How Do Heat Pumps Work in Winter? - Peak Home Performance
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December and January are the coldest months of the year in Colorado Springs. If your heating system didn’t perform well last year, it’s time to think about an upgrade.

Heat pumps are increasingly popular as an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly solution for both heating and cooling.

If you don’t know much about heat pumps, you’re in the right place. Join us as we explore the answer to this question: How do heat pumps work in winter?

Don’t let an aging furnace leave you out in the cold. Read on to see if a heat pump could be your new winter heating solution.

How Do Heat Pumps Work In Winter?

The fundamental concept of heat transfer lies at the heart of understanding how heat pumps work.

Heat naturally moves from areas of higher temperature to those of lower temperature. Heat always seeks thermal equilibrium. This principle is at the core of how heat pumps function.

Heat pumps manipulate the natural flow of heat to keep your home both warm in winter and cool in summer.

Imagine standing outside on a cold day. You can feel the chill in the air. That’s because the heat from your body naturally moves toward the colder environment.

This movement of heat is what scientists call “heat transfer.” Heat is always on the move, and heat pumps make use of this concept.

Heat pumps have the ability to harness the heat transfer process and use it to your advantage. They extract heat from the air or ground outside your home and transfer it inside. When it’s cold outside, the heat pump collects heat from the outdoor air (even in freezing temperatures), amplifies it, and releases it into your home.

More Than One Type of Heat Pump

If you’ve decided to upgrade your heating and cooling system with a heat pump, you’ll need to choose the type that best suits your home. The two types of heat pumps we’ll cover in this article are Air Source (ASHP) and Ground Source (GSHP).

Let’s look at air-source heat pumps first.

Air-Source Heat Pumps (ASHP) extract heat from the outdoor air. They function year-round, making them a versatile choice for both heating and cooling.

ASHPs are well-suited for regions with milder winters and moderate temperature fluctuations. Most homeowners find them cost-effective and relatively easy to install.

There are a few pros and cons to keep in mind when selecting this type of heat pump. Here are the pros of ASHPs:

  • Lower upfront installation costs
  • Versatile operation for both heating and cooling
  • Suitable for homes with limited outdoor space

Here are the cons of ASHPs:

  • Reduced efficiency in extremely cold climates.
  • May require auxiliary heating in harsh winter conditions.

Next, we’ll talk about ground-source heat pumps.

Is a Ground Source Heat Pump Right for You?

Ground source heat pumps use consistent temperatures underground for heat exchange. GSHPs can also use a water source, such as a well or pond, for heat exchange.

GSHPs heat and cool, just like ASHPs, but their energy source is more dependable.

Ground source heat pumps are ideal for regions with extreme temperature variations. They maintain high efficiency even in very cold or hot climates.

As is true with air-source heat pumps, GSHPs come with their own set of pros and cons. The pros of GSHPs include:

  • Exceptional efficiency and consistent performance
  • Minimal maintenance and longer lifespan
  • Suitable for extreme climates

Here are the cons:

  • Higher upfront installation costs
  • Requires more space for ground or water source loops
  • Installation may be more complex

The choice between air-source and ground-source heat pumps depends on your specific needs, budget, and regional climate. You should base your decision on a thorough evaluation of your home’s requirements.

Make sure to talk to a knowledgeable HVAC contractor who has experience installing and maintaining heat pumps.

Heat Pump Components You Need to Know

Heat pumps are not particularly complicated. That said, you’ll still want to familiarize yourself with the main components.

Heat Pump

The heat pump itself handles the heat transfer process. It houses the essential components required for both heating and cooling. The heat pump operates in two modes, depending on whether you need to heat or cool your space.


The evaporator acts as a heat exchanger between the outdoor and indoor air. It plays a critical role in both heating and cooling modes. When your contractor installs your system, they will locate the evaporator inside your house.


You’ll find the condenser outside your home. Depending on the time of the year, the condenser either collects or releases heat.

Compression and Expansion Valves

The refrigeration cycle wouldn’t work efficiently without the compression and expansion valves. Both control the flow and state of the refrigerant.

The combined actions of these components, working together, allow heat pumps to efficiently transfer heat, whether you need to keep your home warm in winter or cool in summer. The ability to switch between these modes and use heat transfer principles is what makes heat pumps such versatile and energy-efficient systems.

Maintaining Your Heat Pump for Winter Efficiency

Just like your current heating and cooling system requires maintenance, so does a heat pump. Heat pumps require routine maintenance during the winter for several reasons:

  • Optimal efficiency
  • Prevents breakdowns
  • Checks for proper airflow and distribution
  • Maintains indoor air quality
  • Safety
  • Extends lifespan
  • Warranty requirements

Winter places increased demand on your heat pump. Regular maintenance ensures all components work correctly. A well-maintained system is more energy-efficient, which can reduce your heating costs.

Common Winter Maintenance Tasks for Your Heat Pump

Maintaining your heat pump not only helps you maximize its performance and extend its lifespan. Routine maintenance can help you save money on energy bills and repair costs.

Maintenance includes some simple tasks that just about any homeowner can do themselves. Start with regular filter replacements.

If you own a traditional HVAC system, you already know about clean air filters. A heat pump also requires clean filters.

We can’t overstate the significance of clean air filters. Dirty filters restrict airflow. It doesn’t take much dirt buildup on the filter to make the heat pump work harder than necessary.

Clean filters contribute to better indoor air quality by trapping dust, allergens, and pollutants. To ensure the well-being of your heat pump and the quality of your indoor environment, commit to changing or cleaning your filters regularly.

Another common but simple maintenance task is cleaning the outdoor unit, a.k.a. the condenser.

Maintaining a clean and debris-free outdoor unit is essential for the optimal performance and longevity of your heat pump during the winter. A cluttered or dirty condenser unit can impede airflow and heat exchange.

Leaves, twigs, dirt, and other debris can accumulate around the outdoor coils, inhibiting the heat transfer process. To keep your heat pump running smoothly, clear away debris and vegetation.

When cleaning, be cautious not to damage the delicate fins of the coils, and remember to power off the system to ensure safety during maintenance.

Check for Refrigerant Leaks

Periodic checks for refrigerant leaks are a critical aspect of heat pump maintenance. Refrigerant is the lifeblood of a heat pump. It is responsible for absorbing and releasing heat as it circulates through the system.

When refrigerant levels drop due to leaks, it compromises the heat pump’s ability to transfer heat. When that happens, you’ll notice a significant decrease in heating and cooling capacity.

The need for refrigerant level checks becomes particularly crucial during the winter season when your heat pump must work efficiently to keep your home warm. Checking for refrigerant leaks isn’t easy if you’re not trained to work on heat pumps.

We strongly recommend leaving this task to a professional HVAC technician for several reasons.

First, refrigerant handling requires specialized knowledge and equipment due to environmental and safety regulations. HVAC technicians are trained to detect leaks, repair them, and recharge the system with the correct refrigerant.

Second, refrigerant leaks can be challenging to pinpoint. Often, it requires advanced diagnostic tools to accurately find the source of the leak. Inexperienced individuals attempting to fix leaks on their own may worsen the situation or fail to address the root cause of the problem.

The Power of a Calibrated Thermostat

Checking for refrigerant leaks may not be something that the average homeowner can do, but you can maintain the system’s thermostat.

Thermostat maintenance should start with a gentle cleaning. Using a small, soft paintbrush, dust the inside and outside of the thermostat unit. This is the place where dirt and grime accumulate.

Calibrating the thermostat is a maintenance task often overlooked but vital to the heat pump’s efficient operation. A thermostat that isn’t accurately reading and responding to temperature changes can lead to uneven heating and higher energy consumption.

To calibrate your thermostat, follow these steps:

Check for Accuracy

Compare the thermostat’s temperature reading to a reliable thermometer placed nearby. If there’s a significant discrepancy, it may need calibration.

Access Calibration Settings

Each manufacturer sets guidelines on thermostat maintenance. To make sure you use accurate settings, check the user manual.

Adjust Setpoint

Make small adjustments, following the manufacturer’s instructions to align the thermostat’s temperature reading with the external thermometer. This process may involve setting the thermostat to a degree or two higher or lower.

Test and Monitor

After making adjustments, monitor the thermostat’s performance over a few days, ensuring it consistently maintains the desired indoor temperature.

A properly calibrated thermostat will help maintain a comfortable and consistent indoor temperature, prevent your heat pump from running unnecessarily, and ultimately save you on heating costs during the winter.

What About Installing a Programmable Thermostat?

It seems like nearly everyone has a programmable, or smart, thermostat these days. They’re not that expensive, and relatively simple to install.

Should you install one when you upgrade to a new heat pump?

If you only use your heat pump to cool your home, a programmable thermostat can save energy, resulting in lower cooling bills. You set the thermostat back and watch the savings trickle in.

Setting the thermostat back during the winter interferes with the heat pump’s efficiency. What you want to do is maintain a moderate temperature.

Generally, a programmable thermostat is not recommended, but there is a caveat!

Programmable thermostats designed for use with heat pump systems are on the market. Before installing any new thermostat, it’s a good idea to talk with your HVAC technician.

The Importance of Professional Heat Pump Maintenance

Regular Professional Maintenance:

So, you’ve done all the maintenance tasks you can handle on your own. The next step is to schedule professional maintenance. Annual maintenance done by a certified HVAC technician is a necessity, not a luxury.

Here’s an outline of the tasks typically performed during a maintenance visit:

Inspection and Cleaning

The technician will thoroughly inspect and clean both the indoor and outdoor units. They remove debris, dirt, or blockages that could hinder airflow or the heat transfer process.

Refrigerant Check

Checking refrigerant levels ensures there are no leaks. It’s a crucial part of the maintenance. Low refrigerant levels can significantly impact your heat pump’s efficiency.


Lubricating moving parts, such as motors and fans, ensures smooth and efficient operation. Neglecting this step can lead to premature wear and tear.

Electrical Connections

The technician will inspect and tighten electrical connections. This reduces the risk of electrical issues and safety hazards.

Airflow Assessment

The technician will assess the airflow through the system, ensuring it meets the manufacturer’s specifications. Airflow problems can reduce the heat pump’s efficiency.

Ductwork Inspection

A technician may inspect the ductwork for any leaks or damage. Those are things that could reduce the heat pump’s effectiveness.

If you decide not to change the air filter or clean and calibrate the thermostat, your technician will include those tasks in their routine maintenance visit.

Need Help Choosing Your New Heat Pump?

How do heat pumps work in winter? We’ve given you some food for thought regarding heat pumps and their care.

Whether you’re upgrading to a new heat pump or looking for ways to maintain your current unit, the experts at Peak Home Performance are here to help. With 40 years of combined HVAC experience, there’s no question that we can’t answer.

Reach out today with questions or to request HVAC services.

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