Bad HVAC installs: Improper heat pump installation—with examples

How improper installation of heat pumps can ruin their reputation and hurt their efficiency

How improper installation of heat pumps can ruin their reputation and hurt their efficiency

At Sealed, we’ve noticed that when homeowners are considering switching to a heat pump, they focus on the brand. 

While brand is important—and make and model are definitely something we consider when helping you install your heat pump—the quality of installation often matters significantly more for your overall comfort, your heat pump’s long-term efficiency, and even its lifespan. 

At its best, a bad heat pump installation can cause you to be less comfortable in your home or waste more energy. 

And at its worst? An improper HVAC install can stop working on the coldest or hottest day of the year and require tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs.

That’s why Sealed holds ourselves accountable for the install—we only make money if your upgrades perform as they should and your energy use goes down. And that’s why we choose to work with a network of fully vetted and expert contractors that we trust. (Tap here to see if you qualify.)

If you’ve heard from someone that heat pumps aren’t efficient—or don’t work in your area due to how cold or hot it gets—it’s likely because:

  1. The heat pump they’re using is an older model (and not a modern cold climate heat pump with a larger efficiency range)
  2. The home where the heat pump is installed has insufficient insulation and unsealed air leaks 
  3. The heat pump was installed incorrectly

(What’s a heat pump? We’re glad you asked. Check out the ultimate guide to heat pumps.)

Unfortunately, an improper installation can stifle this superstar of home energy efficiency.

So below, you’ll cover the most common heat pump installation mistakes to look out for.

Table of contents:

Heat pumps 101

Before we jump into heat pump installation mistakes, let’s cover some basics and common terms we’ll use. 

For a full deep-dive, check out the Ultimate Guide to Heat Pumps, or watch the quick video below to get an overview of how they work (and learn why heat pumps are a life upgrade):

A heat pump has three core pieces: 

  1. Line sets
  2. Electrical wiring
  3. Condensate line 

All three are crucial to the function of your heat pump, and an incorrect installation can cause your unit to malfunction, resulting in costly repairs.

What’s a line set?

Line sets are copper pipes that connect your outdoor heat pump unit to the indoor unit. These line sets are crucial to heat and cool the air properly. Line sets should be covered with line hide—essentially a high-quality, UV resistant plastic tube—that acts as a barrier to protect them from the outside elements.

Why is wiring needed for heat pump installation?

Wiring is responsible for providing power to—and communication between—the indoor and outdoor units of the heat pump.

What’s a heat pump condensate line? 

As the heat pump cools your home, it also dehumidifies the air. (This is just one of the many reasons we love heat pumps!)

The condensation that results from this process is drained out of the indoor unit via the condensate line—which is usually a pipe that drains the water out of the home.

Next, let’s look at the top five mistakes made when heat pumps are installed incorrectly. 

The anatomy of a heat pump. (Fine Homebuilding)

Top 5 heat pump installation mistakes

Heat pumps are absolute powerhouses at keeping American homes comfortable all year long while also cutting energy waste. 

But even the most advanced HVAC system can’t do its job if it’s not correctly installed. 

Let’s explore the most common heat pump installation mistakes made by under-trained installers unfamiliar with modern heat pump technology:

  1. Incorrect installation for cold weather
  2. Line sets/wiring incorrectly installed
  3. Wiring/line sets improperly entering house
  4. Improper location installation
  5. Incorrect size in proportion to your house

Mistake #1: The heat pump isn’t installed correctly for cold weather

When too much snow and ice gather around a heat pump unit, you know something’s not right. 

Heat pumps have internal mechanisms to defrost snow and ice. However, in the case of a bad heat pump installation, these internal technologies won’t be able to properly defrost the unit, which could cause damage. 

Two main installation errors that may cause your heat pump to accumulate snow or ice:

1. The heat pump is too low to the ground. 

A heat pump should be on a stand or platform that is 6 to 12 inches above the ground in areas that experience heavy snowfall. This allows for the heat pump’s self-regulating tools to clear off ice and snow.

The poorly installed heat pump system pictured below is too low to the ground, resulting in a buildup of snow. This could lead to an internal malfunction that could cost thousands of dollars and leave you without heat during the winter months. 

Snow builds up around improperly installed heat pumps.

2. The heat pump’s outdoor unit is installed in the wrong place. 

Snow or ice buildup on your heat pump’s outdoor unit (also called a condenser) can indicate that it was installed in the wrong place. In cold climates, your heat pump’s outdoor unit should be positioned so that nothing—including your roof or trees—drips water onto it. An experienced HVAC professional will know where to place your outdoor unit so that it is protected from the elements. 

Ice or snow buildup on the heat pump can damage the unit or cause it to break. A mistake like this could leave your house without heat for extended periods of time during the winter or dramatically reduce the performance and lifespan of the unit. 

Below is an image of a misplaced outdoor unit where water from the roof dripped onto the unit, resulting in an accumulation of ice.

Ice accumulates on an improperly placed outdoor unit.

Mistake #2: The line sets and wiring are incorrectly installed

Snow or ice buildup on your outdoor unit can also be caused by an improperly installed line set. Poorly installed line sets are one of the most common installation-related problems and can cause a multitude of dangerous and expensive heat pump malfunctions. 

For example, improperly installed line sets can cause a refrigerant leak. When refrigerant levels are too low, the heat pump cannot properly regulate temperature, causing it to freeze in cold temperatures.

When this happens, the heat pump’s efficiency is significantly impacted, and it can even cause the heat pump to stop working. (Plus, refrigerant leaking into the atmosphere contributes to climate change!)

Fortunately, these issues are usually pretty easy to identify. 

Here are two common heat pump wiring and line set installation errors:

1. Loose or excess line sets and wiring. 

Line sets should be installed with tight wiring and be mounted correctly. They shouldn’t be looped or ziptied.

The improperly installed heat pump below has excess line sets and wiring that can decrease the system’s efficiency. That’s because the refrigerant has to travel a longer distance throughout the line sets. Long line sets may sag or bend over time, potentially leading to kinks that restrict refrigerant flow or damage to the lines. (Not to mention, this excess wiring could easily cause you to trip and fall doing regular yard work!)

Excess line sets around a heat pump. (HVAC Hacks)

2. Line sets are not protected. 

Line sets should be covered with line hide to protect them from the outside elements. If line sets are not covered, they could be exposed to extreme weather, pests, and landscaping equipment that could cause damage and result in leaks, energy waste, or the failure of your heat pump. 

Below, this heat pump’s line sets aren’t covered by line hide, resulting in open fuses visible at the bottom of the image. 

Line sets that are not covered with line hide. (HVAC Hacks)

Mistake #3: The heat pump’s wiring and line sets aren’t entering the house properly

Another common installation mistake is when the wiring and line sets for your heat pump aren’t entering your house properly. 

Wires shouldn’t enter a house through a vent or crawl space, and the entry point for these connections should be sealed with foam to prevent rodents and pests from moving into your house’s walls. (No one wants an influx of mice, spiders, or bees making camp in their walls!)

Below are the four most common issues with heat pump wiring and line sets entering a home:

1. Visible wiring inside of your home. 

You should never see any heat pump wiring or line sets inside of your home (like in the photo below). Instead, the heat pump’s line set should enter behind the unit and be invisible to you!

In addition to being visually unpleasant, an unsealed hole around the visible wires causes air leakage—which increases your energy use—and leaves the wires exposed and open to damage.

Exposed heat pump wiring inside of a home. (HVAC Hacks)

2. A lack of foam or sealant around entryways. 

The installation below doesn’t include any foam or sealant to cover connection entryways into the side of the house, leaving an easy opening into the house for unwanted pests and outside air to enter.

(Unless you want mice and mosquitos hijacking your Netflix account and digging into your popcorn reserves, these holes should be sealed. Learn more about the importance of air sealing.) 

Exposed holes on the side of a home that lack foam or sealant. (HVAC Hacks)

3. Wiring enters through crawl space or vents. 

Wires entering your house through a crawl space can create a number of problems: squirrels could make your wiring their lunch, moisture could harm the wiring or trickle into your home, and extreme temperature changes in these spaces could impact proper functioning of the unit.

The badly-installed heat pump wiring pictured below enters through a crawl space (and into the ground next to the home’s foundation, which can cause other serious issues!).

Improper heat pump wiring entering a crawl space. (HVAC Hacks)

4. Improperly installed lines. 

The image below contains a multitude of bad heat pump installation mistakes. The lines are not measured and cut properly, and they were installed with no line hide or sealing around the openings.

These wires could easily be damaged by the elements—not to mention, these unsealed holes can cause big energy waste and pest problems.

Incorrectly installed heat pump wiring. (HVAC Hacks)

Mistake #4: The heat pump is installed in the wrong location in your home

Depending on the model of your heat pump, your interior unit should be placed high—at least 6 feet off the ground and 6 to 12 inches below the ceiling. 

If your indoor unit isn’t installed correctly, you’ll be able to tell. It won’t create adequate airflow—that is, your indoor air is going to feel sticky, stuffy, drafty, or flat—and it’ll feel like your house never reaches the correct temperature. 

Mistake #5: The heat pump isn’t sized correctly for your house

Another common mistake is installing a heat pump that’s too small for the house. 

Ultimately, your heat pump should only run for several hours each day. If you find that your heat pump never gets your room to the temperature you want and runs constantly throughout the day (without cycling on and off), that’s a clear sign it may not have been properly installed. 

A correctly-sized heat pump will get your home to the set temperature, then shut off until it needs to regulate the temperature again. 

How the Sealed payment program and Measured Savings Pathway ensure proper heat pump installations

Sadly, these types of heat pump installation mistakes are pretty common—and they’re one reason that cold climate heat pumps get a bad rap. 

Modern heat pump technology can handle freezing temperatures and scorching-hot summer days when properly installed (and when your house is sufficiently insulated and air sealed). 

Essentially, if your heat pump wasn’t installed the right way, you won’t save as much energy as you hoped and you won’t feel as comfortable in your home.

If your heat pump was improperly installed, you won’t save as much energy as you hoped.

Improper heat pump installations can also create safety hazards and reduce the lifespan of the equipment, requiring costly repairs or replacements. 

But don’t fret: There are several ways to protect your house from a bad heat pump installation.

First, trust an experienced home performance aggregator (like Sealed!). 

Sealed stays accountable for all installations that we finance. We have cultivated a vetted and trusted network of expert home performance contractors—professionals that have a proven track record of consistent, high-quality work. 

We make sure the work is done right—and if not, we will help you get it fixed. 

A high-quality install from a contractor in Sealed’s network. The line sets are cut and covered by line hide and the heat pump is on a stand. (Reiner Group)

Second, look for an installer with proper credentials and training.

Certification programs with professional organizations the Building Performance Institute offer assurances of high-quality contractors who go through specialized training to ensure the best installation outcome.

A high-quality install from a contractor in Sealed’s network. The line sets are cut and covered by line hide and the heat pump is on a stand. (Sigma Tremblay)

Third, laws and regulations can help ensure quality installations. 

Sometimes, incentive programs can lead to bad heat pump installations when there’s a lack of accountability. Hurried installations that are focused on cashing out on rebates don’t serve anyone in the long-term. 

Sealed has called this the “sugar crash” problem, which refers to poorly designed programs that incentivize contractors to install as many heat pumps as possible to cash in on federal and state benefits. 

This isn’t just a problem with American home energy rebate programs; this has happened around the world. 

For example, an insulation program in Scotland led to a number of poor contracting jobs that left homeowners with black mold and the government with a scandal on its hands. 

Plus, the image below shows a New York house that was over-installed with heat pumps—all due to a poorly designed program that incentivized the contractor to install as many heat pumps as possible to access greater rebates. 

The solution? 

Provide home energy upgrade rebates that rely on measured energy savings. 

The measured savings pathway of the Inflation Reduction Act’s HOMES program provides rebates for projects based on actual energy savings, creating powerful incentives to ensure that installations are done correctly, save energy, and slash America’s carbon footprint. 

A home that over-installed heat pumps. (lohud)

Get an expert-installed heat pump at no upfront cost if your house qualifies

If you want to make sure your energy upgrades are done right the first time, consider turning the project over to Sealed. 

We’re nerds about this stuff—and we’re experts at making your house feel amazing while wasting less energy year-round. 

You can get the whole project done with NO upfront cost—including eligible rebates—if your house qualifies.

Even better: We stay accountable to the work being done right. If you don’t save energy, we take the hit.

Ready to find out if Sealed is right for you? Fill out the quick questionnaire to get started.

June 8, 2023