Technical Heat Pump
Renewable Heat Pumps
A guide for the technically minded
How do heat pumps work ?
A heat pump is an environmental energy technology that extracts heat
from low temperature sources (air, water, ground), upgrades it to a higher
temperature and releases it where it is required for space and water
heating. Heat pumps can also be operated in a reverse mode for cooling
The heat pumping cycle can be divided in three steps:
Step 1. A fluid with a boiling point lower than the heat source temperature
serves as a medium for heat transport. It is called the working fluid or
refrigerant. As the working fluid extracts the heat from the source through
a heat exchanger, its temperature rises and it evaporates.
Step 2. Then a compressor compresses the evaporated fluid.
Consequently, the pressure and the temperature of the vapour increase.
When pumping up a bicycle tyre, you can also observe this phenomenon.
The lower side of the pump – where the pressure is highest – is getting
very hot.
Step 3. Finally, heat is being transferred from the evaporated fluid to the
heat distribution fluid (water or air) in the condenser. As it releases its
heat, the working fluid temperature decreases to such a degree that it
condenses. After passing through the expansion valve, the fluid regains
its initial liquid, low-temperature and low-pressure state. It then flows back
to the evaporator where the process starts all over again.
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In the residential sector
A heat pump does not look very different and can perform the same functions as a conventional gas or
oil boiler i.e. space heating and sanitary hot water production.
But it does it much more efficiently, using most of its heating energy from free renewable sources.
Renewable heat pumps for space heating are best suited in new houses where high levels of insulation
and low temperature heating systems result in low heating demand. In retrofit situations, the heat pump
should be installed in parallel with the existing heating system to provide a large proportion of the annual
heating needs at reduced operating temperatures.
Water heating is often provided in addition to space heating. The heat pump can provide indirect heating
in the domestic hot water cylinder via an internal or external heat exchanger. Because of the high output
temperature required, (minimum 55 °C) the efficiency for water heating may be reduced. A desuperheater can also be installed between the compressor and the reversing valve of a space conditioning
heat pump. It is a refrigerant hot gas-to-water heat exchanger which is sized to remove the superheat
from the compressor discharge gas prior to entry into the refrigerant condenser.
Some heat pumps allow for a reversing of their cycle to provide cooling (air-conditioning). However airconditioning is expensive and energy intensive. It is absolutely unnecessary in Irish houses as natural
ventilation is more than sufficient to reduce excessive
temperature during the summer.
In the commercial sector
A heat pump is really a three-in-one HVAC
system. It combines heating, cooling and
air-conditioning in an economical and
eco-friendly machine. They are particularly suited for buildings with a high
demand for space heating and sanitary
hot water production, extensive work-in
times and a simultaneous need for
In large buildings, several individual
heat pumps can be placed in different
zones and each can be sized to meet
the needs of the space it conditions.
Some zones of the building may need
heating at the same time as other zones
need cooling. When properly integrated, a
heat pump system can recover excess heat
in one zone (sunny side, computer rooms, etc.) and
transfer it via a water pipe loop to areas of the building requiring heating. It is therefore possible to
achieve a balance between heating and cooling needs during a good part of the year (40 to 60%).
When the demand for heat exceeds the energy reclaimed, a central heat pump can supply the distribution loop with heat from a renewable source, generally the ground. In reverse, the same heat pump
can extract excess heat from the loop and dispose of it in the ground to replenish the heat source for
further demand.
As for the residential sector, a demand for cooling can be avoided by careful design of the building and
taking advantage of natural ventilation. However, a ground/water source heat pump can be used for
direct cooling, at low energy cost, by bypassing the evaporator and circulating fluid from the
ground/water coil through a water-to-water or water-to-air heat exchanger.
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How is their performance
Energy is needed to activate the heat pump cycle and to compress the vapour for the production of useful
heat. The efficiency of this process is expressed by the ratio between the useful heat delivered by the
condenser and the driving energy used by the compressor. This ratio is called the Coefficient of
Performance (COP).
1 unit of
3 units of
renewable heat
4 units of
useful heat
As environmental heat is free and available in very large quantities, it is not included in the COP. That is
why the COP is bigger than 1. The COP of the current generation of heat pumps varies from 2.5 to 5.
Since the COP shows performance at a steady state only, a second parameter is usually used to show the
performance of the heat pump over an entire year. It is called the seasonal performance factor (SPF),
which is the ratio of annually delivered useful heat over annually used driving energy. When calculating the
SPF, it is common to include the annual electricity requirements of auxiliary equipment, such as circulation
pumps, fans, etc.
The performance of a heat pump system is affected by several factors, which include:
* The climate (annual heating and cooling demand and peak loads);
* The temperature of the heat source and the heating distribution system;
* The auxiliary energy consumption;
* The heat pump control.
The performance of electrical heat pumps should be balanced by the fact that the efficiency of electricity
generation in Ireland is less than 40%. That means that for every unit of electricity used, more than 2.5
units of primary energy (mix of oil, gas, peat, etc.) have been burned. Therefore, a heat pump with a COP
of 4 driven by electricity generated by a thermal power plant has a primary energy efficiency of 160%.
That is already better than the 100% achieved by a modern gas condensing boiler operating at low
temperature for example. But you can increase the primary energy efficiency of your heat pump, and
therefore its environmental benefit, by 3 times by driving it with green electricity. It is now possible to switch
easily to a green electricity supplier at no extra cost (see the REIO fact sheet on green electricity).
Renewable heat sources
The choice of the heat source is of vital importance for the heat pump, as it will directly influence its
application, efficiency (COP & SPF) and initial and operating costs. Renewable heat sources that can be
used by heat pumps are air, water and ground.
The main factors that will affect this choice are:
* its availability: quantity, location relative to need and coincidence with need;
* its cost: installation, operation and maintenance;
* its temperature: level (the higher the better) and variation.
Ambient air, the most common heat source for heat pumps, is free and widely available. However airsource heat pumps achieve on average 10-30% lower seasonal SPF than ground-source or water-source
heat pumps. This is mainly due to the rapid fall in capacity and performance with decreasing outdoor
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A ground-source heat pump uses the earth or ground water or both as sources of renewable heat. The
temperature of the ground doesn’t vary very much over the year and is generally higher than 5 °C. This
ensures a relatively stable supply of heat for the heat pump and higher performances than air-source ones.
Heat is removed from the ground through a collector and transferred to the heat pump via a liquid (water or
antifreeze solution). The pictures below show the three main types of ground collectors:
Closed-Loop, Single Layer
Horizontal Configuration
Closed-Loop, Single U-bend
Vertical Configuration
Open System Using Ground Water
from a Well as a Heat Source
Open water can be also used as a low temperature heat source. Rivers, streams and lakes, when
available, are ideal sources of energy. They have the advantage of needing much less collector surface
area than for a ground-source heat pump.
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Closed-Loop Pond or River Collector
Open System Using Open Water
from a Pond or River as a Heat
The table below presents the advantages and disadvantages of the most common heat sources:
Heat Source Examples
Outside Air
*Low Temp. in winter
lower COP
*Additional heating required
*Suitable source for gas
absorption heat pump as
small source capacity
Ambient air
(10 to 15˚C)
* No storage effect, no ‘free’
cooling in summer
* Noise pollution
Shallow ground
(0 to 10˚C)
* Potentially unlimited
* Relatively high investments
due to ground collector
* Constant temperature
(10 - 15˚C) higher COP
* Output dependent on
thermal properties of the soil
and collector area
* Possibility ‘free’ cooling
in summer
* Available ground area for
horizontal collectors can be
Needs only a small
amount of ground area
* cost of well drilling
* The ground collector is
generally close-looped and
can be horizontal or vertical
* The heat reserve of the
ground can be regenerated
by solar collectors or by heat
disposal during summer.
* Might need permission from
Pond & Rivers
(0 to 10˚C0,
sea (3 to 8˚C),
* Usable temperature for
circulating or flowing
* Unlimited availability if
source in the vicinity
* Low temperature with dead
water in winter
* Permission of the water
board may be required
* Water needs to be filtered
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Low Temperature heating Systems
As mentioned before, heat pumps work best when the temperature of the heat released is low. Floor, wall
and low temperature radiator heating systems are therefore particularly suited for heat pumps. Floor and
wall systems are more and more popular for reasons of comfort and health, as well as aesthetic reasons
(no pipes and radiators).
Convection radiators create higher temperatures in the ceiling and cooler temperature at floor level. This
will cause convection drafts and air circulation which have a cooling effect on the occupants and carry dust
particles. This can result in respiratory problems and dirt on walls and furniture. With underfloor heating,
floor to ceiling temperature and humidity levels remain more constant, producing a more comfortable
environment for occupants.
In retrofit situations, underfloor heating might not be possible. Different options can then be considered:
modern radiators can be used to distribute heat at a low temperature.
They are larger than conventional radiators to allow for lower heating
temperatures with larger convection areas;
hydronic convectors assisted with a fan can be operated at low water
temperature with a heat pump. They are typically 20% to 40% the size of
an equivalent output radiator, and are equipped with advanced control;
existing radiators can be operated at lower temperature than usual to provide a base
heating load with the heat pump. The heat pump is backed-up by the existing boiler or an
immersion heater when higher temperatures are required.
The table below shows how the COP of a water/brine-to-water heat pump varies with the temperature of
the distribution system:
Heat distribution system
Conventional radiators
Floor or wall heating
Modern radiators
Hydronic convectors
60/50 °C
35/30 °C
45/35 °C
48/38 °C
Heat source 5 °C
Air heating may also be used with heat pumps in modern houses in which the heating requirement is
limited. It has the advantage of working at a low temperature and of being able to react quickly to
temperature fluctuations in the house. An air-heating appliance can also be used to purify and refresh the
air to create an optimum indoor climate.
Storage systems
Conventional heating systems (gas or oil boilers) are generally sized to meet peak demands (only a few
days if not hours per year). Heat pumps are not suitable for such an approach as the investment required
would be too high. To fit this economically, we therefore aim at a system with a heat pump as small as
possible, working for as many hours as possible. A certain amount of heat or cold can be stored in a buffer
at a certain time to meet peaks in demand later on.
Temporary storage can take place in the mass of the building. Heat produced by the heat pump can be
stored at night in the mass of the floor slab through an underfloor heating system and released slowly
during the day. The mass of walls insulated externally, or partition walls, can be used similarly. This
principle can be applied to avail of the low cost electricity at night to store most of the heat (60%) that will
be used during the next day.
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Long-term storage (for a period of several months) can take place in the ground (aquifer). When operating
as a cooling unit, the heat extracted from the building by the ground-source heat pump is stored in the
ground. This heat can then be pumped back in the building during the heating season. Inter-seasonal
storage is generally only feasible in commercial buildings which have a cooling requirement.
Sizing the heat pump system correctly
Sizing the heat pump
The capacity (power) of a heating system is defined according to the maximum heat demand of a given
building. The maximum heat demand, also called the heat load, is calculated for the building according to
specific weather conditions and indoor air temperature.
In Ireland, the capacity of the heat pump should be designed according to the heat load, in priority to the
cooling load when there is demand for cooling. It is essential that the design and sizing of the heat pump
system are done carefully and should be carried out by an expert. In a new building, the architect is best
placed to calculate the heat load according to the characteristics of the building (insulation, area,
occupancy, etc.) and local climate conditions.
As mentioned earlier on, heat pumps should be sized in order to have the lowest initial cost and to be
working as many hours as possible. The optimum economic size of the heat pump design capacity is
normally in the range of 30 to 60% of the maximum heat load of the building. Such a heat pump can cover
between 60 and 90% of the annual heat demand. The figure below shows schematically the relationship
between the heat pump capacity and the building requirements.
Heat demand (%)
Auxiliary Heat
Heat Pump capacity
and building heat
requirements in a heat
duration diagram. the
heat requirements of the
building do not include
domestic hot water
Heat Pump 50%
Annual Heat From Heat Pump
1 Year
As can be seen from the figure above, an auxiliary heater is used to supplement the heat pump during the
colder part of the year. This combination, in which the heat pump is referred as bivalent, is particularly
interesting in retrofit situations where the existing heating system can be kept to meet peak demand
In new buildings with a high level of insulation and using a low temperature heat distribution system, heat
pumps can meet the whole heat load and heating requirement. For safety, a powerful immersion heater can
be installed at the inlet of the heat distribution system.
Design of the heat source collector
When the heat pump is operated with a ground source or a water source, the system harnessing the heat
source, called heat collector, must be designed carefully. The heat collector must match the heat
requirements of the building with the thermal properties of the source. Undersizing will mean comfort levels
are not reached and back up heating/cooling will be required at extra cost. Oversizing results in high initial
costs and frequent cycling of the heat pump, reducing the operating efficiency and equipment life. In large
multizone buildings, with different heat loads which might not occur at the same time, a detailed energy
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analysis combined with sophisticated heat exchange models are needed.
In the case of ground-coupled heat pumps, it is necessary to obtain information on the thermal and
hydrological properties of the site. Appropriate configuration of the ground coil and installation techniques
need to be selected expertly. Surprises in this area can lead to exploding costs.
As an indication, a survey of ground source heat pumps in the USA showed that the length of the vertical
heat exchanger varied between 10 and 25 m of borehole per kW of installed capacity, with an average of
14 m per kW. Boreholes are generally 100-150 mm in diameter. Multiple boreholes can be used for larger
residential and commercial installations. Vertical exchange loops can also be incorporated into concrete
piles where these are needed for supporting the building. These can be very cost-effective as the additional
cost of integrating plastic heat exchanger tubes into the piles is small.
Horizontal collectors require a relatively large area free from hard rock or large boulders. They are
generally most appropriate for small installations. As a rule of the thumb, the area of collector is more or
less equivalent to the floor area of the house. The collector pipe is buried in a trench at a depth of between
0.5 and 1.8 m. As the trenching cost is generally smaller than the piping cost, systems using multiple pipes
in one trench will be economical. The energy collected per meter of pipe will be less but the area needed
for the collector will be reduced. By placing the coil as spiral horizontally or vertically in the trench, the area
of the collector can be reduced further. The advantage of this
configuration is that the heat exchange surface is effectively a cylinder with the diameter of the coil.
Economics of heat pumps
Capital costs
The capital costs for a complete heat pump system are made up of the equipment cost of the heat pump
unit, the heat source collector, the heat distribution system, and installation. The ground coil and its
installation are typical of a ground-source heat pump system and represent 30-50% of the total capital cost.
The following table gives an indicative breakdown of the capital costs of a ground-source or water-source
heat pump system in a residential building in Ireland:
1 incl. trenching or digging
2 Based on US figures, including
drilling. According to heat pump
suppliers, vertical ground
collectors are not economical for
small-scale applications in Ireland.
(excl. VAT)
Heat Source Collector
Horizontal ground source1
Vertical Ground source1,2
Water Collector
€1,905 - 2,539
€/m of borehole 32-76
€ 1,905 - 2,539
Heat Pump unit
Capacity 10 KW
Capacity 15 Kw
€4,444 - 5,080
€5,080 - 5,714
€1,016 - 1,905
Control Unit
Channel & hot water control
€ 381- 635
Hot water heating kit
(excl. cylinder)
€ 635
Underfloor heating
Incl. material, installation, finish
€/m2 31.74 - 38
Hydronic convectors
3kW terminal, incl. installation
6kW terminal, incl. installation
€/unit 317
€/unit 356
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Operating costs
A heat pump with a seasonal performance factor of 3-3.5 can reduce the energy consumption of a building
by 60-75% compared with an efficient oil boiler system for example.
The following graph compares the energy cost to deliver 20,000 kWh of heat per year by different heating
system, in a standard 180 m2 Irish house at Spring 2001 energy prices :
Ground source HP, green electricity
Ground source HP, conventional electricity
Natural gas boiler
Gas oil boiler
Electric storage
200 400 600 800 1000 1200 1400
IR£/year, VAT incl.
The following graph compares the annual energy cost to deliver the heating requirement of a typical office
building (110 kWh/m2, without air-conditioning) of different heating systems using Spring 2001 energy
Ground source heat pump
Modern condensing gas boiler
Modern condensing oil boiler
Modern, non-condensing gas boiler
Modern, non-condensing oil boiler
Maintenance costs for a heat pump system are also lower than alternative systems. Heat pumps are
relatively robust as they have few moving parts, they operate at low temperature and have no risk of
corrosion due to flue gas condensates. There is no need for chimney stack or burner cleaning. In a
commercial building maintenance costs have been estimated to be only 20 to 40% of conventional heating
and cooling systems.
A cost-effective investment
Heat pumps are generally more expensive to install than conventional heating systems. The extra initial
cost for a residential heat pump and its heat source collector (3 to 5,000 EURO) will be rapidly recovered
by your energy savings, typically between 3 and 8 years.
In commercial buildings, the initial cost of a heat pump is often competitive with conventional heating and
cooling systems (typically boilers, air-conditioning units and cooling towers). When properly designed and
integrated in the building, heat pump systems can yield a simple pay-back period of five years or less when
compared with conventional systems.
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Environmental benefits of renewable heat pumps
Irish households emit nearly 11 million tonnes of CO2 per year due to the combustion of fossil fuels for
household heating and hot water production. This represents 30% of total CO2 emissions in Ireland.
Commercial and public buildings in Ireland are responsible for the emission of nearly 7 million tonnes of
CO2 per year (close to 18% of total CO2 emissions in Ireland) due to their energy consumption. Sixty-five
percent of that energy consumption is for space heating, water heating and cooling.
The main environmental benefit of renewable heat pumps is there ability to reduce the primary energy
consumption required for space heating, cooling and water heating. However their very high efficiency to
produce heat at user’s point must be balanced by the power station efficiency at generating the electricity
driving a heat pump.
The following table compares the primary energy efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions of different
heating systems with a renewable heat pump according to the efficiency of electricity generation:
Primary Energy
Efficiency (%)
Specific CO2 emissions
(kg CO2/kWh heat)
Oil fired boiler
Gas fired boiler
Condensing Gas Boiler
+ low temperature system
Electric heating (eff. 40%)1
Conventional electricity
(eff.40%)1 + GSHP
120 (160)3
0.27 (0.20)
Green electricity
(100% eff.) + GSHP
300 (400)
0.00 (0.00)
1 Primary energy efficiency of electricity generation
2 Value if COP of GSHP is 3
3 Value if COP of GSHP is 4
When replacing your oil boiler with a ground source heat pump, you will reduce your CO2 emissions by at
least 40%. That’s already a significant contribution towards the fight against climate change. As electricity in
Ireland is mainly generated by fossil fuels with a high carbon content (coal, peat, oil, etc.), using 1 kWh of
electricity is responsible for a relatively high level of CO2 emissions (0.82 kgCO2/kWh). With the
replacement of old power stations using coal or peat with more efficient and cleaner electricity plants, the
potential of electric heat pumps to reduce CO2 emissions will increase further.
But the really good news is that Green Electricity produced from renewable energy sources (wind, hydro,
biomass) is now commercially available in Ireland at a competitive rate. The generation of Green Electricity
is free of CO2 emissions and has a primary energy efficiency of 100%. So by driving your heat pump with
Green Electricity, you will heat your house and hot water totally with renewable energy sources and without
emitting any CO2. That’s a major achievement for the environment.
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Other non-financial benefits for the user include:
Low operation noise
Good aesthetics (no chimneys, no cooling towers) and improved room use
(no radiators)
No roof penetrations resulting in reduced potential of leakage and ongoing
Increased safety – no combustion or explosive gases within the building
No local pollution by fuel combustion
Improved indoor air quality and reduced risk of asthma.
The Renewable Energy Information Office
The Renewable Energy Information Office is a service of Sustainable Energy Ireland. Its objective is to
support the development of renewable energy in Ireland by providing independent and expert advice as
well as information on related financial, environmental and technical issues.
Five ways to contact us:
WRITE: Renewable Energy Information Office
Irish Energy Centre
Shinagh House
Bandon, Co. Cork
TELEPHONE: our hotline – 023 42193
FAX: 023 41304
EMAIL: [email protected]
Sustainable Energy Ireland is a joint initiative of the Department of Public Entreprise and Forbairt.
It is supported by the EU through the Community Support Framework.
I want to know more about renewable heat pumps
Further reading
The Renewable Energy Information Office has a range of publication covering all renewable energy
technologies, among which:
Free Factsheets available Directly from Us or Our Web Site:
* Wind Energy
* Bioenergy
Landfill Gas
* Hydropower
* Green Electricity
* Renewable Energy for Buildings & Industry:
Passive Solar Design
Heat Pumps for Your Home
Heat Pumps for Commercial Buildings
Heat Pumps for the Health Sector
Solar Water Heaters
How to Heat with Wood
All these brochures can be downloaded from our website:
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The Heat Pump Centre of the International Energy Agency has a very good range of publications on heat
pumps, among which:
Heat Pumps, an opportunity for reducing the greenhouse effect (1992)
Heat Pumps, a better way of meet heat demand (1996)
Heat Pumps, better by nature (1993)
Environmental benefits of heat pumping technologies, analysis report
- Domestic Hot Water Heat Pumps for Residential and Commercial
Buildings (1993)
- Commercial/institutional heat pump systems in cold climates (2000)
The IEA Heat Pump Centre Newsletter is published four times a year and is a very useful source of up-todate information. Visit the IEA Heat Pump Centre website at:
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has a very good
range of practical references for the design and operation of heat pumps:
- Ground source heat pumps – Design of geothermal systems for
commercial and institutional buildings (1997)
- Commercial/institutional ground-source heat pump engineering manual
- Operating experiences with commercial ground-source heat pump (1998)
These publications can be ordered from their website, by email: [email protected]
or by fax: 00 404/321-5478
Other publications:
Ground source heat pumps, a technology review
R H D Rawlings. The Building Services Research and Information Association,
Technical Note TN 18/99
RETScreenTM International:
RETScreen provides free-of-charge software for renewable energy project analysis, including renewable
heat pumps. The software can be downloaded from the Natural Resource Canada’s website at
Interesting websites:
Renewable Energy Information Office, Irish Energy Centre:
The Heat Pump Centre of the International Energy Agency:
CADDET, Energy Efficiency Information of the International Energy Agency: (including database with case studies)
The European Heat Pump Network:
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