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Defrost Cycle of a Heat Pump System


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.

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.

What It's Doing Inside

During this defrost cycle, 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 (Heat Strips) engage 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

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.

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.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your system please, feel free to contact Sandpiper Heating & Air, LLC and we'll be happy to set up an appointment with one of our qualified service technicians.

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