Editor’s Note: This month’s Hydronics Workshop column marks the 25th anniversary for John Siegenthaler as a Plumbing & Mechanical columnist. John’s very first columns — all the way back in 1996 — used to be sent in by mail on floppy discs. We’ve come a long way together, so please join me in thanking John for his 25 years of sharing his vast knowledge with you, our readers. I also want to take the time thank our loyal readers for making Hydronics Workshop the most-read column on www.pmmag.com. Watch for a new, free eBook containing John’s most-read and favorite articles from Plumbing & Mechanical and PM Engineer to be released later this year.


25th Anniversary


The measure of a heat pump’s heating performance is called coefficient of performance (COP). It’s the ratio of useful heat output divided by required energy input, where both the output and input are expressed in the same physical units.

For example, if an air-to-water heat pump delivers 45,000 Btu/h of heat output to a stream of water, and has a power input of 5,000 watts, its COP, under those specific operating conditions, can be calculated as follows:



Siggy Equation 1

The higher the COP, the greater the desired output is relative to the required input. Thus, higher COPs are always preferred, all other things being equal.

Although higher COPs result in lower electrical energy consumption, it’s important to realize the person paying the bill for heating a building doesn’t pay for COP. They pay for the kilowatt•hours (KWHR) of electrical energy necessary to run the heat pump. This is an important distinction, and one that’s often misinterpreted when evaluating the merit of one heat pump vs. another. 

So, how is one supposed to evaluate various heat pump options with differing COP information and different installed cost? 

Start by understanding that COP can be calculated in several ways. The two most common ways COPs are expressed are: As an instantaneous performance index or as a seasonal average value.

The instantaneous COP of any heat pump is strongly dependent upon all of the following:

  1. The temperature of the material from which low temperature heat is being absorbed;
  2. The temperature of the material to which higher temperature heat is being released;
  3. The flow rate of the material supplying the low temperature heat (e.g., air or water) across the heat pump’s evaporator; and
  4. The flow rate of the material absorbing the higher temperature heat (e.g., air or water) across the heat pump’s condenser.

Most heat pump manufacturers list the COPs of their heat pumps under specific combinations of the above conditions. Those conditions are usually referenced to some industry standard, which should make it easier to make “apples-to-apples” comparisons. 

It’s also important to understand that if any of these four operating conditions change, the COP and heating capacity of the heat pump will also change. Under favorable operating conditions, it’s possible for just about any heat pump to have impressive COP values. However, those favorable conditions, which represent a “snapshot” of performance, don’t exist over an entire season (if at all).


Constant change

When evaluating seasonal heating cost, it’s important to use a COP that reflects the wide range of operating conditions the heat pump will experience over an entire heating season. These “seasonal average COP” values are not published by heat pump manufacturers because they don’t know what conditions the unit will operate under. Still, it’s possible to simulate those conditions using software that factors in either hourly data for outdoor temperature or bin temperature data, and in the case of geothermal heat pumps, algorithms for heat transfer for specified earth loop configurations. Software simulations also have to account for the variations in the heat pump’s heating capacity and COP under all these conditions. In some cases, the simulation may also have to adjust for time-of-use electrical rates. Such rates, where available, can significantly impact the operating cost for heat pumps that operate a high percentage of their total run time under lower “off-peak” rates. 

The result of such a simulation would be a reasonable estimate of the heat pump’s seasonal average COP, and that would be the performance index appropriate for making operating cost comparisons. 


One vs. another 

The annual savings in heating energy between two heat pumps with different seasonal average COPs can be estimated using Formula 1.


Siggy Formulation 1


S = savings in seasonal heating energy (MMBtu*);

load = total annual heating energy required for the building (MMBtu*);

COPL = seasonal average COP of heat pump having the lower of the two COPs; and 

COPH = seasonal average COP of heat pump having the higher of the two COPs.

* 1 MMBtu = 1,000,000 Btu

Here’s an example: A house has a design heating load of 36,000 Btu/h when the outdoor temperature is 0° F, and the indoor temperature is 70° F. The house is located in Syracuse, New York, with 6,720 annual heating °F•days. The estimated annual space heating energy use is 49.7 MMBtu. Assume that one heat pump option has a seasonal average COP of 3.28. The other heat pump has a seasonal COP of 2.8. Putting these values into Formula 1 yields:


Siggy equation 2

The cost savings associated with an energy savings of 2.6 MMBtu/h depends on the cost of electricity. For example, if electricity sells at a flat rate of $0.13/KWHR, the cost savings would be:


Siggy equation 3

The seasonal average COPH of 3.28 came from a software simulation of a geothermal water-to-water heat pump supplying warm water to a hydronic radiant panel heating system in the Syracuse, New York house (36,000 Btu/h design load). The radiant panel was assumed to require a supply water temperature of 110° under design load conditions. The software used for the simulation was supplied by the heat pump manufacturer. 

The seasonal average COPL=2.8 also came from a software simulation. In this case, the software came from a manufacturer of air-to-water heat pumps. This software simulation was also based on the same Syracuse house, and the same radiant panel delivery system. 

The entire balance of system downstream of the heat pumps was identical, as were the load conditions.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: Can an annual savings of $99 realistically amortize the higher installed cost of the geothermal heat pump within a reasonable time? 

The only way to address this is by making an installed cost estimate for both systems, factor in any currently available rebates or tax credits, and see what the difference would be. Here are the assumed (but none-the-less realistically estimated) values I will use for the comparison. 

The geothermal system was assumed to be supplied from earth loops contained in vertical boreholes, which in the upstate New York area, go for about $3,000 per ton of capacity for the borehole, U-tube piping and grouting. The estimated installed cost of the complete earth loop, including manifolding the individual “U-tube” in each borehole, routing everything back through the basement wall, and restoring all affected landscaping was $11,800. The installed cost estimated for the balance of system, including the heat pump, circulators, loop fluid, piping, etc., (but excluding the radiant panel heat delivery system since it would be the same for both heat pumps being compared) was $8,750. The total estimated cost of the heat pump and earth loop, but excluding the radiant panel distribution system, is $20,550.

The estimated installed cost of the air-to-water system (again excluding the distribution system) was $10,600. 

The difference in net installed cost between these two systems would be $9,950.

So the simple payback of the assumed geothermal heat pump system compared to the assumed air-to-water heat pump system, and assuming no change in electrical rates and no rebates, is $9,950/ $99 = 100.5 years. 

You decide if that’s acceptable. 

The geothermal heat pump industry currently enjoys a 26% federal tax credit for qualified installations. That tax credit will continue at 26% through 2022, decrease to 22% in 2023, and ends for 2024 and beyond — unless, of course, the feds decide that continued subsidies are in the public good. 

Some utilities and state energy programs also offer rebates for qualified geothermal heat pump installations. Only two states — Vermont and Massachusetts — currently offer financial incentives for air-to-water heat pumps. The current utility rebate for qualified geothermal heat pump systems in New York state is $1,500 per ton of heating capacity, which would apply to the previous example for Syracuse, and lower the difference in installed cost to $2,465. Still, at $99-per-year current savings, the simple payback of the geothermal system would be about 25 years. Again, I’ll let you judge the practicality of this reduced payback period. 

When the currently available incentives and rebates are no longer available, the simple paybacks in this example would again soar far beyond what most reasonable consumers would accept. 


Shrinking loads imply shrinking savings 

As energy codes become more stringent, and the market for low-energy buildings, net zero buildings and the like increases, the energy savings associated with different COP values decreases in direct proportion to the annual space heating energy use. That’s evident from Formula 1. Cut the load in half, and the savings are cut in half. Thus, the savings associated with a “super duper” heat pump yielding a seasonal average COP of 4.0 vs. one with a seasonal COP of say 2.5, in a building with a design load of only 18,000 Btu/h, in Syracuse, New York would be:


Siggy equation 4

 At a going rate of $0.13 per KWHR in that area, the annual savings would be about $142 per year. That’s typically far less than many households spend for a TV plan. It’s something to think about when contemplating very high performance, but pricey heating systems for low-energy houses. The eco-cocktail party bragging rights are there, but the financial case is “economically unsustainable.”


The bottom line

COPs for heat pumps, like AFUE values for boilers and SEER ratings for air conditioners, are often presented as numbers that energy conscious consumers should be very excited about. That’s understandable from a sales perspective. However, the numbers that count are those your clients will see on their utility bills, and there’s no line item on those bills for COP.