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How Do Heat Pumps Work in the Winter?

How it Operates

When a heat pump is operating in the heating mode or heat cycle, the outdoor air is relatively cool and the outdoor coil acts as an evaporator. Under certain conditions of temperature and relative humidity, frost might form on the surface of the outdoor coil. The layer of frost will interfere with the operation of the heat pump by making the pump work harder and, therefore, inefficiently. The frost must be removed. A heat pump has a cycle called a defrost cycle, which removes the frost from the outdoor coil.

A heat pump unit will defrost regularly when frost conditions occur. The defrost cycle should be long enough to melt the ice, and short enough to be energy-efficient.

In the defrost cycle, the heat pump is automatically operated in reverse, for a moment, in the cooling cycle. This action temporarily warms up the outdoor coil and melts the frost from the coil. In this defrost cycle, the outdoor fan is prevented from turning on when the heat pump switches over, and the temperature rise of the outdoor coil is accelerated and increased.

The heat pump will operate in the defrost cycle until the outdoor coil temperature reaches around 57° F. The time it takes to melt and remove accumulated frost from an outdoor coil will vary, depending on the amount of frost and the internal timing device of the system.


Interior Heating Element 

During this defrost cycle with older heat pumps, the indoor unit might be operating with the fan blowing cool air. To prevent cool air from being produced and distributed inside the house, an electric heating element can be installed and engaged at the same time as the defrost cycle. In defrost mode, this heating element will automatically turn on, or the interior blower fan will turn off. The heating component is wired up to the second stage of a two-stage thermostat.


The Typical Cycle 

The components that make up the defrost cycle system includes a thermostat, timer and a relay. There is a special thermostat or sensor of the defrost cycle system, often referred to as the frost thermostat. It is located on the bottom of the outdoor coil where it can detect the temperature of the coil.


When the outdoor coil temperature drops to around 32° F, the thermostat closes the circuit and makes the system respond. This causes an internal timer to start. Many heat pumps have a generic timer that energizes the defrost relays at certain intervals of time. Some generic timers will energize the defrost cycle every 30, 60 and 90 minutes.


The defrost relays turn on the compressor, switch the reversing valve of the heat pump, turn on the interior electric heating element, and stop the fan at the outdoor coil from spinning. The unit is now in the defrost cycle.


The unit remains in the defrost cycle (or cooling cycle) until the thermostat on the bottom of the outdoor coil senses that the outdoor coil temperature has reached about 57° F. At that temperature, the outdoor coil should be free of frost. The frost thermostat opens the circuit, stops the timer, then the defrost cycle stops, the internal heater turns off, the valve reverses, and the unit returns to the heating cycle. A typical defrost cycle might run from 30 seconds to a few minutes. The defrost cycles should repeat regularly at timed intervals. An inspector should not observe a rapid cycling of the defrost operation.


In summary, certain conditions can force a heat pump into a defrost cycle (or cooling cycle) where the fan in the outdoor coil is stopped, the indoor fan is stopped or electric heat is turned on, the frost melts and is removed from the outdoor coils. When the frost thermostat is satisfied or a certain pre-set time period elapses, the outdoor fan comes back on, and the heat pump goes back into the heating cycle.


One problem of many older heat pump systems is that the unit will operate in the defrost cycle regardless of whether ice is present. On these systems, if it’s cold outside, the defrost cycle might turn on when it is not needed.


If the defrost cycle is not functioning properly, the outdoor coil will appear like a big block of ice, making the unit non-functional. Damage could result if the heat pump operates without a functional, normal-operating defrost cycle.


Causes of Frost

There are many reasons why an inspector might find frost and ice stuck on an outdoor coil of a heat pump that is not properly defrosting.  

The cause of the frost and ice problem may include: 

  • a bad reversing valve;

  • a damaged outdoor coil;

  • a wiring problem;

  • a bad thermostat;

  • a leak in the refrigerant;

  • a dirty outdoor coil covered with grass, dirt, debris and/or pet hair; 

  • a fan that won’t turn on; 

  • a fan installed backwards with the blades running in the wrong direction; 

  • a motor operating in the incorrect direction; and/or 

  • a replacement fan motor spinning at a very low rpm.  

Diagnosing apparent problems with the defrost cycle of a heat pump is beyond the scope of a home inspection.

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