by Chris Woodford. Last updated: April 15, 2021.
Must we burn the whole Earth to keep warm? Looking at the last couple of hundred years of human history, you might think that's
where we're heading. The Industrial Revolution—and all that's
happened since—was powered by combustion: burning coal, then oil
and natural gas, to drive everything from steam engines and
power plants to cars, boats, and planes. The consequences, apart from
pollution, include a rapidly warming planet that could eventually
prove too hot to handle. There's lots of talk about
solar cells, wind turbines, and
things like energy harvested
from the sea—but it's taking time to come onstream. There is
another way of producing renewable energy that most people don't know
about at all. Heat pumps "mine" the warmth buried just
underground and ferry it into buildings, a bit like air conditioners
working in reverse. Simple, efficient, and effective, and widely used in
Scandinavia for decades, they could provide much of our home heating
needs in the future. How exactly do they work? Let's take a closer
Artwork: The basic concept of a heat-pump: it extracts heat from the ground (or the air or water outside) and pumps it into a building. The only energy you need to make this happen is the power to drive the pump.
Where does the heat inside Earth come from?
Car engines and power plants
make useful energy by combustion—the process of burning a fuel like coal or gas with oxygen from the air to release chemical energy locked inside it. But you don't
necessarily have to burn a fuel to make heat energy. As I'm typing these
words, I'm sitting by a window with sunlight streaming in and warming
my legs (my body is soaking up and storing passive-solar energy).
The same thing is happening right across Earth: when the Sun shines on the
land, all that energy has to go somewhere, so it warms the ground
underneath. Although we're used to the idea that temperatures vary
from day to day, and day to night, it's much less obvious that the
temperature a little way underground is both more constant and, in
winter at least, significantly higher than it is at ground level:
in the top 3m (10ft) or so of Earth's surface, the temperature stays a steady 10–20°C (50–60°F). In other words, there's solar energy "buried" underground that we
can "mine" with a heat pump—a machine that extracts energy from
the ground (or sometimes from water or even air) and pumps it inside
a cold building to heat it up.
Photo: Geothermal or ground source? Geysers like this occur when rainwater and melted snow drips down through hot rocks inside Earth then blasts back up again as boiling steam. Geologists have estimated there's about 42 million megawatts of this geothermal energy inside our planet, which is equivalent to the energy made by 25,000 large power plants! Ground-source heat pumps aren't tapping into this "deep heat," however, but into gentler warmth nearer the surface that comes from the Sun. Picture by Robert Blackett, Utah Geological Survey, courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL).
One quick note about terminology. Although these machines are
sometimes called "geothermal heat pumps," that's a slightly
misleading description. Geothermal energy is the heat that comes from
deep inside Earth that we can see spurting to the surface in
steamy geysers or bubbling lagoons in places like Iceland; we can
harness such wild, extreme energy only in a relatively small number
of very specific locations, typically using geothermal power plants
to turn it into electricity. Heat pumps, on the other hand, are
tapping into more modest amounts of solar energy that have warmed the
Earth from the outside in—and we can tap into that pretty much
anywhere. To avoid confusion, it's better to talk about ground-source
or geo-exchange pumps and reserve the word geothermal for the geysers
Types of heat pumps
You'll often hear people talk about "ground-source heat pumps"
(which pick up heat buried underground) because those are the most
common—and they're the most common because, all round, they're the
most practical and efficient. Soil and rock underground is at a
fairly constant temperature from day to day, so getting heat out of
it is predictably efficient. We can also use heat pumps to extract
heat from water (something like a lake might seem cold but, as it's
hotter than absolute zero, it still contains heat we can pull out) or
even the air. Water- and air-source pumps (as these are called) are
much less common than ground-source ones. That's because most of us
don't have lakes in our backyard (ruling out water-source pumps) and
because air tends to fluctuate in temperature much more than the
ground, making it less efficient as a source of heat (in other words,
making ground-source pumps more attractive). It's worth noting that
it's possible to have hybrid heat pumps that take heat both from the
ground and the air.
Artwork: Three common types of ground-source heat pump system based on closed loops: 1. A horizontal loop, where the pipes run near the ground surface but over a large area; 2. A vertical loop has much deeper pipes recovering more heat from deeper, warmer ground;
3. A horizontal loop using a lake or pond as its heat source.
Closed loop, ground-source
Ground-source heat pumps use a closed loop of pipe and, because it
extracts a certain amount of heat, it has to come into contact with a
certain amount of ground to do so. There are two ways of achieving
that. Either the loop can run deep underground in a relatively small
area (so it's a vertical pipe) or it can run much closer to the
ground (about 1.5–2m or 4–6 ft below the surface) over a much
larger area (making it a horizontal pipe).
Generally speaking, the bigger your building, the more heat you need,
and the bigger or deeper the loop needs to be to extract that heat.
Some heat pump loops are really huge. Vertical loops can run
100m (330ft) below ground (the length of an athletic sprint track) or
sometimes even deeper, while horizontal loops might stretch
just over a meter deep and as far as 200m (650ft) across (they tend to be
longer than vertical loops because, being closer to the surface,
they're likely to be cooler during winter).
In practice, most heat pumps actually have two closed loops and a
heat exchanger that passes heat from one to the other. So there's a
very large loop that goes down into the ground filled with water and
anti-freeze, and a much smaller loop that takes heat from this loop
and passes it on to the heating system.
Open loop, water source
If you're trying to extract heat from something like a lake, pond,
or river, there's no reason why one of the loops can't be open. In
other words, you could pump water (containing heat) from the lake
itself, extract the heat with a heat exchanger and a second loop,
then return the water (cooled somewhat, because you've removed heat)
back to a different part of the lake some distance away (so there's
enough of a temperature difference to make heat extraction
efficient). A system like this is called an open-loop or sometimes a
surface-water heat pump. If the lake water isn't suitable for pumping
(perhaps because it's too silted up), it's possible to sink a
closed-loop into it instead and extract heat in the same way as we
extract it from the ground.
Heat pumps can also take heat from the air outside a building and
pump it inside—so they're effectively working like air conditioners
in reverse, with the primary purpose of heating a building
rather than cooling it, but using much the same principle. During
winter, air temperatures are much more variable than ground
temperatures (the air heats up and cools down far more quickly and
changes more erratically than either the surface or deep level ground
beneath your home), so air-source heat pumps tend to be less
efficient and less dependable than ground- or water-source ones.
Obviously, it's much easier to extract useful heat from the ground
than from the windy air above it, which could be ten degrees colder.
Advantages and disadvantages of heat pumps
Chart: You might think heat pumps would be used only in really cold countries;
Sweden and Switzerland account for a quarter of the world's heat-pump capacity between them.
But the technology can be used pretty much anywhere. Half of worldwide installed heat pump capacity is in the United States (where there are over a million separate units), just over a third is in Europe (where Sweden dominates), and the remainder is in Asia. Statistics from Geothermal Heat Pumps: Overview of Market Status: February 2009 (Executive Summary), US Department Energy (see references below).
Heat pumps have a lot of things going for them. Widely used all
over the world for decades, they're tried-and-tested machines with
relatively few moving parts, so they're long lasting, reliable, very
quiet, and very low maintenance. Other than the electricity needed to
power the pump, they consume no fuel, so they produce little or no
carbon emissions (none at all if the pump is powered 100 percent
renewably by something like photovoltaic solar panels or
a wind turbine) and no pollution
(there's also no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, as there is with
any form of combustion heating). No fuel means no fuel to have
delivered, pay for, move around, or store securely (unlike with
boilers that burn solid fuel such as biomass, oil, or coal).
What about some hard numbers?
As we've already seen, the magic thing about a heat pump
is that it moves several times more energy than it consumes;
in other words, it's well over 100 percent efficient (300–400 percent
is typical) compared to the very best condensing gas boilers, which
seldom exceed 90 percent efficiency. One common measurement of the
efficiency of heat pumps is called the coefficient of performance
(CoP), and it's simply the amount of heat you get out of your system
divided by the electrical energy you put into it to drive the pump.
Typical CoP values are in the range 3–4.
According to the US Department of Energy, heat pumps give annual energy savings of 30–70
percent in heating costs in winter and 20–50 percent in cooling costs
in summer. They're about 50 percent more efficient than gas furnaces (gas central-heating boilers) and 75 percent more efficient than oil furnaces (oil boilers).
That means they pay for themselves in 2–10 years
(obviously depending on the type of system, what it's replacing, and
other factors like how well your house is insulated to retain the
heat the pump extracts) and last two to three decades (with the
ground loop often warranted for as much as 50 years), so the
long-term economic case for putting them in new buildings is very
compelling. And owners seem to love them: according to the US Department of Energy, user satisfaction ratings are about 90 percent!
Chart: Europe has seen a steady growth in energy produced using heat pumps.
By the end of 2020, a total of almost 15 million pumps had been installed in 21 European countries.
In the 15 years between 2005 and 2020, the total number of installed heat pumps in the region increased by almost 15 times. Having said that, Europe now covers a very large area and a huge diversity of different countries, and some are notably more enthusiastic than others: the technology has been very well adopted in France and Sweden, for example, and just six nations (France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Norway and Finland) are responsible for over 80 percent of all Europe's ground-source energy production. Statistics and data courtesy of
European Heat Pump Association.
You need land where you can sink a loop
and the construction process can be expensive and disruptive (which
is another reason why heat pumps are better for new builds). Heat
pumps don't produce such high temperatures as gas boilers and furnaces, so they're often used with low-temperature
underfloor heating. Ordinary radiators are likely to produce significantly lower temperatures
from a heat pump than you'd get with a conventional gas boiler, so they'll take longer to heat up
your home from cold. Unlike electric and natural gas heating, which
can be used in almost any building, heat pumps depend on the local
geology and climate, so you need to factor that in; and obviously,
you can't use them just for one apartment on the 93rd floor!
Another important point is that heat pumps do need to be properly installed.
One UK study published in 2010 found that 80 percent of heat pumps were badly installed and
massively underperforming—sometimes consuming more energy
than they actually produced.
But all forms of heating have their pros and cons. Taken in the
round, heat pumps are a very attractive long-term alternative (or addition) to
green technologies like solar hot water panels,
photovoltaic solar panels, and
Who invented the ground-source heat pump?
Photo: Lord Kelvin's thermodynamics research—the science of moving heat—underpins modern heat-pump technology. Photo by T. & R. Annan & Sons
courtesy of US Library of Congress.
Whom do we have to thank for this brilliant idea? The theory of heat engines (machines that can
generate mechanical energy by heating fuel) largely began with French engineer Nicolas Sadi Carnot (1796–1832),
who laid the foundations for the modern science of thermodynamics (how heat moves).
British scientist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson,
for whom the Kelvin temperature scale is named)
built on Carnot's work and figured out the theory of heat pumps (how a machine can move heat energy
from one place to another).
Kelvin's work was concerned with the theoretical movement of heat; efficient, practical heat pumps only really appeared in the early decades of the 20th century when electric power became widespread, giving us such indispensable inventions as the electric
refrigerator and air conditioner. Mexican-born Swiss engineer Heinrich Zoelly invented the modern,
electrically powered ground-source heat pump in 1912. After that, numerous inventors improved on the
idea. Around 1930, Douglas Warner developed an air conditioning system using the ground as a heat sink
(which is effectively a ground-source heat pump idea working in reverse), for which
he was granted US Patent US 1,957,624: Air conditioning with ground cooling and solar heat in 1934.
According to geologist David Banks, Robert C. Webber of Indianapolis developed one of the first, practical, working heat pumps around 1945, after experimenting with using waste energy from his refrigerator to heat his home. Taking the idea a step further, he buried a 152-m copper coil underground and used that to extract heat instead. He sold the rights to this idea to a group of local businesses in 1948, but I can find no record of a patent for it either in his name or that of the company (Webber Engineering Corporation).
Artwork: An early ground-source heat pump designed by Marvin Smith and Emory Kemler, from
US Patent #2,461,449: Heat pump using deep well for a heat source. Artwork courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
How it works
The early heat pump I've chosen to illustrate here was patented by Marvin Smith and Emory Kemler of Muncie Gear Works, Inc. in the late 1940s. Smith and Kemler's 1940s water-well heat pump is not the world's first geothermal pump, but it's the earliest one for which I can find a decent diagram. Like most heat pumps, it can run as either a heater or a cooler. Here, I've colored and numbered to show how it works as a heat pump. Although this diagram looks confusing a a glance, it's simpler than it appears: there are two separate fluid loops connected by a pair of heat exchangers (the red and blue boxes near the top). The lower loop removes heat from the water well at the bottom, while the upper loop carries that heat to whatever the pump is heating. In a bit more detail, here's how it works: (1) Heat is extracted from a deep water well, passes up through valves (2) to a heat exchanger (3), before returning through the circuit to a cooler, higher part of the same well (4). The heat exchanger passes
the heat to a fluid in a closed loop, where it gives up its heat to the "receiver" (6, the room or whatever else is being heated),
before passing back around the loop to pick up some more. You can read a detailed explanation in US Patent #2,461,449: Heat pump using deep well for a heat source.