The ultimate guide to heat pumps

Everything you need to know about the most efficient HVAC technology on the market.

Everything you need to know about the most efficient HVAC technology on the market.

Heat pumps make your house feel great in all seasons, but it can be tricky to know what type will work best for your situation.

If you’ve landed here with questions like How do heat pumps work?, Are they right for my house? and How much do heat pumps cost?

Well—you’re in the right place.

Here’s more good news: you might be eligible for local rebates for a high-efficiency electric heat pump, and Sealed can connect you with an expert contractor who’ll handle the installation. Tap here to find out more.

Let’s dig in.

Table of contents:

What’s a heat pump?

A heat pump is the smarter, cleaner way to heat, cool, dehumidify, and filter the air in your home, and it’s an all-in-one replacement for your existing HVAC systems

It’s called a heat pump because it controls your home’s climate by redistributing the heat that’s already in the air. Essentially, it transfers (or pumps) heat energy. 

  • In the winter, it extracts heat from the outside environment and moves warm air inside your home.
  • In the summer, the process is reversed via what’s called a reversing valve: The heat pump takes heat energy from inside your home and pumps it back out into the outdoor air.

The end result? Your home feels great all year and you use less energy year round.

It’s a pretty simple concept that adds up to comfortable and energy-efficient climate control throughout your home.

For a quick explainer on heat pumps, check out this short video here.

Cut up to 50% of your energy use when combining a new heat pump with high-performance insulation and professional air sealing upgrades from a Sealed-vetted contractor. Learn how.

How do heat pumps work?

Heat pumps control household climates by moving heat energy that’s in the air through the power of liquid refrigerant while using a small amount of electricity. 

But different kinds of heat pumps do that in slightly different ways. (You’ll cover that later in this article.)

Modern home heat pump technology vs. other HVAC systems

You may not have heard much about heat pumps, but that doesn’t mean they’re new.

In fact, a traditional air conditioning unit is technically a heat pump—both systems work by removing heat energy from your home and transferring it to another location.

The major operational difference is that a heat pump can also transfer heat into your home via a reversing valve.

That means heat pumps can replace your heating system as well as your air conditioner—and do both jobs much more efficiently than traditional HVAC systems. 

A heat pump also dehumidifies and filters your home, so it’s a win-win-win-win.

To learn about the pros and cons of each HVAC appliance, check out these resources:

Love HVAC science and curious about the reversing valve? This video below details how it works:

During the winter, the heat pump finds heat in the outside air and brings it inside. The heat pump is able to find enough heat in the atmosphere to heat your home—even in sub-zero temperatures.

Having your doubts? Read Heat pump not working in cold weather to learn why some heat pumps can run into issues in the winter.

Heat pumps are common in many countries (even countries with very hot or cold climates), and they’re found in architecturally famous buildings all over the world.

Next, let’s look at the two broad categories of heat pump technology.

The different kinds of heat pump systems

There are a two main types of heat pumps that are used as HVAC systems:

  1. Air-source heat pumps (including ductless mini splits)
  2. Geothermal heat pumps (also called ground-source heat pumps)

Air-source heat pumps

An air-source heat pump system (also commonly called an air-to-air heat pump) operates just as you might assume: It moves heat from the air inside your home to the air outside of your home—and vice versa.

Broadly speaking, an air-source heat pump is made up of two main components which work in tandem:

  1. An outdoor condenser unit—which often looks like a traditional air conditioning system
  2. An indoor air-handling unit (or multiple units if you have a ductless system). The outdoor condensing unit is often smaller than a traditional central air conditioner system.
outdoor heat pump
The outdoor condensing unit is often smaller than a traditional central air conditioner system.

Upgrading to a new energy-efficient heat pump increases home value and attracts more buyers when you decide to sell.


Air-to-air heat pumps are the most common in the US, and when you hear people talking about installing a heat pump, this is usually the kind they mean.

That’s mostly because air-source heat pumps:

  • Are the easiest kind of heat pump to install and maintain
  • Provide excellent comfort and lifetime value
  • Come in both ducted and ductless versions

You know what goes great with a new heat pump? Air sealing and insulating your home—also sometimes referred to as whole-house weatherization. When installing a new air-source heat pump, these upgrades can make a night-and-day difference in your home’s comfort and efficiency.

And it’s one of the smartest HVAC strategies on the market, as it increases the lifespan and performance of your heat pump.

You could cut up to 45% of your energy waste in your home with the right air sealing and insulation upgrades.

2022 Insulation Industry Opportunity Study

Ducted vs. ductless air-source heat pump systems

The major difference between ducted and ductless heat pumps is the way they handle the air inside your home. 

A ductless heat pump uses small wall-mounted units (called mini splits or mini-split AC) to distribute and handle air. These are placed strategically throughout your home to ensure every corner feels great.

A mini split heat pump unit is featured in a primary, modern bedroom that is well-decorated and well-lit with natural light
The indoor mini-split unit in this bedroom blends into the overall home decor.

Meanwhile, ducted heat pump systems rely on a single air-handling unit called a standard split, which redirects conditioned air throughout your home. (Since there’s only one standard split, it’s significantly larger than a mini split—and you’ll often find it tucked away in a basement.)

Both ducted and ductless systems have:

  • A cooling mode to produce cool air in summer (who doesn’t like that cold-air feeling after mowing the lawn on a hot day?)
  • A heating mode to warm up your house in lower temperatures
  • Powerful dehumidification properties, called dry mode on some models

The scientific principle for both ducted and ductless systems is the same: They transfer thermal energy around. 

And whatever system you choose, rest assured: Your house will feel great.

Geothermal heat pumps

Geothermal heat pumps work a little differently: Instead of using an outside unit to exchange heat energy, they’re engineered to move heat to and from the earth (or a water source, sometimes called water heat pumps).

These systems take advantage of the fact that the temperature of the ground and water around your home stays relatively constant. So once installed, they can be a bit more efficient than a standard air-source unit.

Despite some gains in efficiency, geothermal heat pumps aren’t as common in privately-owned homes because they’re more complicated and expensive to install.

Geothermal systems are installed under the ground or in water, so the installation process itself can be intrusive, expensive, and lengthy. 

And servicing geothermal systems can also present challenges, since you’ll need to excavate the underground component to do certain repairs.

Geothermal vs. air source: Which is better?

For the vast majority of private homes, an air-source heat pump system provides the best mix of comfort, efficiency, and value.

In fact, air-to-air heat pump technology has advanced so much in recent years that the difference in efficiency between a geothermal and air-source heat pump is minimal (and there are easier, less-expensive ways to make your home more comfortable than digging up your lawn).

For a deeper dive, read Air-source vs. geothermal heat pumps for pros and cons.

Heat pumps redistribute heat that’s already present in the environment. Transferring thermal energy doesn’t require as much electricity as producing it.

Why is a heat pump more efficient?

The biggest reason: Heat pumps don’t produce heat at all. Instead, they redistribute thermal energy that’s already present in the environment.

Transferring heat energy doesn’t require as much electricity as producing it, so heat pumps can keep every room in the house comfortable—for a much lower energy cost.

According to the Department of Energy, installing an air-source heat pump can cut your electric bill in half (compared to baseboard heaters and furnaces)—that’s a massive drop.

Of course, lower energy use isn’t the only reason to get an energy-efficient heat pump system—conventional heating and cooling systems aren’t very kind to our planet.

In New York, for example, traditional HVAC causes 32% of the greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for a whopping 37% of the state’s energy consumption.

Opting for a heat pump system instead is one way to do your part in mitigating climate change—it’s better for you, the earth, and future generations.

Read How much electricity does a heat pump use? to learn why they’re so efficient.

In 80% of the homes studied, electric heat pumps saved money over the life of the system compared to homes with gas furnaces.


What are the pros and cons of a heat pump system?

Now let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of home heat pumps.

Here’s why you might consider replacing your standard heating and cooling system with a heat pump system (and a few reasons why it might not be right for you).

Let’s get the cons out of the way first.

Disadvantages of heat pumps

We love heat pumps (can you tell?), but there could be a few disadvantages, depending on your preferences.

  1. Cost
  2. Feel of the heat
  3. Appearance


First let’s address the expense. The cost of installing a quality heat pump system is roughly equal to the cost of buying both a traditional air conditioning and heating system at the same time. 

In some cases it’s more expensive, and that can deter homeowners from considering a heat pump at all. Tap here to jump ahead to heat pump costs.

But cost doesn’t necessarily need to be an obstacle. 

And when you look at the lifetime value of a heat pump, the financial picture changes. They use less energy and their operating costs are often lower than conventional HVAC systems.

Heat pumps are the best of the best as far as HVAC options go. And if they’re well maintained, they can last up to 15–25 years in a well-insulated home (1).

Even better, Sealed can identify rebates toward installing a custom home heat pump system, and connect you with the best contractor for your home.

“Feel” (of the heat) 

A heat pump isn’t designed to replicate the feel of “cooked” heat that comes from a furnace or boiler. Instead, its continuous airflow system ensures every place in your home consistently feels warm and comfortable. The amount of heat that a heat pump produces is customizable, feels great, and reaches throughout your house.

Most people love how their home feels after they install a heat pump, but if you’re someone who wants their home to feel “toasty,” it might not be the right feel for you.

outdoor heat pump condenser unit on exterior of white new construction home


First of all, know that heat pump systems include a visible outdoor unit—just like with a traditional AC system. So you’ll need to make space for that unit and plan your landscaping accordingly (it’s generally pretty simple to hide it with shrubs).

There’s nothing wrong with how a heat pump looks, but they’re also not walking down the runway at fashion week.

If you select a ductless mini-split system, the wall units are designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they’re not invisible.

So if you’re someone who places a premium on interior design, you’ll need to think about how to incorporate a mini-split heat pump into your aesthetic. (Learn how to camouflage a mini-split unit here.) Or ask an expert if a mini split ceiling cassette system might be right for you.

Benefits of heat pumps (a much longer list)

Here are some of the best things about heat pumps:

  1. Better home comfort
  2. Easy to live with
  3. Healthier air at home
  4. All-in-one HVAC system
  5. Flexible for your home’s needs
  6. Cleaner, greener energy
  7. Affordable (when you go with Sealed!)

Better comfort

Put simply, heat pumps are a life upgrade. They make your home feel amazing. Both heating and cooling throughout your home is more even and continuous airflow ensures that every corner of your house is comfortable.

Also, if you choose a ductless mini-split system, you’ll get precise room-by-room temperature control.

(Trust us: Once you try zoned heating and cooling, you’ll never go back to one thermostat again. Traditional HVAC is like having one light switch for every lightbulb in your house.) Tap here to learn how to install an energy-efficient smart thermostat.

Illustrated GIF of a heat pump pulling in heat energy inside a home to heat a home on a cold day
During the winter, the heat pump finds heat in the air outside and brings it inside. The heat pump is able to find enough heat in the atmosphere to heat your home—even in sub-zero temperatures.

81% say their home comfort has improved by replacing their fossil fuel heaters with heat pumps.

Cool Products 2022 consumer analysis

Easy to live with

Heat pumps don’t produce odd smells like the old gas furnace in your basement, they’re whisper-quiet (especially the mid- to high-range models), and they don’t require much maintenance. 

Once your heat pump system is installed, it’s easy to have in your home.

Healthier air

Many heat pump systems have built-in filtration to keep micro-particles and other unwanted elements out of the air you’re breathing.

And since heat pumps are fully electric and don’t burn natural gas or oil inside your home, you and your family won’t be subject to fumes or dangerous carbon monoxide off-gassing. 

Read Do I need natural gas in my house? to learn more.

All-in-one system

Since a heat pump replaces both your heating and cooling systems, it simplifies your home upkeep. You can install and maintain one system instead of two (and get a better climate control result to boot). 

Thinking that you’re close to needing an HVAC replacement? Find out when to replace your air conditioner or when to replace your heating system.

51% of your home’s energy consumption is for heating and cooling alone. Heat pumps cut excessive energy waste!



If you have electricity in your house, you can get a heat pump installed—it’s that simple. And there’s a heat pump system to fit every kind of residence.

Replacing a ducted HVAC system? A heat pump will fit right in and use your existing ductwork.

Don’t have ductwork? Or maybe you have old leaky ductwork that requires expensive repairs?

You need a ductless mini-split heat pump. It’s an adaptable technology with plenty of options.

Casual, well-lit living room kept comfortable by a ducted heat pump system vented centrally through living room ceiling
A ducted heat pump system distributes air through vents, as pictured in this living room ceiling, just like traditional central air conditioning or forced air heat.

Leaky ductwork (due to holes or improper installation) is responsible for up to 30% air loss.

Cleaner, greener energy

Heat pumps are the greenest HVAC systems currently on the market. 

They’re fully powered by electricity, so they generate less carbon dioxide than traditional methods powered by oil, propane, pellets, or natural gas.

And heat pumps are incredibly efficient with the electricity they do use, so you’ll significantly reduce your home’s environmental footprint (and energy bill) by installing one.

Tap here to learn more about converting from oil to electric heat or switching from gas heat to electricity.

I’m saving a ton and the… system [Sealed installed] added value to my house.

Joshua L., Sealed customer


Like any quality home upgrade, a heat pump can represent a significant expense to purchase and install. But over their lifespan, heat pumps tend to be more cost effective (2).

With Sealed, eligible rebates for heat pump installation are included, and you’ll get our energy-savings guarantee if your house qualifies.

When you work with a Sealed contractor partner, your home’s comfort and efficiency will vastly improve. It’s a great option if you’re looking to feel more comfortable at home—but with a lower environmental footprint.

And heat pumps do such a good job of cutting energy waste that new federal tax credits and financial incentives encourage homeowners to save energy by upgrading.

Read What heat pump tax credits and rebates are available? to learn more.

How much does a heat pump cost?

An expertly-installed heat pump system that’s customized for your home’s unique needs could cost anywhere between $3,500 to $60,000 (3, 4).

We know that’s a large range. It’s important to know that the lower-end heat pump costs you’ll see are usually only for the appliance itself—and lower costs often represent a single mini-split unit for an addition on a house or one room.

You’ll also need to consider the cost of professional installation… or any financing costs (if you choose to go that route).

The cost of a heat pump system can vary based on:

  • The type of heat pump system you install
  • The size of your house
  • Layout of your space
  • Where you live
  • The expertise of your installer
  • Local home energy rebates available in your area
  • Whether or not you’ll use your existing ductwork or install a ductless mini-split system

Purchasing a climate control system for your home is a significant expense in any situation, and a heat pump system is no different. 

The best way to know how much a heat pump costs is to get a quote for your particular home.

That said, the economics of installing a heat pump makes sense for most households for two main reasons:

  1. They significantly reduce your energy costs (especially if you also properly seal and insulate your home), and they’re relatively simple to maintain.
  2. And given that a heat pump upgrade is a complete HVAC solution that will replace both your heating and cooling system, it’s an excellent lifetime value for the money.

Even though they’re expensive, heat pumps are generally a great investment. Get started here.

I was very surprised at how economical it [can be] to maintain the heat and cooling I [was paying] so dearly for!… I’m using LESS energy to keep comfortable.…

Jennifer B., Sealed customer

Ready to get started?

Sold on heat pumps? So are we.

Sealed makes it easy to get an expertly-installed heat pump that’s right for your home:

  1. We vet the best contractors in your area, and match you with the right one based on their expertise and the unique needs of your house.
  2. We meticulously research what rebates your project might be eligible for, even submitting rebate paperwork on your behalf.
  3. You get to sit back and enjoy hassle-free home upgrades that make your house feel better year round while showing off your cool new heat pump to the neighborhood.

Sealed is ready to help you get a high-performance heat pump system installed!

energy assessment app

Ready to crunch the numbers?

Check out our home energy usage calculator to see where you could cut energy waste BIG TIME.

Tap here to try the home energy use calculator.

FAQs about heat pumps

Still have questions? We’re here to help. Here are some of the most common questions we get:

Can a heat pump cool a whole house?

Yes. In fact, it’s THE leading HVAC technology for both heating and cooling your home. Depending on the type of heat pump system installed, you can even accomplish precise temperature control room by room.

Read Heat pump cooling: Do heat pumps work well in hot weather to learn more.

outdoor heat pump condenser unit against white house exterior
In the summer, the heat pump moves heat outside of your house, leaving fresh, cool air behind.

Heat pumps work like air conditioners, but it’s as if they went to graduate school for advanced degrees—because they can heat your home too.

Are heat pump water heaters any good?

Yes—heat pump water heaters (also called hybrid water heaters) are great! They also use heat pump technology to make sure you’ve got plenty of hot water all day long. A heat pump water heater can be up to 3 times more efficient than a traditional electric water heater and up to 50% more efficient than a natural gas water heater (5, 6).

Love energy-efficient hot water consumption? So do we. Read Sealed’s Heat pump water heater guide to get all the info.

How much maintenance does a heat pump need? 

A heat pump doesn’t need much maintenance—that’s one of the great benefits of heat pump technology. But you can keep your heat pump system running well with just a little upkeep.

Make sure to follow your make and model’s manufacturer’s directions for care, and:

  1. Change the filters
  2. Clear away debris
  3. Clean outdoor coils regularly
  4. Keep snow out of the way
  5. Get annual inspections

Do I need ducts for a heat pump system?

No. One of the benefits of heat pump technology is that it’s flexible—you can install a heat pump system with or without existing ductwork.

If you already have ductwork, it’s easy to integrate a heat pump into your existing infrastructure. And if you don’t have ductwork in your home, you’ll install a mini-split heat pump system (also sometimes called a mini-split air conditioner)

How many mini splits do I need for my house?

The short answer? You’ll need 24,000 BTU per 1,000 square feet of space. 

But let’s unpack that a little more. 

To talk about this, first we need to talk about the acronym BTU. It stands for British Thermal Unit and is the standard measurement in the HVAC industry.

Essentially, we use BTU measurements to talk about how much heat energy a system can remove from a space. The bigger your indoor space, the more BTUs you’ll need your heat pump system to handle.

When HVAC technicians install a ducted heat pump system, they decide how many BTUs your overall system will need and select a size accordingly. But for a ductless heat pump system, that calculation is handled on a section-by-section basis.

To do this, technicians ask questions like:

  • How many BTUs are necessary in your upstairs bedrooms?
  • How big is your downstairs?
  • Are there any major obstructions or barriers that interfere with airflow?

So figuring out how many mini splits you’ll need can be a pretty complex calculation, but here’s a general rule of thumb: For every 1,000 square feet of space in your home, you’ll need system capacity (combined mini splits or central) that’s capable of handling 24,000 BTUs. 

mini split indoor units can blend into home decor
A mini-split unit blends into the background in this kitchen

All that said, planning a mini-split strategy is a job best left to professionals—there are nuances for certain spaces of your home, such as high-traffic areas and kitchens or rooms with many windows.

I cannot say enough wonderful things about Sealed.… They made everything easy and worry-free. I highly recommend working with Sealed.

Nicole T., Sealed customer
July 23, 2020