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Gas Heat Pumps vs. Other Alternatives

by Marc Dickinson

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Sometimes referred to as absorption pumps, gas heat pumps work similarly to any other air-source heat pump, except instead of using electricity to fuel their operation they rely on natural gas. This alternative form of power comes with many advantages and disadvantages compared to standard products, so as you shop around for the right type of unit there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind about each model.

What is a Gas Heat Pump?
First, it's important to understand how an air-source pump works. It is often compared to a refrigerator, where a series of coils and compressors move warm air to and from the house. For instance, even during the winter, there is still a small amount of warm air outside that can then be captured and forced into the house. During the summer, the "heat pump" can also cool the house, forcing out warm air and pulling in the cold stuff. But often they're set up like an air conditioner, run by electricity and refrigerants such as Freon. Or they're available in a geo-thermal system which pulls heat back and forth from the earth. Gas heat pumps, on the other hand, have an engine operated by natural gas and utilize natural refrigerants, such as ammonia and water. All three do the same type of work, but the methods by which they're run have significant differences.

What is the Gas Advantage?
Oddly enough, though it uses a non-renewable fossil fuel, a gas heat pump also comes with distinct environmental benefits. First off, it doesn't use ozone-depleting refrigerants like electric units. And unlike gas or coal furnaces, they don't have as many harmful emissions. Plus, though electricity may seem cheaper and more eco-friendly, there has been a large rise in electrical consumption in the country, creating dangerous waste, urban blackouts, and occasional power surges. In fact, many utility companies are feeling the strain from people's dependence, and overuse, of electrical products. In contrast, gas-generated power can often burn clean and in smaller amounts, especially when it comes to the efficiency associated with heat pumps.

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What are the Disadvantages?
Their largest disadvantage is expense since natural gas isn't cheap. However, overall economics are always relative. For instance, all heat pumps are more efficient and cost-effective compared to gas furnaces and electric air conditioners. And though they may cost a bit more to run than electric air-source systems, gas powered units are less wasteful in terms of operation. Since all heat pumps rely on outdoor conditions to function, power and dependability are two of the biggest complaints against them. But gas-operated systems often put out more energy than is put into them, making them more trustworthy all year round. Plus, though geo-thermal units are the most efficient and effective over time, their initial installation is expensive and requires quite an investment upfront.

What to Keep in Mind?
All three types of air-source systems are cheaper to install and operate than furnaces or traditional air-conditioners. However, they all also depend on the outdoor environment, which is why they are better suited for warmer, milder climates. As mentioned before, even in the winter there is still warm air that can be moved into the house. But as the temperatures drop, that ratio quickly shifts and the amount of usable warm air decreases, making your pump work extra hard. And since the entire point of these products is to increase efficiency and save on your energy bills it's not a good idea to install one in extremely hot or cold areas. Also, make sure you get it professionally installed. These qualified contractors can help you select the appropriate model with the proper efficiency rating, and they'll know the best place to put the unit so it isn't vulnerable to icing, high winds, or other exterior impediments.

Marc Dickinson has worked in both the general contracting and landscaping trades and is currently a home improvement freelance writer with over 300 articles published.