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What Is a Heat Pump and How Does it Work?

Heat pumps are becoming increasingly popular as a cost-effective and energy-efficient way to heat and cool homes and buildings in Canada. By understanding the basics of how a heat pump works, you can make informed decisions about whether this type of HVAC system is right for your home, how to use it efficiently, and how to maintain and care for it.

What is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is a heating and cooling system that transfers heat from one location, known as the source, to another location, known as the sink. The process is achieved by using a refrigerant that absorbs heat when it evaporates and releases it when it condenses.

Main Components

The main components of a heat pump are:

Evaporator: The evaporator is responsible for absorbing heat from the source medium, such as air or water. It is typically a coil of tubing that contains refrigerant.

Compressor: The compressor is responsible for compressing the refrigerant and increasing its temperature, which allows it to release the absorbed heat at a higher temperature.

Condenser: The condenser is responsible for transferring the heat to the sink medium, such as air or water. It is typically a coil of tubing that allows the refrigerant to release heat as it condenses back into a liquid state.

Expansion valve: The expansion valve is responsible for controlling the flow of refrigerant between the evaporator and the compressor, allowing for the appropriate pressure and temperature changes.

Refrigerant: The refrigerant is a fluid that is used to absorb, transfer, and release heat throughout the heat pump cycle. It undergoes a phase change from a liquid to a gas and back again, which allows it to absorb and release heat.

Control board: The control board manages and controls the operation of the heat pump, ensuring that all components work together effectively and efficiently.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

Heat Pumps t heating and cooling by absorbing heat and transfer it from one place to another using the refrigeration cycle. The refrigeration cycle is the process that allows heat pumps to transfer heat from one location to another. The refrigeration cycle consists of four main stages:

Evaporation: The refrigerant, which is a fluid with a low boiling point, is evaporated at low pressure and low temperature in the evaporator. This causes the refrigerant to absorb heat from the source, which could be the outdoor air or the ground, depending on the type of heat pump.

Compression: The refrigerant is then compressed by the compressor, which raises the temperature and pressure of the refrigerant. This high-temperature, high-pressure refrigerant then flows to the condenser.

Condensation: In the condenser, the refrigerant releases the heat that it absorbed earlier in the cycle. This heat is transferred to the sink, which could be the indoor air or water, depending on the type of heat pump. The refrigerant condenses back into a liquid as it gives off heat.

Expansion: The liquid refrigerant is then passed through an expansion valve, which reduces the pressure and temperature of the refrigerant. This allows the refrigerant to evaporate once again in the evaporator and repeat the cycle.

In a heat pump, the refrigeration cycle is reversed in order to transfer heat from the source to the sink. Instead of absorbing heat from the source and releasing it to the sink, the heat pump absorbs heat from the source and releases it to the sink. This process can be used for heating or cooling, depending on the direction of the refrigeration cycle.

Air-Source Heat Pump Heating Mode
Air-Source Heat Pump Heating Mode
Air-Source Heat Pump Cooling Mode
Air-Source Heat Pump Cooling Mode

Types of Heat Pumps

Heat pumps can be classified into different types based on their source and sink. The two common types of systems using in Canada are:

Air-source heat pump (ASHP):

An air-source heat pump (also known as standard heat pump) extracts heat from the outside air and transfers it into a building to provide heat in the winter. In the summer, it can also be reversed to remove heat from the indoor air and transfer it outside to provide cooling.

Cold Climate Air-source heat pump (ccASHP):

A cold climate air-source heat pump (ccASHP) is a type of air-source heat pump that is specifically designed to operate efficiently in colder climates. Standard air-source heat pumps become less efficient as the outdoor temperature drops, which can result in higher energy costs and decreased performance.

CcASHPs are designed with several features that allow them to perform well in colder temperatures, typically down to -25°C or lower. These features can include a larger compressor and heat exchanger, as well as advanced refrigerant technology that can operate effectively in low temperatures.

CcASHPs can provide efficient heating in areas with cold winters, while also offering the benefits of air-source heat pumps, such as improved energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, they can be more expensive than standard air-source heat pumps due to their specialized design and technology.

Ground-source heat pump (GSHP):

Ground source heat pumps are the most efficient heating and cooling systems available. A ground-source heat pump (also known and geothermal heat pumps) extracts heat from the ground via a network of underground pipes filled with a mixture of water and antifreeze. The heat is transferred into the building via the refrigerant to provide heating, and in the summer, the process is reversed to provide cooling.

Water-source heat pump (WSHP):

Like those heat pumps used in condominiums, a  water-source heat pump extracts heat from a nearby water source, and transfers it into a building for heating, such as those used in condominuim. In the summer, it can also be used to remove heat from the indoor air and transfer it to the water source for cooling.

Centrally Ducted vs Ductless

Centrally ducted air-source heat pumps and ductless air-source heat pumps are two types of air-source heat pumps that are commonly used for heating and cooling homes and buildings in Canada

Centrally ducted air-source heat pumps

As the name suggests, these types of systems use a central air handler that is connected to a network of ducts to distribute heated or cooled air throughout a building. The air handler is typically located in a basement, attic, or closet and works in conjunction with a compressor unit located outside the building. The air is distributed to different rooms through a network of ducts, and the temperature can be controlled using a thermostat.

Centrally ducted systems are ideal for larger buildings or homes with a pre-existing duct system. They provide consistent and even heating and cooling throughout the building, and can be easily integrated into an existing HVAC system. However, they may be less efficient than ductless systems, as they can lose heat through leaky ducts.

Ductless air-source heat pumps

Mini-split or multi-split ductless systrems do not use ductwork to distribute air. Instead, they use an indoor unit that is connected to an outdoor compressor unit through a small conduit. The indoor unit is responsible for both heating and cooling the room in which it is installed. Multiple units can be installed throughout a building, each controlled by its own controller, providing zoned heating and cooling.

Ductless air-source heat pumps are ideal for smaller buildings or homes that do not have pre-existing ductwork. They are highly efficient, as they do not lose heat through ducts, and provide zoned heating and cooling, allowing for individual temperature control in each room. However, they may be more expensive to install, as multiple units may be required to adequately heat and cool the entire building.

Ultimately, the choice between a centrally ducted air-source heat pump and a ductless system depends on the specific needs of the building and its occupants. A qualified HVAC technician can help determine which system is best suited for a particular situation.

Heat Pump Efficiency

Efficiency is an important factor to consider when choosing a n HVAC system. A more efficient system will use less energy to produce the same amount of heat, which can result in lower energy bills and reduced environmental impact. Heat pump efficiency is typically measured using two metrics: the Coefficient of Performance (COP) and the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) or Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF).

The COP is defined as the ratio of heat output to energy input. A higher COP indicates a more efficient heat pump. The COP is calculated by dividing the heat output of the heat pump by the energy input required to produce that heat output. The higher the COP, the more efficient the heat pump.

The SEER is a measure of an air-source heat pump’s cooling efficiency over a full cooling season. It is calculated by dividing the total cooling output of the heat pump by the total energy input over the cooling season. The higher the SEER, the more efficient the heat pump.

The HSPF is a measure of an air-source heat pump’s heating efficiency over a full heating season, including the effects of defrost cycles and part-load efficiency. The HSPF takes into account the SEER and the COP to provide an overall measure of the heat pump’s heating efficiency. The higher the HSPF, the more efficient the heat pump.

In addition to these metrics, it is also important to consider the size and design of the heat pump, as well as the installation and maintenance of the system. A heat pump that is properly sized and installed, and that is regularly maintained, can operate more efficiently and provide better performance than a poorly designed or maintained system.

To ensure the highest level of efficiency, homeowners should choose a unit that is appropriately sized for their home and climate, and that is installed and maintained by qualified professionals. Regular maintenance, including cleaning and inspection of the system, can also help to maintain optimal efficiency over time.

What is a Hybrid System?

A heat pump hybrid system, also known as a dual-fuel system or hybrid heating system, combines a heat pump with a traditional furnace or boiler. The purpose of this system is to provide the most efficient and cost-effective heating solution for a home based on the current outdoor temperature and energy prices.

When the outdoor temperature is mild, the heat pump is able to efficiently provide heating to the home by absorbing heat from the outdoor air or ground. As the outdoor temperature drops below freezing, the heat pump may become less efficient and the traditional furnace or boiler kicks in to provide supplemental heat to the home.

The hybrid system is designed to automatically switch between the heat pump and the furnace or boiler based on the outdoor temperature, ensuring that the most efficient and cost-effective heating solution is being used at all times. In addition, some hybrid systems are designed to take advantage of off-peak energy prices, using the electric heat pump during low-cost hours and the gas furnace or boiler during high-cost hours.

Overall, a heat pump hybrid system offers the benefits of both a heat pump and a traditional furnace or boiler, maximizing energy efficiency and cost savings for the homeowner.

Benefits of Heat Pumps

There are several benefits of using heat pumps in Canada, including:

Energy efficiency: Heat pumps are highly energy efficient and can provide significant savings on heating and cooling costs compared to traditional HVAC systems.

Year-round comfort: Heat pumps are 2-in-1 HVAC systems. They can provide both heating and cooling, making them a versatile solution for year-round comfort in Canadian homes.

Reduced carbon footprint: Heat pumps are a more environmentally friendly option than traditional heating and cooling systems, as they use electricity rather than fossil fuels.

Durability: Heat pumps are built to last, with a typical lifespan of 15-20 years, and require minimal maintenance over their lifetime.

Increased home value: Installing a heat pump can increase the value of a home, as it is a desirable feature for potential homebuyers.

Quieter operation: Heat pumps operate more quietly than traditional HVAC systems, making them a good choice for homes in quiet neighborhoods or for those who value a peaceful living environment.

Zoning capabilities: Some heat pumps offer the ability to zone different areas of a home, allowing for greater control over heating and cooling in different rooms or areas.

Energy Efficiency Rebates: Government offering rebates and incentives to encourage homeowners to switch from traditional heating and cooling systems to more efficient heat pumps. By upgrading your HVAC system to a heat pump system, you may be eligible to use these rebates and to get some of your investment back.


In conclusion, heat pumps are an increasingly popular and efficient alternative to traditional heating and cooling systems. They work by transferring heat from a source, such as outdoor air or the ground, to provide warmth in the winter, and reversing the process to provide cooling in the summer. Understanding how they work and the different types available can help homeowners make informed decisions when it comes to their home’s heating and cooling needs.

With their energy efficiency, year-round comfort, and environmental benefits, heat pumps are a great choice for Canadian homes. Whether you are looking to upgrade your current HVAC system or considering new construction, a heat pump could be the perfect solution for your heating and cooling needs.

With over two decades of experience in providing heat pump installation and repair services in Toronto and GTA, we’re here to help you find the best heat pump system for your house base on your budget and needs, call us today or request online.

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