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Confused by a Home Heat Pump Issue? Try These Troubleshooting Tips

Resolving heat pump issues may or may not be doable yourself. In many cases, an essential malfunction serious enough to affect operation of the unit will require professional repair. However, some basic troubleshooting may help you separate simple matters that are DIY-friendly from those that call for the services of a qualified HVAC field technician.

The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute reports that the average service life of a new heat pump is 14 to 16 years—about the same as a central A/C and only a few years less than a standalone gas-fired furnace. However, a heat pump handles both the cooling and heating load in a home and runs more annual operating hours than separate units. Without proper maintenance including professional checkups, wear and tear can be a significant factor in heat pump issues.

Here are some troubleshooting tips to serve as a general guideline when common heat pump issues affect performance or efficiency.

System Doesn't Start

When a heat pump fails to energize entirely, the possible DIY fixes are very limited. First check the main circuit breaker panel. If you notice a tripped breaker, reset it and try the heat pump again. Still no action? Time to call in professional service.

No Heat Or No Cooling

First the obvious: Make sure the unit is turned on and set to the proper mode (heat or cool) at the thermostat. Next verify that the desired temperature setting on the thermostat is correct—five degrees above or below the room temperature to activate heating or cooling, respectively. If the unit still doesn't respond correctly, contact your HVAC contractor for a service call.

Ice On The Coils

Frost forming on the outdoor coils of the heat pump may be a normal temporary phenomenon—or one of those heat pump issues that requires professional diagnosis. Coil temperatures generally run below freezing. In humid conditions, dew freezes on the coils, forming a light coat of frost. Heat pumps have built-in defrost technology that reverses the refrigerant flow  to send warm refrigerant through the coil and melt the frost. Defrost systems operate on either a timer interval or when activated by a sensor.

Generally, frost or ice on the heat pump coil should disappear within two hours due to defrosting. If ice persists and begins to thicken, you need a service call. A technician will check for malfunctions such as a low refrigerant level—usually resulting from a leak–or a defect in the defrost cycle.

Steam Rising From Outdoor Unit

This is usually a sign that the system is functioning properly. When the defrost cycle mentioned above activates, warm refrigerant circulating through the outdoor coil melts coil icing. As this process takes place in frigid outdoor air, steam naturally rises. Once the residual moisture from defrosting evaporates—usually after about 10 minutes—the appearance of steam should disappear.

Unusual Sounds

Beyond normal humming sounds and air circulation, any loud noises such as banging, scraping or vibrating sounds emanating from heat pump components should be a signal to turn the unit off immediately and call for professional service. Allowing the unit to continue to run may substantially worsen damage. Potential heat pump issues a technician will investigate run the gamut from limbs or other debris that have penetrated the outdoor fan grill and are being struck by fan blades to a cracked or unbalanced fan to a major malfunction such as a defective compressor.

Auxiliary Heat Activates Continuously

Often signified by a green or blue light on the thermostat, auxiliary heat generated by electric coils in the indoor air handler is activated when temperatures drop below the heat pump's rated capacity to extract sufficient heat from outdoor air.

The exact temperature varies with the model and rated capacity of the unit. However, in most heat pumps auxiliary heat may activate around 32 degrees and will stay on until temperatures rise into the range where the heat pump can generate sufficient heat to warm the house.

The auxiliary indicator will also illuminate when the unit is in defrost mode as heating coils temporarily take over the load while refrigerant reverses into the outdoor coil. If the unit persists in auxiliary mode even when outdoor conditions rise above freezing, have an HVAC service person check the system. Running the heat pump in auxiliary mode unnecessarily will substantially increase heating costs.

For professional help in resolving heat pump issues, contact us to find a West Texas HVAC contractor near you

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