Air source heat pumps taster

Air source heat pumps explained

  • Discover how air source heat pumps work
  • Air source heat pump costs and payback times revealed
  • Pros and cons of installing an air source heat pump
  • Things to consider when getting a heat pump

Our expert guide to air source heat pumps shows you how air source heat pumps work, how much they cost, and how much they could save you on your energy bills.

Read on to find out more about air source heat pumps, including their pros and cons.

How an air source heat pump works

An air source heat pump (ASHP) is usually placed outdoors at the side or back of a property. It takes heat from the air and boosts it to a higher temperature using a heat pump. The pump needs electricity to run, but it should use less electrical energy than the heat it produces. 

Many air source heat pumps are eligible for payment through the Renewable Heat Incentive, a government scheme that provides payments to homeowners who generate their own heat. 

Air Source Heat Pumps

Air source heat pumps hints and tips

  • Like ground source heat pumps, air-to-water ASHPs work better with underfloor heating systems. If underfloor heating is not possible, large radiators should be used. This is because the heat generated by the heat pump is not as high as that produced by a conventional boiler, so a larger surface area is needed to achieve similar temperatures in your home.
  • Air-to-water heat pumps could be better suited to new-build properties than retrofit - this is because costs could be reduced if the heat pump is included as part of the building specification, rather than having to retrofit underfloor heating later on.
  • Heat pumps can save you more on your heating bills if you're replacing an electric, oil, LPG or coal system, rather than gas.
  • A well-insulated house is essential to best optimise the heat generated by your ASHP - otherwise the heat the pump is generating escapes more easily.
  • Once in place, the heat pump should require little maintenance.
  • Air-to-water heat pumps qualify for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Air source heat pump costs and savings

ASHPs are cheaper than ground source heat pumps. The Energy Saving Trust (EST) estimates that the cost of installing a typical ASHP system ranges between £7,000 and £11,000. 

The payback period (the time taken to recoup the cost of the system in energy savings) depends on how efficiently your system works, the type of system you're replacing, whether you can get money with the RHI and how you'll be using the heat generated from the pump. 

The EST says that an average performing air source heat pump in an average four-bedroom detached home could save:

  • between £360 to £555 a year if replacing oil (non-condensing)
  • between £1,200 and £1,805 a year if replacing LPG (non-condensing)
  • between £715 and £1,295 a year if replacing electric heating (old storage heaters). 

It also estimated that the RHI would pay an extra £905 to £1,365 a year.

Installing an air source heat pump

If you're considering installing an air source heat pump you can head to Which? Local to find an installer recommended by other Which? members.

ASHPs look similar to air-conditioning units and are less disruptive to install than ground source heat pumps, as they do not require any digging in your garden. 

An ASHP works a bit like a refrigerator in reverse. The process consists of an evaporator, a compressor and a condenser. It absorbs heat from the outside air and the heat pump compressor then increases the temperature of that heat further to create useful heat.

There are two main types of ASHP:

  • Air-to-water systems take heat from the outside air and feed it into your wet central heating system. As the heat produced is cooler than that from a conventional boiler, you may need to install larger radiators or underfloor heating in your home to make the most of it.
  • Air-to-air systems take heat from the outside air and feed it into your home through fans. This type of system cannot produce hot water.

In the summer, an air-to-air heat pump can be operated in reverse, like an air-conditioning unit, to provide cool air for your home.

Pros of air source heat pumps

  • Air source heat pumps can generate less CO2 than conventional heating systems.
  • They are cheaper than ground source heat pumps and easier to install, particularly for retrofit, although their efficiency can be lower than with ground source heat pumps.
  • ASHPs can provide heating and hot water.
  • They require very little maintenance.
  • Some can be used for air conditioning in the summer.
  • ASHPs can qualify for the RHI, a financial incentive that pays you to produce heat through clean technologies.
  • You need to use electricity to power the pump which circulates the liquid in the outside loop, but for every unit of electricity used by the pump, you get between two and three units of heat – making this an efficient way to heat a building.
  • Cheaper Economy 7 electricity tariffs can be used to lower the cost of electricity to power the heat pump and special heat pump tariffs may be available from some electricity suppliers – alternatively, consider solar photovoltaic panels or a wind turbine (if you are in a suitable area) for a greener source of electricity.

Cons of air source heat pumps

  • You'll need enough space in your garden for the external condenser unit (comparable in size to an air-conditioning unit). Condenser units can be noisy and also blow out colder air to the immediate environment.
  • You still need to use electricity to drive the pump, so an air source heat pump can't be considered completely zero-carbon unless this is provided by a renewable source, such as solar power or a wind turbine.

How green are air source heat pumps?

An air source heat pump system can help to lower your carbon footprint as it uses a renewable, natural source of heat – air. The amount of CO2 you'll save depends on the fuel you are replacing. For example, it will be higher if you are replacing electric heating rather than natural gas.

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A heat pump also requires a supplementary source of power, usually electricity, to power the heat pump, so there will still be some resulting CO2 emissions.

Ground source heat pumps are also available. They draw heat from the ground via a network of water pipes buried underground, usually in your garden. See our separate guide to ground source heat pumps for more details.

Heat pump energy labels

New regulation means that heat pumps will now have to have an energy label on them. The label gives information about the energy efficiency of the heat pump and rates products from dark green (most efficient) to red (least efficient).

From 26 September 2015, all new heat pumps that enter the market must be sold with an EU product label, and the installer should produce a package label that displays the efficiency based upon several different components in the heating system.

After 25 March 2016, all heat pumps certified by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme must be sold with a product label, and the installer must produce a package label. If your heat pump is not sold with a product label it may not be eligible for the RHI.

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