Heat pumps can be thought of as a heat engine which is operating in reverse. One common type of heat pump works by exploiting the physical properties of an evaporating and condensing fluid known as a refrigerant. In heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) applications, a heat pump normally refers to a vapor-compression refrigeration device that includes a reversing valve and optimized heat exchangers so that the direction of heat flow may be reversed. Most commonly, heat pumps draw heat from the air or from the ground. Air-source heat pumps with a coefficient of performance (COP) 3 are developed in Japan at −20 °C.
Since the heat pump uses a certain amount of work to move the heat, the amount of energy deposited at the hot side is greater than the energy taken from the cold side by an amount equal to the work required. Conversely, for a heat engine, the amount of energy taken from the hot side is greater than the amount of energy deposited in the cold heat sink since some of the heat has been converted to work.
One common type of heat pump works by exploiting the physical properties of an evaporating and condensing fluid known as a refrigerant. The working fluid, in its gaseous state, is pressurized and circulated through the system by a compressor. On the discharge side of the compressor, the now hot and highly pressurized gas is cooled in a heat exchanger, called a condenser, until it condenses into a high pressure, moderate temperature liquid. The condensed refrigerant then passes through a pressure-lowering device like an expansion valve, capillary tube, or possibly a work-extracting device such as a turbine. This device then passes the low pressure, (almost) liquid refrigerant to another heat exchanger, the evaporator where the refrigerant evaporates into a gas via heat absorption. The refrigerant then returns to the compressor and the cycle is repeated.
In such a system it is essential that the refrigerant reaches a sufficiently high temperature when compressed, since the second law of thermodynamics prevents heat from flowing from a cold fluid to a hot heat sink. Similarly, the fluid must reach a sufficiently low temperature when allowed to expand, or heat cannot flow from the cold region into the fluid. In particular, the pressure difference must be great enough for the fluid to condense at the hot side and still evaporate in the lower pressure region at the cold side. The greater the temperature difference, the greater the required pressure difference, and consequently more energy is needed to compress the fluid. Thus as with all heat pumps, the energy efficiency (amount of heat moved per unit of input work required) decreases with increasing temperature difference.
Due to the variations required in temperatures and pressures, many different refrigerants are available. Refrigerators, air conditioners, and some heating systems are common applications that use this technology.
In HVAC applications, a heat pump normally refers to a vapor-compression refrigeration device that includes a reversing valve and optimized heat exchangers so that the direction of heat flow may be reversed. The reversing valve switches the direction of refrigerant through the cycle and therefore the heat pump may deliver either heating or cooling to a building. In the cooler climates the default setting of the reversing valve is heating. The default setting in warmer climates is cooling. Because the two heat exchangers, the condenser and evaporator, must swap functions, they are optimized to perform adequately in both modes. As such, the efficiency of a reversible heat pump is typically slightly less than two separately-optimized machines.
In somewhat rare applications, both the heat extraction and addition capabilities of a single heat pump can be useful, and typically results in very effective use of the input energy. For example, when an air cooling need can be matched to a water heating load, a single heat pump can serve two useful purposes. Unfortunately, these situations are rare because the demand profiles for heating and cooling are often significantly different.
Since 2001, carbon dioxide, R-744, has increasingly been used, utilizing the transcritical cycle. In residential and commercial applications, the hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) R-22 is still widely used, however, HFC R-410a does not deplete the ozone layer, but it is a powerful global warming gas and is nevertheless increasingly being used. Hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, or plain air is used in the Stirling cycle, providing the maximum number of options in environmentally friendly gases. More newer refrigerators are now exploiting the R600A which is isobutane, and does not deplete the ozone and is friendly to the environment.
When used for heating a building on a mild day, a typical air-source heat pump has a COP of 3 - 4, whereas a typical electric resistance heater has a COP of 1.0. That is, one joule of electrical energy will cause a resistance heater to produce one joule of useful heat, while under ideal conditions, one joule of electrical energy can cause a heat pump to move much more than one joule of heat from a cooler place to a warmer place. Sometimes this is inappropriately expressed as an efficiency value greater than 100%, as in the statement, "XYZ brand heat pumps operate at up to 400% efficiency!" This is inaccurate, since the work does not make heat, but instead moves existing heat "upstream"; otherwise, this would be a perpetual-motion machine. The effective heating per watt of electric energy used can be up to 450% as much as resistance heating however, making this more an issue of semantics than science.
Note that when there is a wide temperature differential, e.g., when an air-source heat pump is used to heat a house on a very cold winter day, it takes more work to move the same amount of heat indoors than on a mild day. Ultimately, due to Carnot efficiency limits, the heat pump's performance will approach 1.0 as the outdoor-to-indoor temperature difference increases. This typically occurs around −18 °C (0 °F) outdoor temperature for air source heat pumps. Also, as the heat pump takes heat out of the air, some moisture in the outdoor air may condense and possibly freeze on the outdoor heat exchanger. The system must periodically melt this ice. In other words, when it is extremely cold outside, it is simpler, and wears the machine less, to heat using an electric-resistance heater than to strain an air-source heat pump. (Geothermal heat pumps are dependent upon the temperature underground, which is "mild" all year round. Their COP is therefore always in the range of 3.5-4.0).
In cooling mode a heat pump's operating performance is described as its energy efficiency ratio (EER) or seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), and both measures have units of BTU/(h·W). A larger EER number indicates better performance. The manufacturer's literature should provide both a COP to describe performance in heating mode and an EER or SEER to describe performance in cooling mode. Actual performance varies, however, and depends on many factors such as installation, temperature differences, site elevation, and maintenance.
Heat pumps are more effective for heating than for cooling if the temperature difference is held equal. This is because the compressor's input energy is largely converted to useful heat when in heating mode, and is discharged along with the moved heat via the condenser. But for cooling, the condenser is normally outdoors, and the compressor's dissipated work is rejected rather than put to a useful purpose.
For the same reason, opening a food refrigerator or freezer heats up the kitchen rather than cooling it because its refrigeration cycle rejects heat to the indoor air. This heat includes the compressor's dissipated work as well as the heat removed from the inside of the appliance.
The COP for a heat pump in a heating or cooling application, with steady-state operation, is:
|Pump type and source||Typical use case||CoP variation with Output Temperature|
|High Efficiency ASHP air at -20°C||2.2||2.0||-||-||-||-|
|Two Stage ASHP air at -20°C||Low source temp.||2.4||2.2||1.9||-||-||-|
|High Efficiency ASHP air at 0°C||Low output temp.||3.8||2.8||2.2||2.0||-||-|
|Prototype Transcritical (R744) Heat Pump with Tripartite Gas Cooler, source at 0°C||High output temp.||3.3||-||-||4.2||-||3.0|
|GSHP water at 0°C||5.0||3.7||2.9||2.4||-||-|
|GSHP ground at 10°C||Low output temp.||7.2||5.0||3.7||2.9||2.4||-|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source -20°C||5.6||4.9||4.4||4.0||3.7||3.4|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source 0°C||8.8||7.1||6.0||5.2||4.6||4.2|
|Theoretical Lorentz Cycle limit (pump), return fluid 25°C, source 0°C||10.1||8.8||7.9||7.1||6.5||6.1|
|Theoretical Carnot cycle limit, source 10°C||12.3||9.1||7.3||6.1||5.4||4.8|