Electric Heat Pump Pool Heater vs. Solar Pool Heater

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Should you buy an electric pool heater (heat pump) or a solar pool heater? Each has its pros and cons, some of which are shared.

Electric Heat Pump Pool Heaters

Built Right Heat Pump Pool Heater

Heat pumps are like really big air conditioners working in reverse. Heating water is a lot harder than cooling air, so it uses lots of electricity when you need it most.

Electric heat pumps are popular in Florida, and for good reason. Since heat pumps use the latent heat in the air to heat your pool, warm Florida daytime temperatures are complementary to heat pumps. The efficiency of a heat pump is related to the air temperature vs. the pool water temperature. When the outside temperature is relatively high, the efficiency can be very good. For one unit of electricity (kWH), you can get about 6 times the heating energy (BTU) into your pool water. However, as the ambient temperature drops, the efficiency of an electric heat pump drops. In fact, at a certain temperature, heat pumps will stop working, or will be very inefficient. That means you could be using electricity and barely putting any heat into your pool. If you want to swim (or enjoy a spa) on a cold morning, the heat pump may be pretty ineffective overnight.

Some heat pump manufacturers and dealers tout the “dollar-a-day” cost to operate a heat pump. However, when you read the fine print, the temperatures reached are often not warm enough for many bathers, there are disclaimers about excluding days below certain temperatures, and the cost is an average that includes days when heating is not necessary. If you think a heat pump that runs all the time will cost you $365 a year to operate, that’s not reasonable. Still, they are the best heat source in Florida outside of “free” heat gained by doing nothing and just letting the sun heat your pool. If you are good about managing your heater’s run time, you can have a good experience without outrageous electricity bills.

Electric heat pumps can provide a couple of degrees of heat rise per hour. If you run your pool pump only during the day, your heat pump will start over each day to recover heat lost overnight. However, for the reasons stated above, it does not make sense to attempt to heat your pool overnight unless you absolutely need warm water in the morning. Using a cover helps reduce costs.

You can offset your heat pump’s electrical use by installing solar electric panels, which have become an economical competitor to traditional solar pool heaters.

Solar Pool Heaters

A solar pool heater aerial image

Solar pool heaters work every day of the year with no operational cost, and are very effective at providing luxuriously warm water and extending the swimming season.

Solar pool heaters have the distinct feature of being the only pool heating option that involves no direct operational costs (indirect costs of increased variable speed pump electricity is a real factor, but pretty minor). You can experience heated pool water every day of the year, with temperatures reaching about 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit above that of an unheated pool in ideal weather. Typical daily maximum temperatures exceed that of unheated pools by about 10ºF, or a bit more if using a pool cover. In Southwest Florida, that is good enough to provide swimming enjoyment for much of the year. It all depends on whether (pun intended) the possibility of a 10-degree temperature increase is good enough for you. Remember – unheated pools in Southwest Florida get down to about 65ºF at times. But for some people, this is perfectly acceptable.

On the downside, if you are looking for even warmer temperatures, or want to quickly heat a spa, a solar pool heater may not be reliable enough for you. If you want to virtually guarantee a set temperature each day, solar pool heaters will not be the best choice. After all, it’s a weather-dependent technology! On the other hand, an electric heat pump can’t provide a guarantee either (see above). Like electric heat pumps, solar pool heaters will result in the warmest water later in the day after the sun has had a chance to work its magic.

So why are solar pool heaters so popular in Florida? While heat pumps promise relatively energy-efficient pool heating, there is still an operating cost involved, and that cost is hard to anticipate. Solar pool heaters will heat your pool every day of the year without operating costs, sometimes a little, and sometimes more.

Aside from limited performance, other potential downsides are storm (wind) vulnerability, occasional leaks, and perceived looks.

Should I Choose an Electric Heat Pump Pool Heater or a Solar Pool Heater?

The choice is yours. Heat pumps provide fairly reliable temperatures most of the year, but at a cost, as long as you plan ahead. Solar pool heaters reliably heat your pool a certain number of degrees above an unheated pool every day of the year, but cannot achieve a set temperature if it exceeds the capability of the system. Solar pool heaters and electric heat pumps are both weather dependent technology in different ways, and at some times solar pool heaters and electric heat pumps may not be able to work at all. For example, solar pool heaters do not work at night, so pool heating needs to be done during the day. Heat pumps don’t work when the temperature gets very cool, and if they do they cost an arm and a leg to operate.

Why choose if you can have both?!

Solar pool heaters can complement an electric heat pump very well (or vice-versa). If you budget allows, you can install both systems. The solar pool heater will do the heavy lifting by heating your pool every day and maintaining higher average temperatures so your heat pump will run less (far less). Automation systems can make this marriage work seamlessly. It is a common situation to have a homeowner or commercial owner that is tired of high electric bills install solar panels to reduce the electricity costs. In fact, in many situations where we add a solar pool heater to an existing heat pump, owners report never using the heat pump again, or use the heat pump only for spa heating.

In the end, the combination, or hybrid system as we call it, can be the best of both worlds.


  1. What is the proper plumbing direction, does the pool water go through the heat pump first or through the solar heater ?

  2. I live in central Florida. I have solar but a little low on the capacity and we’re beginning to get swallowed up a bit by tree cover, so I am considering adding a heat pump. I also have a propane heater, but I only use this for the spa. Here’s my thought, it kills me that I have a 4 ton and a 3 1/2 ton ac condensing units 10 feet away from my pool pump/heater, etc. My central ac condensers are sitting there rejecting heat from the house like crazy while I would love to put these BTUs into my frigid pool water. When will a manufacturer be the first to capitalize on full energy management for Florida homes, the market is begging for it.

    1. Author

      Kevin: it’s a common thought, but it won’t work, at least not much. First, the amount of heat thrown off from an A/C unit is paltry in relation to the amount of heat needed in a pool. They used to make heat recovery units for A/C condensers to heat domestic hot water. That is a MUCH smaller volume of water. Now even these have gone away because condensing units have become much more efficient over the years. To put it in perspective, a 5-ton A/C unit is 60kBTU. The typical Florida pool heat pumps are around double that, and they are purpose-built to maximize efficiency. You would not be able to do that with a water source heat pump heat exchanger for your home. Finally, the time when you need the most A/C for your house is the time you need pool heating the least, and vice versa. The efficiency and the need would both be reduced drastically.

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