requirement. Even if there is a non-electric backup system, the fact that efficiencies of ASHPs decrease with outside temperatures is a concern to electric utilities. The drop in efficiency means their electrical load increases steeply as temperatures drop.

A study in Canada's Yukon Territory, where diesel generators are used for peaking capacity, noted that widespread adoption of air source heat pumps could lead to increased diesel consumption if the increased electrical demand due to ASHP use exceeds available hydroelectric capacity.[48] Notwithstanding those concerns, the study did conclude that ASHPs are a cost-effective heating alternative for Yukon residents. As wind farms are increasingly used to supply electricity to the grid, the increased winter load matches well with the increased winter generation from wind turbines, and calmer days result in decreased heating load for most houses even if the air temperature is low.

Heat pumps could help stabilize grids through demand response.[49] As heat pump penetration increases some countries, such as the UK, may need to encourage households to use thermal energy storage, such as very well insulated water tanks.[50] In some countries, such as Australia, integration of this thermal storage with rooftop solar would also help.[51]


In Norway,[52] Australia and New Zealand most heating is from heat pumps. In 2022 heat pumps outsold fossil fuel based heating in the US and France.[53] ASHPs can be helped to compete by increasing the price of fossil gas compared to that of electricity and using suitable flexible electricity pricing.[11] In the US air-to-air is the most common type.[54] As of 2023 over 80% of heat pumps are air source.[26] The IEA recommends governments subsidize the purchase price of residential heat pumps, and some countries do so.[53]

Maintenance and reliability[edit]

It is thought that ASHP need less maintenance than fossil fuelled heating, and some say that ASHPs are easier to maintain than ground source heat pumps due to the difficulty of finding and fixing underground leaks. Installing too small an ASHP could shorten its lifetime (but one which is too large will be less efficient).[55] However others say that boilers require less maintenance than ASHPs.[56] A Consumer Reports survey found that "on average, around half of heat pumps are likely to experience problems by the end of the eighth year of ownership".[57]


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IPCC reports[edit]