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Heat Pumps are trending in 2022


Heat pump domestic installation (source)

Heat pumps number are growing exponentially

Heat pumps became a trend this year. The IEA released two reports on Heat Pumps this second semester of 2022, while the New York Times last week published an article titled: Germans Have Seen the Future, and It’s a Heat Pump.


Before dwelling on the whys, let’s begin with what a heat pump is.

What is a heat pump?

Functionally, a Heat Pump works as an energetic lever that pushes heat from one side to another.

A Heat Pump does not generate heat. It captures existing heat and redirects it, which increases its energy efficiency.

Heat pumps loophole the law of conservation of energy

When we heat things, we usually convert one form of energy into another: thermal energy. For instance, a gas boiler converts chemical energy locked in natural gas (methane) by combustion with oxygen into heat.

When we do this, because of the law of energy conversion the best theoretically efficiency possible is 100%: A ratio of 1 to 1, at . For each unit kWh or BTU of natural gas, we get a kWh or BTU of heat.

In practice, we get less than 100% because there are always losses.

With Heat Pumps, we take advantage of a loophole in Physics. We are not generating heat: we are redirecting existing heat.

As such, we can get a single unit of energy to get several units of heat: the ratio stops being 1 to 1 to increase from 1 to 3, 1 to 4, 1 to 6, or more.

The why heat pumps are so popular becomes more apparent. Heat pumps allow for significant increases in energy efficiency.

How do heat pumps work in practice?

Understanding the general principle of Heat Pumps, you may wonder how it works in practice and what energy form uses to redirect heat. It’s easy to understand both: a Heat Pump uses electricity and the same technology as air conditioning, just in reverse.

An air conditioning cooling your house is a Heat Pump. It’s just working in the cooling cycle to take the heat off your home. But most air conditioning can also work on the reverse and warm buildings.

There are several heat sources for Heat Pumps, creating different types. The heat source is more commonly the air, named air source heat pumps. The ground or nearby bodies of water can also serve as heat sources (see figure 1)

Figure 1: Illustration of ground source and water source heat pumps (source)

Such Heat Pumps are less common, more complex, and expensive to install but can be more efficient.

The advantage of ground sourced Heat Pumps for space heating is that ground temperature (and water source temperature) varies less seasonally than the air temperature, which makes them more efficient.

Heat pumps can heat water too

But Heat Pumps use transcends cooling and warming air: they can heat water as well (see figure 2). They can take the heat outside to warm your water inside while reducing energy consumption to less than half because of the physics loophole.

Figure 2: Illustration of air-to-water Heat Pump domestic system (source)

Heat pumps can heat your swing pool

Heat pumps can also heat swimming pools. Specialized models cater to heating pools. However, if they are air-source heat pumps, during cold weather, they are less effective (since there is less heat in the air to take). For those who like to swim in an outdoor heated pool in winter, a ground-source Heat Pump would increase the efficiency.

Industry and agriculture

There are also Heat Pumps for industrial and agricultural use. They have larger capacities (60 kW to 18 MW) and can deliver temperatures higher than those required for domestic use (from 80ºC to above 100ºC), with a COP above 4. Prototypes already reach 180 °C, and research aims to reach up to 250ºC.

How to tell how good is a heat pump?

COP stands for Coefficient of Performance which is the technical way of saying how many units of heat you get with each unit of energy. The COP numbers come from standard testing procedures, which means actual use can display a worse performance.

Because of this, another useful metric is the Seasonal Performance Factor (SPF) or which shows the average efficiency in the heating season.

Do heat pumps work in cold climates?

Heat Pumps in colder locations will have lower COP since there is less heat to transfer. However, Heat Pump performance in cold weather still beats furnaces and water heaters.

Furthermore, the increasing performance of Heat Pumps optimized for cold weather operation expect to double the size of this market to $30 Billions by 2031.

Governments are paying for heat pumps

For governments, Heat Pump promotion delivers energy consumption resulting in lowering emissions. In Europe, the Ukrainian war and government funding for Heat Pumps drove an explosion in installations (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Heat Pump sales growth rate in 2020–2021 (IEA)

An growth just accelerated. In Poland, In the first three-quarters of 2022, air-to-water Heat Pumps installations further increased by 140%.

Governmental financial incentives for the adoption of heat pumps are already available in 30 countries that make up 70% of the world’s heating demand.

The growth in Heat Pump adoption fuels industry growth. Figure 4 shows the high growth expected of Heat Pumps installers in the following years, just in the UK.

Figure 4: Potential increase in Heat Pump installers (source)

In 2025, the German government will forbid the installation of heating systems that do not run on 65% or more renewable energy. The prohibition effectively bans fossil fuel boilers. Other European countries have similar policies.

The German government aims to boost its Heat Pump industry to ensure meeting a target of 500,000 new Heat Pump installations a year expected by 2024. In the US Senate, the HEATR Act was introduced to support Heat Pump production in the US.

The cheapest energy is the energy we do not use. Heat Pumps reduce energy consumption and will probably become the default means of heating both indoor spaces and hot water systems in the near future.

Growing adoption will reduce emissions besides energy consumption and will provide green well-paying jobs to ensure this transition.

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Miguel Pacheco

Architect with scholarly background. Writing on the intersection of Buildings, Energy & Environment with People. Top writer in Energy and Transportation.