Central Air Source Heat Pump Buying Guide

central air source heat pump
What is a central air source heat pump and how do they work? Knowing the basics will help you make the right choice for you and your home. In this guide, we aim to fill in any blanks you might have about this technology, and debunk some of the myths surrounding them. Let’s get started.

What Is a Central Air Source Heat Pump?

A central air source heat pump is an economical, efficient, and environmentally-friendly way to heat and cool your home all year round. Thanks to their efficiency, they use minimal electricity, making them one of the most cost-effective ways to provide warmth and cool air. The good news is if you rely only on oil or propane heating system, you could accumulate considerable savings when you integrate a central air source heat pump into your home HVAC system. Central air source heat pumps can provide cheaper heat than traditional systems in mild weather seasons, depending on the supply costs in your area. A central air source heat pump can save on cooling as well. A new, high-performance model could save you up to double that of a window-mounted unit or previous generation central air conditioner. And, in many areas, you may qualify for a rebate, incentives, or favorable loan terms to help pay for the installation.

How Does a Central Air Source Heat Pump Work?

Heat pumps harvest energy. There is heat in almost everything, even in the outside air in the dead of winter when the temperature is below zero. Heat pumps extract heat from the air, concentrate it through a compressor, and transfer it into your home as hot air. Air conditioners work in exactly the same way. Moving heat is a lot cheaper than creating it, which is why central air source heat pumps are so economical and environmentally-friendly. Heat pumps might look like a standard air conditioning unit, but whereas an AC unit only delivers cool air, a heat pump works both ways, providing heating and cooling. The other advantage over AC units is that advanced heat pumps have something called variable refrigerant flow (VRF). This clever technology allows the heat pump to vary the speed of the motors and fans to regulate your heating and cooling inside the home without the need to adjust the unit or constantly turn it off and on. They are also quieter than air conditioners and furnaces. A VRF central air source heat pump is a phenomenal investment that can pay dividends for years to come.

Advantages Of a Central Air Source Heat Pump

Still thinking of switching to a central air source heat pump? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Lower Heating Costs

If you switch from another energy source, like gas, coal, oil, or propane, a central air source heat pump could save you significantly on your energy costs. The price of fossil fuels is volatile with market prices fluctuating wildly. Managing your costs is sometimes beyond your control, but with a central air source heat pump, it becomes more manageable.

Lower Carbon Emissions

If you want to reduce your impact on the planet, switching to a central air source heat pump reduces your carbon footprint. Thanks to their high efficiency, they use minimal energy to transfer heat from the air outside. As we’ve already said, it’s cheaper to move heat than create it. And the bonus is you are not burning dirty fossil fuels like coal, gas, or propane to create heat in the winter or cool air in the summer.

Highly Efficient

There is zero wasted energy with a heat pump. Every time you switch it on, it uses a fraction of the electricity compared to other energy sources. Plus, with modern heat pumps, variable technology allows the device to choose the speed of the fans and motors to keep the temperature in your home at a comfortable level. This saves money and energy because it stops spikes in heating and cooling as you manually switch the system off and on to regulate the indoor temperature.

Disadvantages Of a Central Air Source Heat Pump

So, with all this good news about heat pumps, what are the downsides?

Extreme Cold Weather

Central air source heat pumps are much better at providing a lower heat temperature than traditional furnaces and heating systems. Furnaces are better at creating extreme heat for the coldest climates to keep you warm, so you might think a central air source heat pump won’t be right for you. Insulation is the answer. Before fitting a heat pump consider how to take full advantage of the heat it provides. By insulating your home, you effectively trap the heat and make it easier to reach optimum temperature. The downside is the cost. However, that still won't be enough for a traditional central air source heat pump and very low temperatures. In that case, the only option is a combustion furnace or one of the new VRF heat pumps. The latest technology can deal with low temperatures much better than traditional central air source units.

You Need an Outside Space

Exterior space is required if you want a system that provides heating and cooling for the entire house. If you live in an apartment block, you might need to look for a window-mounted heat pump or a ductless heat pump. They are as effective and efficient as the whole-house systems, but the disadvantage is you will only feel the benefit in the room where it is mounted. Plus, buying additional window-mounted units can be expensive if you want to channel heat and cool air to other rooms in your apartment. Multi-zone ductless units are available as well, so this does ameliorate the problem somewhat.

Can Anyone Have a Central Air Source Heat Pump?

If you have a yard and somewhere to locate the heat pump, there is no reason why you shouldn’t reap the rewards it provides; however, not everyone lives in a house. 2 in 10 Americans live in apartments or condos. That’s 17 percent of the population. If you are one of the 17 percent, you need to get creative if you want a central air source heat pump. Window and ductless units are the answer. They are as efficient, but usually only provide heating and cooling for one room. The obvious disadvantage with this is other rooms in the apartment don’t feel the benefit. A window-mounted air source heat pump may not be the perfect solution, but it gives apartment dwellers a chance for some energy-efficient heating and cooling.

Ducted or Ductless Central Air Source Heat Pumps

There are two main types of heat pump commonly used in the USA today. There are ducted and ductless, and between them, there are hundreds of models available to purchase. The good news is this gives you multiple options for the configuration that is right for your home. Heat pumps can be custom designed or mixed and matched to best fit your requirements.

Ducted Heat Pumps

Ducted heat pumps use either your existing ducting or, if you are retrofitting or designing a new home, your new ductwork. The outside unit connects with a compressor and replaces the existing furnace or furnace with AC capabilities. Ducted systems typically provide heat and cold air to the entire house, or several rooms, allowing all the occupants to get the full benefits. You can fit a variant of a ducted system called “compact-ducted,” which uses smaller air handlers and typically serves a couple of rooms.

Ductless Heat Pumps

These are referred to as “mini-split” heat pumps in the industry. These systems are easier to install in properties where there is no ductwork. Older houses benefit, especially if you want to avoid the expense of retrofitting ductwork. This is costly and messy. The downside to ductless systems is that a single air handler will only serve one room or area of the house. The advantage is they are cheaper and easier to fit. They typically mount high on a wall or in a ceiling.

Single-Zone or Multi-Zone Heat Pumps

Thanks to the enormous variety of heat pumps, there are also many options when configuring your system. Here are the main two in use.


A single-zone heat pump connects one outdoor unit with one indoor unit. The most common type is the ductless mini-split heat pump. It heats or cools one room or area of the house. These are cheaper to fit and an ideal solution if you have a smaller home or a manufactured house. If you have an older home and would run a mile at the prospect of a retrofit project, this is also a great way of getting a heat pump in your home.


A multi-zone heat pump consists of a single unit located outside, connected to several units inside. This accommodates several “zones,” as the name suggests. Multi-zone configurations include several ducted or ductless units or a mixture of both.

Central Air Source Heat Pump Installation and Maintenance Costs

Installing a new heat pump is an investment in the future heating and cooling costs of your home. It is a way of managing the efficiency of the power you use to reduce costs while not suffering any quality of life. These costs vary enormously based on factors like the area where you live, the climate, the energy supply, the type of home you have and whether it needs any remodeling or upgrades first, plus any rebates or schemes that are available. If you want a rough estimate of the costs for each room, you will need to spend between $3,000 and $6,000 for a ducted or ductless central air source heat pump. A ducted system can be more cost-effective when you factor in the overall costs per room, although it is the most expensive to install initially. If you add extra features like remote thermostats and surge protectors, this increases the costs further. If you have an older home that requires extensive remodeling to accommodate a ducted system, you could add extra thousands to that price. Ductless technology can certainly be an advantage in historic homes. However, the cost of adding a central air source heat pump extends beyond the dollar value. There are environmental savings, efficiency benefits, future-proofing advantages, and increased comfort to take into consideration. It may be that now is the right time to make that investment because your existing heating system is about to fail. The costs of maintaining a central air source heat pump should be similar to that of an air conditioning system, and if you change the filters yourself, it could decrease that figure even more. Heat pumps only need to be serviced and checked every 2 to 3 years, unlike gas and oil installations, where a checkup is recommended annually.

Safety in Central Air Source Heat Pumps

There is another huge advantage to switching to a central air source heat pump, namely safety. Furnaces that use combustible materials like gas and oil have inherent dangers associated with them. They produce carbon monoxide, which is a deadly gas that can kill. With a central air source heat pump, you and your family have no such risks. There is no risk of combustion-based fire or explosions with a heat pump, and because the heat pump has filters, you also breathe cleaner air, improving the quality of your indoor space.

Central Air Source Heat Pump Myths

There are myths and mistruths associated with most industries, so maybe it’s time to put a few to bed about the central air source heat pump.

Myth 1: Heat Pumps Don't Work Below Freezing

It may have been true of the heat pumps fitted decades ago, but modern heat pumps have a much better heating capacity in colder climates and should be left to run no matter what the conditions. VRF units can operate in temperatures well below zero!

Myth 2: Heat Pumps are Expensive To Operate

Older heat pumps have a low heat output, leaving you relying on electrical back-up heating, which could be costly. Most modern cold-climate heat pumps have a high heat output and don’t rely on auxiliary electrical heating to reach a comfortable temperature. Some newer units don’t have any additional back-up electrical heaters.

Myth 3: Heat Pumps Blow Cold Air

Most older heat pumps have two issues; the first was a large fan that ran at maximum, delivering cold air as the coils warmed. And the second was a low heat output, especially in cold weather. The two combined served to create a blast of cold air, cooling the space and invalidating the pump’s heating effects. Modern cold-climate heat pumps have variable speed fans and a high heat output, along with improved controls, which adds up to an efficient heating system, keeping you toasty and warm in the winter.

Shop For a Central Air Source Heat Pump in 5 Easy Steps

Step 1: Forward Planning

Plan before your current heating system fails; that way, you can make an informed choice based on logic and research rather than panic-buying a heating system that is inappropriate for your home because you have an emergency. If you’re reading this knowing that your heating system is approaching the end of its useful life, take note. Secondly, by planning, you can choose the right system, make upgrades that benefit you, and negotiate a better price because you’ve given yourself the luxury of time.

Step 2: Shop Around

The highest price doesn’t mean you will get the best outcome. Likewise, the lowest estimate is not always the best option. Avoid installers who tell you that all heat pumps are ineffectual in colder climates. While you might also need a furnace to handle your local winter conditions, a heat pump can still be beneficial. Ensure your installer has a good reputation and the necessary accreditation. Check that they can offer you a service package to keep the heat pump in working order. And what guarantees do they offer? The mark of a good contractor is how confident they are with their work and how much they are willing to back it up with a service warranty.

Step 3: Ask About Rebates and Incentives

Ask your local installer what rebates are available to you and if there are any incentives or loan schemes. They will have local and national knowledge and can advise you accordingly. You can also search online or contact your local utility provider directly.

Step 4: Insist on Heat Load Calculations

Load calculations remove any doubt that the system you are installing can heat the required space. Don’t accept quotes based on the installer’s experience and the best guess. The last thing you want is a chilly house, because the central air source heat pump isn’t up to the task. The load calculation means that a professional has measured your space. They factored in basements and attics into their calculations, along with window types and the direction they face. This calculation is often referred to as the “Manual J.” It’s worth remembering that bigger is not always better when it comes to heat pumps. Bigger is usually worse. An oversized central air source heat pump creates performance problems and could lead to a loss in efficiency and heat.

Save Money on a Central Air Source Heat Pump

When it comes to spending your hard-earned dollars, you can’t be too cautious about doing your research. Hopefully, in some small way, we have helped make purchasing a new central air source heat pump a little clearer. You should now have a route to follow that leads to a satisfactory result. As always, if you have questions, you can always reach out to us or leave a comment.

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