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Air-Source Heat Pumps in Homes: Step #1 – Be clear about goals

This is part of a series; see the first post here.

Building new homes that are all electric makes TONS of sense. I’ve written about that before. Electrifying existing single-family homes, however, is not necessarily straightforward. Many state and utility programs in the Northeast[1] offer hefty incentives for air-source heat pumps (ASHPs), but fuel-fired systems are often left in place and used as the primary heating system. Clearly, when that’s the case, carbon emissions are not reduced much. Other programs are pushing completely electrifying homes and removing fossil fuels, but these programs are not gaining all that much traction.

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to consider homeowners’ goals and desires when installing heat pumps in homes. I don’t necessarily see this considered by policy makers and electrification programs, and I think it’s a big disconnect. Programs and policies are focused on the big picture (appropriately) and generally want to reduce/eliminate fossil fuels to help meet carbon reduction goals. What homeowners want can vary like crazy.

  1. Saving Money. This is by far #1 for most consumers.
  2. Cooling. Many heat pump sales are driven by adding or replacing cooling systems. Contractors may talk customers into a heat pump because of versatility, redundancy, or better incentives/financing. But many customers are only interested in cooling (and only use heat pumps for cooling).
  3. Comfort. Everyone wants to be comfortable, and to invest in a heat pump (for heating as well as cooling) homeowners must believe that a heat pump will deliver comfort at least as well as what they have. There’s still a very common belief that fuel and fire are required to provide comfort during cold winters. This belief is held by many contractors as well as consumers.
  4. Zoning. Some customers are sold on the capability of controlling the temperature in every room. This is a red flag for me, as the head-in-every-room approach can sometimes lead to really poor comfort and efficiency, but it is certainly a driver for multi-zone heat pumps.
  5. Health and safety. Heat pumps don’t burn fuel so there’s no risk of combustion by-products (e.g., carbon monoxide). They also don’t require pressurized, explosive gas to be piped into and through a home (e.g., natural gas). Heat pumps eliminate the need for window air conditioners which can fall out onto cars, fall onto people, or be pushed through windows allowing break-ins. These are pretty compelling factors to some homeowners.[2]
  6. Carbon footprint. A growing population is truly interested in the environmental benefits of heat pumps. These goals are in line with electrification policies and programs.
  7. Self sufficiency. Some homeowners are keen on generating electricity with PV, perhaps storing energy in batteries, and using electricity to power heat pumps. This can improve resiliency, and some homes can reach zero net energy consumption. Such all-electric goals are often in line with policy goals.
  8. Saving money. I started with this and I’m ending with this because it is BY FAR THE MOST IMPORTANT DRIVER for most homeowners. Consumer research undertaken by InsideOut Insights and SWA when developing the NYSERDA’s Heat Pump Planner reinforced that this is the #1 concern for most homeowners considering heat pumps. Even before “Will I be comfortable?” comes “Will this save me money?”

dollar sign symbolThe answer to “Will this save me money?” is: “It depends.” This can be a tough sell. Good ASHP installations will certainly be less costly to operate than resistance heat and very often will cost less than oil- or propane-fired systems. But good ASHPs generally cost more to operate than natural gas systems. Prices vary widely with location and time, of course, but this is pretty typical (in the Northeast, 2021). Notice I said “good ASHP” installations. Actual installed performance is all over the map. More to come on this.

Policies don’t (and can’t) assess homeowner goals on a case-by-case basis. But contractors can (and should). Considering customer goals and meeting those goals is key! Satisfied customers lead to more customers. More customers mean greater acceptance of heat pumps. This is a win for contractors and electrification programs alike.

For customers who don’t care much about carbon, meeting their non-carbon goals needs to be a contractor’s top priority. This doesn’t mean there’ll be no carbon savings; meeting client needs and reducing fuel use is certainly possible, but it’s kind of an art in individual homes. On a large scale it’s really, really challenging. My hunch is that we won’t see huge inroads in electrifying existing homes until homeowners’ top priority is met: clear and compelling cost savings.

Up next: Step 2 – Consider the envelope.

[1] Of course, fuel-fired systems can be installed and operated safely without compromising health. But eliminating on-site fuel entirely is compelling to some people.

[2] …and elsewhere in the US, Canada, worldwide. I’m just most familiar with programs & policies in the Northeast US.

 

Author: Robb Aldrich

 

 

Written by Robb Aldrich, Principal Mechanical Engineer

 

 

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