What is a heat pump system and how does it work?

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As a technology that has become increasingly adopted in a multitude of projects, the question of ‘what is a heat pump system’ is also more and more common. 

There are many reasons behind the surge in the use of the heat pump system. One of the key ones has to do with this technology’s enhanced use of resources, and the possibility it offers to move away from fossil fuels and improve sustainability. 

An outstanding example of the growth of this technology has to do with the use of industrial heat pumps in district heating solutions. As operators and cities look for models that reduce the environmental impact of heating and effectively decarbonize the heat production, heat pumps provide a sustainable, affordable and efficient alternative. 

This is especially true when paired with technologies that are able to promote the use of waste heat, which then tap into notions of circular economy.

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If the question ‘what is a heat pump system’ is on your mind, you’ve come to the right place. Find out the exact definition of a heat pump, the way it works and the main components of a technology that is revolutionizing the way we think about obtaining and using heat. 

What is a heat pump system?

A heat pump is a mechanical technology in charge of transferring heat from a low-temperature source to a high-temperature source by means of an external energy source.

In order to do so, the device relies on performing a refrigeration cycle that takes place between both operations (the extraction of energy from a heat source and its transference to the final users at an optimal, controlled temperature).

Heat pumps have become a more efficient alternative to generate heat, as opposed to traditional boilers and electric heaters. When adequate, sustainable heat sources are available (including many renewable sources such as geothermal or seawater heat pumps), the sustainability of heat pumps is also enhanced.

The heat pump system is currently used in a wide range of applications, including commercial, residential and industrial. Processes such as drying, washing or pasteurization can benefit from their use, although it’s the district heating initiatives that have currently taken central stage, as we’ve mentioned above. 

Both focusing on heat pump applications in the industry, as well as heat pumps in district heating systems, the benefits of this type of technology include:

  • Possibility of enhancing low-grade heat to substantial heat (including the use of renewable energy sources)
  • Capability to use locally-available energy sources, including  groundwater, lake/river/seawater and waste heat 
  • Reduction of energy consumption thanks to increased efficiency in the use of resources
  • A way to access more stable energy prices
  • Capacity to balance heat demand and supply. This is especially important in the development of district heating and cooling in smart cities, which are already benefiting from pairing up heat pump systems with Thermal Storage solutions, such as TES tanks

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How does a heat pump system work?

  • Heat is absorbed from an outside source through a refrigerant from the evaporator
  • A compressor is in charge of pressurizing low-temperature refrigerant gas, changing to a high temperature and high pressure gas.
  • Now a high-pressure working fluid, the refrigerant gas, circulates through the condenser heat exchanger, transferring all the heat to the heat sink secondary circuit, which is normally the district heating or hot water distribution network.
  • Condensed refrigerant in liquid state flows  through an expansion valve that lowers the pressure and temperature
  • The process begins again when the working fluid travels back to the evaporator, so that it’s ready to absorb thermal energy again

Some heat sources for heat pumps

1. Water 

Seawater, water in lakes and rivers and underground water all represent a stable source of heat that can be used in a water-to-water heat pump model. 

2. Industrial heat recovery

This type of heat pump is interesting in industrial settings, and requires the installation of heat dissipation systems (cooling towers, fin fan coolers or air coolers) to evacuate heat. This model allows a reduction in water and electricity consumption

3. Waste heat

This model allows for the reutilization of heat energy that would otherwise go to waste, generating circular economy models. 

4. Ambient air

Outside air can provide a heat source for a heat pump system, although it represents a less stable or controlled source than other alternatives on this list

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Want to learn more about what a heat pump system is and how operators are employing this technology to achieve maximum efficiency? At ARANER, we’re experts in the development of pioneering heating solutions that employ heat pumps and other state-of-the-art technology to make the most of current possibilities regarding thermal energy.

Download our heat pumps technical ebook for free or get in touch with our team to discover how to harness heat pump efficiency and sustainability for your project.

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