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10 questions to ask if you want to get a heat pump

Mar. 07, 2024
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Canary Media thanks Sense for its support of the Home of the Future series.

If you haven’t heard of heat pumps, you will soon. Solar panels, batteries and electric cars have been on the scene for years now; heat pumps are the up-and-comer of the clean energy world.

They use electricity to both heat and cool buildings with stunning — some would say magical — efficiency. And they won major federal tax incentives in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act that amount to thousands of dollars in savings for each household that installs them.

But heat pumps require a more complex pitch than EVs or solar, with a more varied and obscure economic payoff. And the contractors who actually sell and install home heating often pooh-pooh heat pumps in favor of the fossil-fueled furnaces they’re accustomed to selling.

Canary Media has been tracking the technological evolution of heat pumps and the policies that encourage their adoption, and we’ve compiled that knowledge into this user’s guide, geared toward anyone considering the switch to highly efficient electric heating and cooling. 

(RMI)

If you care about climate impacts, decarbonizing your space and water heating is one of the biggest carbon reductions you can control directly. Doing so could make your home more comfortable, thanks to the way heat pumps operate. And yes, it could save you money, though that depends a great deal on where you live and what kind of fuel you currently use for heating. Consequently, many heat-pump businesses emphasize the comfort factor.

When Oregon-based GreenSavers switched from selling furnaces to almost exclusively selling heat pumps around five years ago, ​“the word ​‘electrification’ wasn’t even a thing we had heard of,” said Operations Manager Craig Aaker. ​“It was a comfort thing — this was going to work the best.”

There are heat pumps for controlling the temperature of your house and heat-pump water heaters — this guide focuses on the former. We hope these questions help you determine if a heat pump is right for you. And if we’re missing anything, let us know. Happy heating and cooling.

1

. Do you own your home?

I’m a renter myself, so it’s a bummer to have to start here. But as with installing rooftop solar, you have a lot more options if you own your home.

That’s not to say you can’t figure something out for a rental. If you live in an apartment building, you can attempt to lobby management for an overhaul, but that’s largely out of your control.

Alternatively, renters can turn to small, mobile versions of heat pumps. A sleek forthcoming model from Gradient slides over the window frame, delivering electric heating and cooling without permanently altering the building (that product ships this spring, starting at $2,000). If the renter moves, they just take the little heat pump with them.

2

. What’s your current heating and cooling source?

The systems you’re replacing will dictate what type of heat pump makes sense and how good a deal it is for you. Remember that you’re comparing it with both your heating system and your cooling system, because heat pumps do both (don’t let the name fool you).

As a general rule, the more expensive and polluting your heating source is currently, the more attractive heat pumps become. Startup Dandelion Energy, which drills underground to siphon energy from the earth for ground-source heat pumps, launched first in upstate New York to compete with sludgy fuel-oil heating.

Let’s say you’re living in New England and shelling out big bucks to fill up a decades-old fuel oil furnace each winter, and you don’t have air conditioning but want it to deal with increasingly sweltering summers. That amounts to a strong economic case for heat-pump adoption: Instead of paying for the most expensive heating and paying extra for a new air conditioner, you can buy one appliance and do both more efficiently.

If, on the other hand, you just bought a new, efficient gas furnace and a new, efficient air conditioner, and you want to use the equipment you paid for until it reaches the end of its useful life, a heat pump will be a harder sell. 

3

. Are heat pumps a good fit for the climate where you live?

Contrary to a persistent myth, heat pumps can handle cold weather. In fact, the snowy state of Maine is a hotbed of heat pumpery (so is Poland, for that matter). But their efficiency does drop in extreme cold.

This means that the region you live in does matter for what type of heat pump you choose. If you’re in, say, coastal California or the Southeast and you’re mostly dealing with hot summer days and the rare chilly spell in winter, a less expensive model will fully meet your needs.

“In most markets in the U.S., you can get a heat pump and not need a backup,” Aaker said. 

(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

Cold-climate customers probably want to invest in souped-up models, like those with multistage compressors, also referred to as inverter-based systems. Products on the market today go down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit, said Panama Bartholomy, executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition. ​“The DOE’s Cold Climate Heat Pump Challenge is going to bring even more products to the market from even more manufacturers,” he added.

If you want extra assurance for super-low temperatures without relying on fossil fuels, you can install electric resistance heating around your heat pump. It’s not as energy-efficient, but it can give the heat pump the boost it needs in the most extreme cold.

Then again, ground-source heat pumps can always find some subterranean heat even when the air is frigid. Sara Schultz, an environmental activist who lives just north of Buffalo, New York, put her ground-source heat pump to the test during December’s historic blizzard. Even as 70 mph winds whipped the windchill into negative temperatures, ​“The whole time we had no problem; we had heat in the house and hot water,” she recounted.

4

. What’s the best time to make the switch?

Conventional wisdom in the heating industry holds that nearly all furnace purchases happen when the old one breaks. Finding reputable data for this assertion is tricky, but there’s broad consensus that people rarely think about their heating equipment until it doesn’t work right.

The problem, as far as heat pumps are concerned, is that it’s hard to get a same-day heat pump installation. Companies interviewed for this story said they couldn’t turn around heat pumps that quickly right now, due to factors including supply-chain constraints, shortage of trained workforce and being booked out far into the future.

The upshot is that if you want to install a heat pump, buy it when you don’t need it right away, rather than when you need one urgently. Shoulder months are good so you’re not competing with the emergency AC customers in the summer or frantic heating customers in the winter.

“Anytime you’re thinking about buying an air conditioner, just buy a heat pump instead,” Aaker said.

And of course, you should consider your long-term plans — if you’re likely to move in a year or two, you won’t get to enjoy your investment for long. Then again, studies have found that heat pumps raise home values by more than the cost of installation.

5

. Who should you hire to install the heat pump?

Heat pumps are a cutting-edge clean energy technology, but the way they reach customers is through local, often old-school contractors, who are not necessarily on board with the new approach.

Many contractors simply don’t want to sell heat pumps; even heat-pump experts interviewed for this story had to struggle to get contractors to sell them the technology for their own homes.

“The risk is, if you get a general contractor, they’re going to do what makes the most sense for them,” said Lacey Tan, who researches building decarbonization at climate think tank RMI (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI). ​“It’s going to be business-as-usual, it’s going to be what they trust. […] There is a price consumers are paying for [contractors’] fear.”

Part of this stems from the contractor business model. An efficient furnace installation team can be in and out in two hours, said Craig Aaker of GreenSavers. It can take even a highly skilled heat-pump installer at least a day to do the job.

Some contractors trust gas furnaces but heard decades ago that heat pumps didn’t work great.

“They weren’t that good 30 years ago,” Tan said. But times have changed: ​“Telling a contractor ​‘I want a gas furnace’ is kind of like going to AT&T and saying, ​‘Can I get a landline, though?’”

(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

March 16, 2016

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Standard Heating & Air Conditioning

Are you thinking about buying a beautiful old home but worried about the possibly antiquated boiler heater system? Standard Heating is here to help. In this post, we answer common boiler questions such as: How do they work? What is necessary to keep them running optimally? Are they dangerous? When is it time to think about replacing a boiler? Along the way, we’ll debunk common boiler myths.

1. Do heater boilers actually “boil” water?

No, boilers in operation today do not boil water (myth number one bites the dust!). The term “boiler” is a carryover from the past when steam boilers were common, which boiled water to make steam. Today’s boilers are water heaters and typically use natural gas. Most can heat water in a range from 145-190 degrees, depending on the radiation system.

2. How does boiler heat work?

Boilers provide radiant heat, which warms objects in a room. In contrast, a forced-air furnace warms the air in a room, which means objects absorb heat more slowly.

Boiler heat operates by heating water, which then circulates through a system of pipes or radiators to provide warmth. The boiler, fueled by gas, oil, or electricity, heats the water to a set temperature. As the hot water flows through the pipes or radiators, it releases heat into the surrounding space. This radiant heat warms the room or building, creating a comfortable indoor environment. Boilers are known for their efficiency and even heating distribution, making them a popular choice for residential and commercial heating systems. Additionally, some boilers can also be used for providing hot water for domestic use, enhancing their versatility.

Some people prefer boilers because they can set their thermostat at a lower temperature and the radiant heat makes the room feel warmer than the actual air temperature. Others say boilers provide more balanced heat throughout the home during the winter months.

3. What are the most important things to know about your boiler heating system?

Here’s the shortlist:

  • Is your boiler a standard efficiency or high-efficiency model? Standard efficiency is vented in metal pipe. A high-efficiency model should be vented in PVC pipe, either off the top or to the side of the boiler.
  • What kind of radiation do you have? Fintube or baseboard, or cast iron radiators?
  • Who will assume responsibility for maintaining the boiler? Are you willing and able to learn to do it yourself, or are you going to have a company do the maintenance for you? The U.S. Boiler Company recommends annual maintenance to confirm that the boiler is working safely and efficiently. Annual maintenance also can identify potential problems and prevent a no-heat situation with your boiler.

4. What are the common reasons that boilers break or stop working?

Pumps fail and electrical components can stop working (controls, thermostat, etc). Also, unnecessary air may get into the system or low water pressure may occur, both of which can result in the system not moving the water so the boiler cannot radiate heat correctly or at all. In rare cases, water can freeze in extremely cold conditions. Minnesota snowbirds should take precautions, such as having a house sitter (or an emergency contact) and always having maintenance performed before leaving for warmer climates. Finally, if using a setback thermostat, make sure to leave the setting at 55 degrees or above.

5. Do water heater boilers prevent humidity problems common with forced-air furnaces that lack a built-in humidifier?

Yes or no, depending on the efficiency of your boiler. Technically, boiler systems do not remove or add humidity, with the exception of cast iron boilers. A low-efficiency boiler, however, will utilize indoor air to make the necessary combustion flame, which can dry out your home. In contrast, a high-efficiency boiler pulls air from outdoors to achieve combustion and does not affect indoor air.

Now, one more tip about cast iron boilers, which are designed to use indoor air for combustion. You can improve air quality while using this type of boiler by making sure there is adequate air for the cast iron boiler. Installing a combustion air inlet (CAI), a small flexible pipe that is open to the outside, brings fresh air into your home.

6. What is the risk of burns associated with using hot water for heating, such as with young children around hot radiators?

The risk is relatively low (due to more common baseboard heaters), assuming you keep the water temperature at the correct setting. This is especially important if your home uses older cast iron radiators, which can become hot to the touch if the water temperature is set too high.

7. Do boilers waste water or energy?

No, they do not waste water because boilers are sealed systems. Modern boiler systems are just as efficient as any gas forced-air furnace.

8. How do you know if your boiler is operating efficiently?

Standard Heating can help by performing a boiler tune-up to assess your system. Boilers require annual maintenance to ensure efficient operation.

9. Is it possible to retrofit an old boiler to make it more energy efficient?

No. Standard Heating will not alter the original design of a boiler, because they are UL listed/labeled and should not be altered. However, in most cases, Standard Heating can replace a boiler with a more efficient unit. If your equipment is 20-30 years old, be prepared to think about replacing the boiler.

10. What’s involved in replacing a boiler?

Boilers can be simple or complicated systems to install, and require a thorough understanding of a home’s water distribution system. An experienced technician should conduct a complete analysis of your home and distribution system, which will provide you with the information you need to make the best choice for your home. Standard Heating encourages customers to think about such questions as “How long do you plan to live in the home?” and “Can you afford expensive repairs?” Our boiler consultants will work with you to find the best balance of economy and features that fit your needs.

Do you need to schedule a boiler tune-up? Or, are you ready for a free in-home estimate?

10 questions to ask if you want to get a heat pump

10 Things to Know About Boiler Heating Systems

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