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A Bit of Confusing Heat Pump Terminology

Last updated: 01-02-2021

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A Bit of Confusing Heat Pump Terminology

Oh, the wonderful world of heating and air conditioning and its confusing terminology.  I've been doing building science for nearly two decades now, and I still have to ask around sometimes to find out what what a particular term means.  Here's the one that got me going on this today:

Air-to-water heat pump.  You probably know that a heat pump is a clever device that can move heat from a warm place to a hot place, as unlikely as that sounds.  And for its second trick, it can also move heat from a cold place to a warm place.  It's actually the same trick, involving two heat reservoirs, one known as the source and the other as the sink. 

Once you have that basic knowledge, you can look at the term "air-to-water heat pump" and deduce that the air and the water must be connected to the source and the sink.  Right?  But which is which?  And does it change with the seasons, as a heat pump switches between cooling and heating modes? 

As I've seen this term used over the years, I've come to see that it's mostly used in ways that imply that the first part, air in this case, refers to the outdoor heat exchange, and the second part refers to the indoor heat exchange.  So, an air-to-water heat pump would be what's also called an air-source heat pump with hydronic distribution. 

In plain English, that means the outdoor unit uses the outdoor air as a sink for dumping heat from indoors when it's cooling the house and as a source of heat to warm the house in winter.  The indoor unit collects or distributes heat with water running through pipes connected to radiant panels or some kind of radiator, like the one shown in the photo above.

I've occasionally tried to find a source (heh heh heh!) that could verify that as the correct usage, always unsuccessfully.  Recently, I asked three of my go-to HVAC buddies (John Semmelhack, Mike MacFarland, & Kristof Irwin) about this term, and they all confirmed that my assumption is correct.  MacFarland even sent me a paragraph from a book called Troubleshooting & Servicing Heat Pump Systems by Richard Jazwin, which states, "The first word in the description identifies the physical location of the outdoor coil."

From that, you can figure out exactly what kind of system would be called air-to-air (the most common configuration), water-to-air, water-to-water, or even a water-to-wine heat pump (mostly used in churches).  We know the formula, so now it's easy to decipher any combination.

Of course, if water is the first term, we could make things even more confusing by trying to describe what kind of system uses water for the outdoor heat exchange.  Is it a geothermal heat pump?  A ground-source heat pump?  A water-source heat pump?  Geoexchange?  Earth-coupled?  Oh, the fun we could have!

But this is New Year's Eve, and even in a pandemic, I'm going to save up some fun for this evening.  Happy New Year, everyone!

Allison Bailes of Atlanta, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and founder of Energy Vanguard. He is also the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.

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