What Does a Heat Pump Look Like?

A heat pump is a versatile heating and cooling device known for its energy efficiency. Its appearance, however, can vary depending on the type and the specific function it serves. Most commonly, a residential heat pump system consists of an outdoor unit that resembles a central air conditioning condenser and an indoor unit that is often similar to a furnace. The outdoor unit is typically housed in a metal cabinet with a fan, coils, and a compressor, while the indoor unit may be a wall-mounted, floor-standing, or ducted air handler.

Heat pumps can also come in other forms, such as ground-source or geothermal heat pumps, which have a different set of components primarily installed underground or underwater. The visible part of a geothermal heat pump system might include a series of pipes or a heat exchanger, but the majority of the equipment is out of sight. Distinguishing features of heat pumps are the refrigerant lines that connect the indoor and outdoor units, which are narrow tubes usually covered by insulation to ensure efficient operation.

As for ductless mini-split heat pumps, these feature small indoor units mounted on the wall or ceiling and connected to the exterior unit by a thin conduit. These units are sleek and tend to be less obtrusive in the living space. Regardless of the type, most heat pumps share a similar color palette, typically adopting neutral tones such as gray, brown, or off-white, designed to blend with a variety of exteriors and interiors.

Exterior Appearance and Size

The visual design of heat pumps consists of two main components: outdoor and indoor units. Their appearance varies depending on the type and brand, but they typically share common design features.

Outdoor Units

The outdoor unit of a heat pump resembles that of a central air conditioning system. They are encased in a metal box with a grille or fan on top to expel heat. Standard dimensions for residential units range from about 30 to 50 inches high, 30 to 36 inches wide, and 30 to 48 inches deep. The unit includes:

  • Coils: Enclosed in a protective grille.
  • Fan: Located on top or side for air circulation.
  • Control Panel: Usually on the side of the unit.

Indoor Units

Indoor units can vary more in appearance and are often smaller. They may hang on a wall, sit on the floor, or be tucked away in a ceiling or closet. Wall units are typically 7 to 12 inches deep, with lengths and heights varying widely. Common features include:

  • Air Handler: Enclosed within the unit.
  • Filters: Accessible for cleaning or replacement.
  • Control Interface: On the unit or remote-controlled.

Difference Compared to Central Air Conditioner

Heat pumps and central air conditioners have similar appearances, each consisting of an outdoor unit roughly the size of a small refrigerator. However, the functions they perform and components they contain differ.

Heat Pump:

  • Outdoor Unit: Resembles that of an air conditioner but also contains a reversing valve and a defrost board. This equipment enables it to provide both heating and cooling.
  • Heating Functionality: A heat pump transfers heat from the outside air into the home, even during colder temperatures, through refrigeration technology.
  • Cooling Functionality: In summer, it works like an air conditioner, removing heat from the home.

Central Air Conditioner:

  • Outdoor Unit: Also has an external compressor/condenser unit; however, it lacks a heat pump’s reversing valve and is solely designed for cooling.
  • Heating Functionality: None. Requires a separate heating system, such as a furnace, for warming the home.
  • Cooling Functionality: Removes heat from the interior air and releases it outside, thereby cooling the house.

Comparison Table:

FeatureHeat PumpCentral Air Conditioner
CoolingYes, like an air conditionerYes
HeatingYes, via reversing valveNo, requires a separate system
Reversing ValvePresent, for role switchingAbsent
Defrost BoardPresent, for defrost cycleUsually absent
System TypeCombined heating and coolingSolely cooling

While both systems are encased in a metal housing and contain a fan, coils, and refrigerant, the presence of a reversing valve in a heat pump is a key distinction, enabling it to reverse the flow of refrigerant for heating purposes.

Basic Components of a Heat Pump

A heat pump consists of four primary components that work together to transfer heat between the inside and outside of a building. Each component plays a critical role in the heating and cooling process.

Condenser Unit

The condenser unit is typically located outside the building. It releases absorbed heat from the indoor air to the outside environment. The unit houses a fan, condenser coils, and a heat exchange system to facilitate the condensing process.

Evaporator Coils

Evaporator coils are found inside the indoor air handling unit. They absorb heat from the air inside the building. As the refrigerant passes through these coils, it evaporates and captures heat, effectively cooling the indoor air.


The compressor functions as the heart of the heat pump, circulating the refrigerant between the condenser and evaporator coils. It pressurizes the refrigerant to raise its temperature, preparing it to release heat in the condenser unit.

Refrigerant Lines

Refrigerant lines are insulated tubes that connect the indoor and outdoor units, allowing the refrigerant to flow between the compressor, evaporator coils, and condenser unit. They are crucial for maintaining the refrigerant’s temperature and pressure throughout the cycle.

Types of Heat Pumps

Heat pumps vary in type based on their heat sources, which can include air, water, or the ground. Each type is designed for specific installation requirements and environmental conditions.

Air-to-Air Heat Pumps

Air-to-air heat pumps are the most common type, extracting heat from outdoor air to transfer it inside during the winter, and reversing the process to cool the home in the summer. They are relatively easy to install and are suitable for a wide range of climates.

Water Source Heat Pumps

Water source heat pumps require access to a nearby water body. They use water as the heat exchange medium, transferring heat between the home and the water source. Their efficiency depends on the water temperature and they are particularly effective in areas with moderate climates.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs), also known as ground source heat pumps, utilize the consistent temperatures of the earth. Pipes are buried in the ground to exchange heat with the soil. Geothermal systems are highly efficient, as they leverage the stable underground temperature, but their installation is more complex and costly.

Installation and Placement

Proper installation and placement are crucial for the optimal functioning of a heat pump. They must have adequate space around them and be placed in a location that maximizes efficiency.

Space Requirements

A heat pump requires sufficient clearance around its components to ensure good air circulation and easy access for maintenance. Specifically:

  • Outdoor unit: A clear space of at least 24 inches is typically needed on all sides.
  • Indoor unit: Typically requires at least 18 to 24 inches of clearance from any obstruction.

Location Factors

Choosing the right location for a heat pump influences its efficiency and longevity. Here are key location factors:

  • Outdoor unit:
    • Should be installed on a level base, like a concrete slab.
    • Must be positioned away from areas prone to snow drifts or flooding risk.
    • Should be placed out of direct harsh sunlight to prevent overheating.
  • Indoor unit:
    • Often installed in basements or utility rooms to minimize noise issues.
    • Should be away from dusty areas to keep the filters clean.
    • Requires a location that allows for proper condensate drainage.

Written by

Rene has worked 10 years in the HVAC field and now is the Senior Comfort Specialist for PICKHVAC. He holds an HVAC associate degree and EPA & R-410A Certifications.

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