Heat Pump Confidential: A neighbor’s guide to getting a heat pump

Lessons learned from one RE Sources employee's experience making the switch from gas to electric heating. May 20, 2022

One morning this past March, my family and I woke up to a chilly house and downright frigid air blowing out of our floor vents. My mother in-law and brother in-law were on their first visit since my partner and I purchased a 1975 split level home in January. We knew that the gas furnace in the garage had reached “could go any day now” territory when we bought the place, but were hoping we’d make it through one more winter. By some minor miracle, our Carrier Weathermaker SX  (one of the first high-efficiency gas furnaces ever) was still running 37(!) years after installation. It was hard to fully appreciate the furnace’s longevity that morning. All I could think about was how cold our toddler’s bedroom was going to be for the foreseeable future.

After searching in vain for a tripped circuit breaker or some other quick fix, we had an HVAC technician make a house call and confirm our fears. Beneath the furnace’s cover plate we uncovered a rusted out condenser, taped up wires and what may or may not have been a rodent’s nest. The technician suggested repairing the unit would be cost-prohibitive assuming we could even source the replacement parts that were first manufactured during the Reagan administration. He loaned us two tiny electric space heaters and warned me that their company was booked out until mid-August for new equipment installations on account of high demand and supply chain issues.

As the HVAC van pulled away, it started to sink in. After months of pushing building electrification as one of the most effective ways for our region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change, I was finding out just how feasible it would be to put my money where my mouth was.

Over the next couple weeks, we scheduled a few HVAC companies for bids on furnace replacements, including a new gas furnace, an air source heat pump, and a “dual fuel” option (basically a new heat pump and gas furnace to work in tandem).

After a good deal of hemming and hawing, we bit the bullet and invested in a new central air source heat pump. Fortunately, our HVAC company squeezed our heatless home onto their busy docket and got our heat pump installed about four weeks after the gas furnace crapped out. As I type this story, our central heat pump is humming quietly outside, efficiently keeping the air inside the house comfortable, clean and healthy.

All’s well that ends well, but I had to get really familiar with heat pumps in a short period of time to get the heat back back up and running in my home. I thought I’d pass on some takeaways from the experience as more people consider going electric with a heat pump upgrade.

Plan ahead, way ahead, if you can

It might sound obvious, but being in a home without heat is no fun. Waking up cold, seeing your child shiver in their high chair, and trying to work productively from home for the better part of a month reminded me that home heating is about more than comfort, it’s about basic needs, health and safety.

The clean energy transition is here. The only questions now are how smooth will it be and how fair will it be across our region’s communities. We’re already seeing demand for heat pumps and home electrification outpacing the supply of equipment and of skilled workers available to install them. For these reasons, the sooner you start making a plan for electrifying and weatherizing your home, the better. If your furnace is on the older side, do yourself a favor and consider picking out a heat pump about six months to a year before you think you’ll want to install it. Really, do it as soon as you can afford to, because the sooner you make the change, the sooner you’ll start recouping savings on utility bills.

Lead with your interest in electrification

Based on my limited experience, HVAC customer reps will wait for you to open the door to a conversation about air source heat pumps as a replacement for a gas furnace. This may be in part because historically not many people have gone out of their way to ask about options that cost 2 to 3 times more upfront than a straightforward gas furnace replacement.

That said, most HVAC customer reps will be happy to talk about heat pumps once you bring them up. Some local HVAC companies even started running local radio ads early this spring urging people to start thinking about installing a heat pump to provide air conditioning ahead of the hot summer months.

A heat pump by any other name

The indoor unit / air handler that replaced my ancient gas furnace

There are multiple kinds of heat pumps, but they all use electricity to transfer heat from one space to another, which is a much more efficient way to heat a space than to generate heat by burning fossil fuels. It may sound like new-fangled technology, but it’s not. A heat pumps is essentially an air conditioner with a reversing valve that allows it to either cool an indoor space or heat it depending on the direction of the heat transfer. Here are a few common kinds of heat pumps:

Air Source Heat Pumps: As the name suggests, this type of heat pump transfers heat from the outside air inside the house in order to heat the home (or the process is run in reverse to cool the home). There are two main types of air source heat pumps:

  • Central Heat Pumps: This is a common solution in our region if you have HVAC ductwork and you are looking to replace a gas furnace. This solution involves installing an outdoor heat pump unit that will look either like an HVAC air conditioner outdoor unit or a big briefcase, and an indoor unit to replace your gas furnace. The indoor unit, which looks just like a furnace, serves as the air handler and blows the air throughout your ductwork. These air handlers can include “heat strips”, a set of efficient resistance heating coils that can kick on to provide supplemental heat on rare days where temps go way below freezing.
  • Mini-split or Ductless Heat Pumps: For spaces without existing ductwork (i.e., previously heated via boiler or baseboard electric heat), you can install one or more ductless or “mini-split” heat pumps. The only difference here is that the indoor unit or “head” will be mounted on the wall to circulate air in the room or indoor area you want to heat and cool, as close to a corresponding outdoor unit as possible. You may need multiple ductless heat pump heads depending on the size of the space.

Ground Source Heat Pumps: Ground source (geothermal) heat pumps use pipes to transfer heat from underground where temperatures tend to stay around 50 degrees, up into indoor spaces. There is considerable expense associated with installing the ground lines. Until recently, this option made sense in colder climates because air source heat pumps would struggle to comfortably heat a home comfortably when outdoor air temps dipped way below freezing. Air source heat pump technology has improved dramatically in recent years when it comes to cold weather performance, so ground source heat pumps are seen as the best option in fewer and fewer scenarios.

Right-sizing your electric home heating and cooling solutions

In order to select the right equipment to sufficiently and efficiently heat and or cool indoor spaces, builders divide the contiguous United States into climate zones. There are a lot of different climate zone maps out there, but suffice to say in Northwest Washington, we have a few months of cold weather (where the temp dips below freezing at any point) and a few weeks of hot days (90 degrees plus). That said, the number of hot days in our region is increasing with climate change. Your HVAC installers will know all this and will assess your home’s size, configuration, insulation, existing ductwork and climate to make sure you end up with the right equipment.

Your HVAC installer may give you a menu of heat pump model options to consider that vary in terms of efficiency and a few other factors. Here’s a cheat sheet on what what all those convoluted acronyms mean:

  • Tons and Btus: This metric helps determine the size, or more accurately “capacity of refrigeration” of the unit. In other words, it’s how to determine if your unit is the right size for the area it’ll need to heat and cool. Note that 1 Ton/hr = 12,000 Btus/hr, so if you’re comparing a 3 Ton unit and a 36,000 BTu unit, they have the same capacity.
  • HSPF: Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) is primarily used to measure the heating efficiency of heat pumps and ductless heat pumps.The higher the number, the more efficient the heat pump is at heating a space.
  • SEER Rating: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) Rating is the cooling efficiency rating for a heat pump. The higher the rating, the more efficient the heat pump is at cooling a given space. Given we live in a climate where heating is necessary for more of the year than cooling, a higher HSPF might be more important to you than the SEER Rating.
  • AFUE Rating: the Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating measures a fuel combustion heating source’s efficiency at turning fuel into heat. This is the rating (on 0-100% scale) used when we talk about 90% efficiency gas furnaces. Because heat pumps don’t directly burn fuel to make heat, it’s not really comparing apples to apples to try and apply a AFUE rating to heat pumps. You’ll typically see HSPF used instead.
  • Decibels: The noise of outdoor units used to be a bigger concern, but with today’s heat pumps, it’s less of a consideration. My unit runs at about 50 decibels, which feels whisper-quiet to me, essentially the level of a conversation. Some units will run around 75 decibels, closer to the sound of a washing machine.

Your final decision in selecting equipment will likely come down to your desired HSPF and SEER ratings. Typically, the higher the HSPF and SEER Ratings are, the more expensive that unit will be upfront. That said, it’ll operate more efficiently and offer a shorter payback period through greater utility savings. It’s also worth looking at minimum SEER and HSPF requirements for equipment to meet EnergySTAR certification, as it may determine whether your upgraded equipment qualifies for a federal tax credit or not.

Now about that sticker shock

No doubt about it, a new heat pump is going to be pricey, probably in the neighborhood of two to three times the price of a new gas furnace once you account for related electrical work and permits. It wasn’t the case with us, but you may also find that your home’s electrical panel needs a broader upgrade, especially if you plan on going further down the electrification path with your water heater, cooking range, car charging, rooftop solar, etc.

Fair warning: you might be tempted to call the whole thing off when you see the line items piling up on your estimate. Take a deep breath and remember, you’re making a sound investment for the future of your home, your comfort, the health of your family and the fate of the planet.

Knocking down upfront cost barriers

I received a $400 rebate from my electric utility and a $200 promotional discount from my HVAC installer, but that didn’t even cover the 8.6% sales tax on the purchase. This was one part of the process that really got me thinking, what if the State of Washington put some real, upfront incentives in place to knock down the upfront cost barrier to electrifying existing homes? What about local governments or the federal government? British Columbia and Denver, Colorado are two places with cumulative rebates and tax incentives totaling between $6,000-$17,000 for heat pump and other electrification upgrades.

Beyond the equipment, skilled labor is a major component of the current upfront expense. This presents a two-fold opportunity whereby investing public funds in local workforce training and retraining can both offer high-paying job opportunities for local fossil fuel industry workers, and drive down both costs and wait times for people looking to upgrade and electrify their homes.

In addition to policy solutions like incentives, rebates and tax breaks, it’s also worth looking at public-private partnerships and lease programs that could reduce barriers to financing these kinds of upgrades with conventional loans. New York-based company BlocPower is blazing new trails with these approaches.

Benefits like low utility bills and indoor air free of noxious chemicals shouldn’t be reserved for people who have an extra $5,000-$15,000 lying around to upgrade to a heat pump. It’s an equity issue and a climate justice issue, and any policy looking to increase the rate of home electrification retrofits needs to center the barriers faced by low- and middle-income families.

Looking Ahead

It’ll take a few more months of real usage data before I can see how much money I’m saving when I look at my gas and electric bills. That said, I’ve had a $260 gas bill and a $20 gas bill in the past four months and I much prefer the latter. I’m eager to see how my heat pump performs during the hottest and coldest days of the year. In the meantime, I’ll be working hard to spread the good word about heat pumps and building electrification in general. If you’re thinking of making the switch in your home but need more convincing, check out our blog busting some common myths about building electrification. I hope you’ll join me and my colleagues at RE Sources in advocating for clean energy policies and funding at the local, state and federal levels. Take the 100% Northwest pledge today to get started.

 

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