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How Do I Know if I Have a Heat Pump?

by Lisa Hayden
How Do I Know if I Have a Heat Pump

On the outside, there’s little difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner. So how do I know if I have a heat Pump at home or office?

The easiest way to check if you have a heat pump is to inspect the thermostat and look for the ‘ER’ or ‘EMERGENCY’ button. If you see it, you have a heat pump. Otherwise, the unit might just be a conventional air conditioner.

But this isn’t a foolproof method; you must put your detective hats on for a little longer. Continue reading to learn about other ways to check whether you have an AC or heat pump system.

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What is the Difference Between a Heat Pump and Central Air Conditioning?

Before installing, you need to know the fundamental difference between these two units.

The heat pump is essentially an air conditioner that can reduce room temperature. The inner unit subtracts the heat from the air, while the outdoor unit vents that heat off. The air conditioner and refrigerator follow the same principle for temperature regulation.

A heat pump differs from an AC and refrigerator because it can reverse its operation and add heat to the indoor environment. Concurrently, the outdoor unit subtracts heat from the air.

Another difference is cost. While a heat pump may cost the same or more than a central AC, you’ll incur lower utility costs depending on the model. Moreover, there are Federal tax incentives and rebates for heat pumps.

How Do I Know if I have a Heat Pump or a Conventional AC?

There are four ways to check if your house uses a heat pump or a conventional AC. These are:

1. Check the Thermostat for ER, EMER, or EMERGENCY

As already mentioned, the thermostat gives you a lot of information regarding your home heating system. You just need to be smart with the reading.

So walk up to the thermostat and check if it has an ER, EMER, or EMERGENCY button or mode. All of the abbreviations mean the same thing: ‘ Emergency.’

You’d use this when the heat pump stops functioning and doesn’t provide the necessary warmth. The HVAC unit will switch to a backup heat source, usually the furnace.

Only the heat pumps have the Emergency mode and not ACs. Therefore, seeing this mode confirms that you have a heat pump, not a conventional AC.

2. Check the outdoor unit for heat mode

The second way is to turn on the ‘Heat’ mode on the thermostat and check the outdoor unit. If it’s functioning, you have a heat pump. If it’s not, you’re using a standard AC.

The reasoning is that a heat pump uses the unit on the outside to generate hot air. Other heating systems like the furnace do not use the outdoor unit. So they won’t turn the outdoor unit on to generate heat.

Therefore, it’s a heat pump and not a standard AC if you hear the unit running after turning on Heat mode.

3. Read the labels on the outdoor unit

The labels contain much information to help you learn more about the product. The outdoor AC unit has similar labels on the side panels. You should look into it to determine whether you have a heat pump or a standard AC. 

In a few models, the label will specify explicitly that the unit has a heat pump. Such models have ‘HP’ as the prefix followed by the number. So it’d look like this: ‘HP-XXXXXXXXXX.’

Take this number and do a Google search. Also, add the brand name to be more specific. The results would confirm that it’s a heat pump.

You can also look at the EnergyGuide label on the outdoor unit if it has one. It’s a yellow label that most manufacturers must have on their products.

Check if the label has both SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) and HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor) ratings. If so, then you have a heat pump.

Heat pumps have two ratings because they offer cooling and heating; SEER is for cooling and HSPF for heating.

4. Check for the reversing valve on the outdoor unit

The fourth way of knowing whether or not you have a heat pump is to look into the outdoor unit and look for a brass-like valve. If you can spot it, the unit is a heat pump, not a standard AC. If it’s absent, you’re using a standard AC.

The reversing valve is the tool that allows the heat pump to function both as a cooler and a heater. The valve alters the flow of refrigerant within the system. On the other hand, conventional ACs lack this valve since they don’t need it.

First, turn off the system and wait for the fan inside the outdoor unit to stop spinning. Then peek in through the top with a torchlight. Can you spot a brass-like entangled object? That’s the reversing valve. It confirms that you’re using a heat pump.

What Does a Heat Pump Look like in a House?

So far, the methods to check whether you have a heat pump involve walking up to the outdoor unit — except the first one. Is there a way to check for the same from the inside by looking at the heat pump?

Unfortunately, that won’t give you much information. Irrespective of whether you have a heat pump or a conventional AC, the visible components inside the house look the same.

The heat pump’s indoor unit (air handler) is found on the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. This air handler looks precisely the same as a gas furnace. Therefore, it’s hard to know from the inside.

Can You Have a Heat Pump and a Furnace?

When deciding on the heating system, homeowners can choose between a heat pump or a furnace. But can you have both?

Yes, you can have a heat pump and a furnace for your house. That’s the premise of a dual fuel HVAC system, which is a hybrid split system.

The heat pump functions as the primary heating unit in a hybrid split system. But when it fails to maintain the necessary heat level, the furnace kicks in and supplements the deficit. 

The furnace becomes the primary heating source when the heat pump goes out of order. This ensures you’re not left in cold temperature when the heat pump stops working.

Another benefit of having a heat pump with a furnace is reduced energy bills. You can switch between the two heating systems depending on the energy cost. 

If electricity is cheaper, it makes sense to pause the gas or oil furnace and maximize the heat pump. Likewise, it’s smart to run the gas furnace for longer hours when the gas prices drop. You can program the dual fuel HVAC system to switch between the two heating units for better efficiency.

How to Tell What Kind of HVAC System You Have?

There are five different types of HVAC systems. If you’re unsure about the type installed at your home, there are a few things to inspect.

First, you need to determine the number of installed units and their placements. Then look at the piping configuration that connects these units. Let’s look at this in a more specific way. 

Here’s how to tell five types of HVAC systems apart:

  • Split System

In a heating and cooling split system, there are two components; one for heating and the other for cooling. A thermostat is used to control these two components.

The cooling unit is located outside and connected to the ductwork through various tubes. The heating unit is usually found in the basement and uses natural gas to generate heat.

You’re using a split HVAC system if you spot a big unit with a fan outdoors and a furnace in the basement or attic.

  • Heat pump

A heat pump is a two-in-one unit that can both cool and heat the rooms. It looks and works much like an air conditioner, except that it can reverse itself and supply heat.

Using a heat pump, you should only see the outdoor unit and the air handler inside. Use the abovementioned tactics to differentiate between an air conditioner and a heat pump.

  • Hybrid split system

The hybrid split system is essentially a heat pump with a furnace. Therefore, you should see a unit in the attic and an outside heat pump unit.

To confirm this, you need to test the outdoor unit and look for the attic or basement furnace. 

  • Packaged system

Packaged systems have heating and cooling units in one place inside a large container. The units are connected to the supply and return ducts via a single hole.

These HVAC systems are usually found in the attic or on the roof. You’ll notice a blower that moves the air in and out.

  • Zoned system

The final type of HVAC system is a zoned system. As the name implies, heating and cooling are planned for specific zones rather than the entire building.

In the case of a large building, you’ll find several units, each working independently of one another. This way, the owner can keep each room (or zone) at a specific temperature.

In smaller buildings, zoning involves making use of dampers (either automatic or manual) in the air ducts. These dampers regulate the airflow to keep the zones at different temperatures. If you see separate heating/cooling units in different rooms, it would suggest that you’re using a zoned HVAC system.

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