Why is Refrigerant Needed in a Heat Pump?

Feb 16, 2021

Heat pumps are complicated systems, and they can easily incur damage without necessary care. However, there is one common problem that tends to surprise homeowners: low refrigerant levels. Why is refrigerant needed in a heating system? Learn more here from the local heating and cooling experts at Newcomb and Company.

Heat Pump Refrigerant: How it Works

Contrary to popular belief, refrigerants do not directly cool air. Instead, they work by extracting all of the heat from airflow. When your air conditioner is running, this process is pretty straightforward. Your AC’s refrigerant extracts heat from the air before circulating this cool airflow throughout your home. It releases any excess heat outdoors.

But what happens in the winter months? Your air conditioner’s functioning reverses in your heat pump. The refrigerant extracts warmth from the air outdoors before circulating it throughout your home. While it may seem like there is not much warmth outdoors during the winter, your refrigerant can attract even low levels of heat.

How Can Refrigerant Extract Heat From Cold Air?

As humans, our high body temperature can often sway our perception of external temperatures. For example, this is why heat pumps often produce warm air that feels cold to us. However, the cool winter air is considered “warm” to the extreme cold of your refrigerant.

The refrigerants cycling your heating system are colder than even the chilly winter temperatures. Thanks to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, your refrigerant can then attract the warmth of this temperature difference and extract it from the air. This is why heat pumps are insufficient in northern states with severe winter weather (they rely on furnaces instead). In the south, there is enough warmth outdoors to satisfy your heat pump needs.

How Can I Tell If My Heater Needs Refrigerant?

So how can you tell if your heat pump is low on refrigerant? Like most heater troubles, it can be hard to diagnose low refrigerant without a firsthand look from a professional. However, there are some clear indicators that you can keep an eye out for. Here are six signs that your heat pump may be low on refrigerant:

Improper Heat Pump Functioning and Low Refrigerant

While it may seem obvious, without the refrigerant moving heat into your airflow, your heater will not produce warm air. While a countless variety of issues can cause your heat pump to stop working, this is most easily distinguished by cold airflow. If your heat pump blows cool air but otherwise is running well, this could be a sign of low refrigerant. This cold airflow may begin subtly and worsen over time.

Icing or Frost on Your HVAC System

Your system’s evaporator coil holds your refrigerant and absorbs heat from the air outside. When this system is not full of refrigerant, it can begin to produce condensation, which freezes overnight. If you notice any icing or frost on your HVAC unit, this could be a sign of low refrigerant.

Gurgling Noises from HVAC

When your unit is circulating low levels of refrigerant, there might be air bubbles taking up the extra space left behind by lost refrigerant. Air bubbles can create distinct gurgling sounds from your heating and cooling system.

Higher Energy Bills from Low Refrigerant

Your thermostat will sense when your home is not at the desired or programmed temperature. It will signal to your heat pump to keep working around the clock in an effort to keep your home warm. Naturally, this will cause you to see a spike in your monthly energy bill.

Liquid Around Outdoor Unit

If your refrigerant is leaking, you may notice pools of liquid around your HVAC system. However, this is often hard to spot—and even harder to identify as refrigerant instead of rain or condensation. If you notice liquid pooling around your heating system and all other potential sources are accounted for, it may be leaking refrigerant.

Important Note on Refrigerant Leaks

Refrigerant is largely odorless and tasteless—and it can be incredibly harmful to your health. If you notice a pool of liquid around your unit and are wondering if it is refrigerant, do not inspect it yourself. Instead, call an expert. Refrigerant is poisonous when inhaled or ingested, and it can cause burns when it comes in contact with your skin.

Contact poison control if you fear you may have been exposed to refrigerant. Seek emergency medical services if you think you are experiencing refrigerant poisoning. Keep all individuals and pets away from potential refrigerant leaks/spills. Once your safety is secured, call an HVAC expert for support.

Professional Inspection and Maintenace

Low refrigerant is perhaps easiest detected during a routine inspection. Professionals complete refrigerant checks during annual maintenance visits, which often helps you identify and repair this issue before it can impact your system functioning. However, you can also schedule a technician visit if you suspect low refrigerant or any other heat pump troubles. A professional will run diagnostics to identify the problem. Then, your HVAC expert will discuss your options to create and implement a repair plan that will get your heating system working properly.

Newcomb and Company: Heater Repair Near Me

Newcomb and Company HVAC experts are here to bring you industry-leading heater repair, maintenance, and replacement services. We proudly serve Raleigh, Wilmington, and surrounding communities—including Knightdale, Cary, Garner, Clayton, Durham, Castle Hayne, Leland, Carolina Beach, and beyond! Give our local heater specialists a call today to get started!

Need help? Call now.