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Understanding Ductless Heat Pumps and How They Operate in Illinois Homes

When you're undertaking home improvement projects or designing a new home, it’s important to know and understand your options for heating and cooling new or improved spaces. In a manner of speaking, you’ll need to rate your system options for performance and efficient operation. Make sure to include ductless heat pumps on your list of prospective systems, and you may have found yourself a leading home comfort and efficiency contender.

Ductless Heat Pumps: The Basics

Ductless heat pumps are air-source heat pumps that have been re-designed as refrigerant distribution systems, rather than air distribution systems like conventional heat pumps. This means that instead of using a network of air ducts to transport heated or cooled air to the living spaces, a ductless system utilizes one or more indoor air handling units (AHUs) installed directly in each room (zone) as point-of-use heating/cooling devices for refrigerant heat energy exchange. 

In cooling cycle, ductless heat pumps work essentially the same as air conditioning systems.

  • Heat energy is extracted from the air inside the home by refrigerant inside the AHU.
  • The refrigerant is then pumped to the compressor located in a cabinet outside the home.
  • The refrigerant is squeezed and prepped to release heat energy.
  • The refrigerant then flows into the condensing coil and transfers heat energy to outside air.

By removing heat energy from indoor air, much like the cooling coil of a refrigerator removes heat energy from inside the fridge, the air inside the home cools until the thermostat set point is reached. Moisture is also removed from indoor air in the cooling cycle (and dry modes), which helps alleviate high indoor humidity levels during hot and humid summer weather.

In the heating cycle, a reversing valve reverses the flow direction of the refrigerant, which changes the roles of the indoor and outdoor coils.

  • The coil in the outside cabinet extracts heat energy from outdoor air, even when outside temperatures fall into single digits.
  • The refrigerant flows to the compressor, is prepped and then flows to the coil inside the home.
  • Heat energy is transferred to the air inside the home which warms the air.
  • This cycle repeats until the thermostat set point is reached.

Heating and Cooling Efficiency

Energy efficiency ratings are tested and designated for many machines we use daily, such as home comfort systems, home appliances and automobiles. Home comfort systems are divided into two energy-consuming categories of combustion systems, such as gas furnaces and boilers (the most popular heating systems in greater Chicago, northwest Indiana and southwestern Michigan), and electrically-driven systems, such as air-source heat pumps and A/Cs.

While fuel efficiency for combustion appliances is a straightforward percentage of heating output to fuel input (e.g. 95 percent of fuel converted to home heating is expressed as 95 AFUE, or annual fuel utilization efficiency), the heating and cooling efficiency of heat pumps, including ductless heat pumps, are identified as heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) and seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER).

  • HSPF and SEER are ratios of home heating and cooling output, respectively, divided by electricity consumed during the heating and cooling seasons. The higher the HSPF and SEER numbers, the greater energy efficiency the ductless heat pump delivers.

Energy Star: Spotlight on Efficiency

Energy Star is a successful government program which was instituted to help consumers easily find and compare energy-efficient home appliances, including ductless heat pumps, water heaters and clothes washers. Energy Star provides an apples-to-apples comparison of the efficiency ratings of similar models. When you see a comfort system or other appliance with the blue Energy Star logo, know that the system has already tested and met strict guidelines for energy efficiency, performance and return on investment in a reasonable amount of time.

With their exceptional performance and efficiency, many ductless heat pumps fall under Energy Star’s new category of Most Efficient. In addition to performance, notable efficiency and investment perks of lower monthly energy bills, to become certified Most Efficient, systems must meet or exceed 18 SEER for cooling efficiency and 9.6 HSPF for heating efficiency.

High Ratings, High Performance

The new and improved components which drive high energy efficiency ratings of ductless heat pumps also drive performance. High efficiency ratings directly correlates to maximum performance and home comfort. These high efficiency components last longer, require less maintenance and are friendlier to the environment of past components.

  • Variable-capacity compressor technology automatically ramps up, down and everywhere in between in 1 percent increments when necessary to precisely prepare and pump the exact amount of refrigerant required to perform the heating and cooling duties. Variable-capacity compressors, often referred to as inverter-driven technology, last years longer than fixed-stage counterparts, produce substantially less noise to operate at whisper-quiet decibels and use only enough electricity to meet heating and cooling demands.
  • High-efficiency refrigerant (R410A) is friendly to the ozone and friendly to the pocketbook. R410A replaces the decades-old standard R22 refrigerant in accordance with the Montreal Protocol of implementing refrigerants that are safe to the environment. Since necessity is the mother of invention, new high-efficiency refrigerant outperforms older refrigerants and allows for greater efficiency and heat exchange in extremely cold outside temperatures. When combined with other new and improved technologies, R410A permits air-source heat pumps to be a viable option for home and space heating in our regions and others with extremely cold winters.
  • Sophisticated sensors monitor super-heat and super-cool temperatures of the indoor coils, which maximizes heat exchange (i.e. energy efficiency and comfort). In fact, many high-efficiency ductless heat pumps employ multiple sensors to monitor entire system processes and scan zone temperatures from the ceiling to the floor, adjusting heating and cooling output as needed to maintain optimal conditions according to settings.

Beyond the Ratings

Ductless heat pumps boast a host of other benefits to consider when weighing system options that aren’t necessarily recognized by high energy efficiency ratings. For instance, going with a new ductless system instead of a ducted conventional system means you won’t lose energy associated with old, leaky and/or uninsulated air ducts. In fact, according to Energy Star, poor ductwork accounts for about a 20 percent loss in energy in the typical home.

The are some of the benefits, advanced features and components of high efficiency ductless heat pumps that help seal the deal as your system of choice:

  • Zoning system -- Each indoor AHU provides home heating and cooling independently from other AHUs in the ductless network and apart from other home comfort systems installed. This means that ductless systems are genuine zoning systems, providing point-of-use heating and cooling which saves energy and boosts comfort according to your lifestyle. 
  • Dry cycle -- High indoor humidity is uncomfortable during the cooling months in our regions. Keep in mind that the greater the cooling efficiency of ductless heat pumps, the greater the dehumidification properties will be. You may also consider select systems with a dry cycle or mode, which provides dehumidification without cooling, so you may use your ductless system as an indoor dehumidification system on days with moderate temperatures.
  • Air cleaning -- Good indoor air quality is important for health, comfort and energy efficiency. If the components of your ductless system, or other system, are bogged down with contaminants and possible mold and mildew, efficiency and performance will suffer along with health and indoor air quality. Consider new ductless heat pumps with high-efficiency air filtration components to help remove allergens, mold spores, viruses and other indoor contaminants from the air you breathe.

Maintenance Matters

Simply purchasing a high-efficiency ductless heat pump, or any home comfort system, doesn’t automatically translate into exquisite comfort and low monthly energy bills. Initial installation and ductless system maintenance must be considered and weighed with that of other systems. Consider these questions:

  • How much time do you have or are willing to spend on do-it-yourself maintenance? The only DIY maintenance ductless systems require are maintaining free airflow at the outside cabinet (keep ice, snow, leaves and debris away) and at each indoor AHU (clean the filter on occasion). 
  • How much professional maintenance is required? Ductless heat pumps should be serviced once a year, just like any other air-source heat pump system.
  • Is the new system and workmanship covered with a good warranty and workmanship guarantee? Your HVAC contractor should provide details about product warranties and how they intend to honor and guarantee their work and service. If a company doesn't stand behind their work and reputation, then you shouldn't either.
  • Does the contractor offer a protection plan, an annual maintenance and service plan? Accidents and breakdowns happen, and they're unscheduled. Make sure the contractor you select has you covered 24-7 with a nice protection plan spelled out for you.
  • What steps need to be taken to prepare my home for installation? Home sealing and insulating are the basic steps to take to get your home prepared for an energy-efficient new system and installation. Consider a professional energy audit for best results.

For more details about ductless heat pumps, efficiency ratings or other HVAC matters for your Chicago, northwest Indiana or southwestern Michigan home, contact for the answers.

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