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Heat Pumps

Unlike other heating technology that relies on converting fuel through combustion, heat pumps simply rely on the transfer of heat. A heat pump works like a refrigerator. It operates like a “reverse refrigerator” during the winter months by extracting heat from cold outside air and bringing it inside (Wired, 2022). This is all facilitated by the use of an intermediary refrigerant and a reversing valve.

Heat pumps have been common in many parts of the world but are just now being made to work efficiently in cold climates. AGH supports heat pumps because over the next decade, they will be fueled more and more by renewable electricity and because they are so efficient they are also lower carbon than heating with gas. Heat pumps also work very well with wood and pellet stoves. Heat pumps are now a leading low-carbon way to heat water in homes. Check out heat pump water heaters - and heat pump clothes dryers. For now, the upfront costs of these are higher but they pay themselves back in the long run and often get state incentives.

As the country and the world moves toward electrification, heat pumps are taking a starring role. With an increasingly decarbonized electric system, the technology holds great potential for both cost savings and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Annual cost savings associated with switching to a heat pump can be anywhere between 20-70% on households’ heating and cooling bills (Bloc Power, 2022). Rewiring America contends that electric heat pumps hold the best position for long-term saving solutions in residential heating and cooling (Canary Media, 2022). While this depends on how large the area you are heating and cooling is and the climate specifications of where you live, it is enticing many people to make the switch. Heat pumps reduce greenhouse gasses by heating and cooling with one-third to one-fifth of the electricity used by conventional electric equipment (International Energy Agency, 2022) and can reduce energy use by 30%-60% depending on the type of heat pump (U.S. Department of Energy). Heat pumps are over 100% efficient in a variety of temperate climates, beating out even high-efficiency gas furnaces (Trane, 2020). These kinds of stats explain why heat pumps are in the spotlight right now. 

Air-Source Heat Pumps

The most common type of heat pump for residential use are air-source heat pumps or "air-to-air" heat pumps. These heat pumps can produce up to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes (U.S. Department of Energy).

There are a few distinctions to identify different types of air-source heat pumps that help determine what might be best for your household. The first defining feature of different air-source heat pumps are those that are ductless or ducted. Ductless only requires a small hole through an outside wall to connect to the outdoor condenser. These systems would be best for additions or single rooms. Ducted systems use existing ventilation systems in your house and are ideal for whole house systems or new builds(ECI, 2021).

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The second distinction to identify the best air-source heat pump for you is choosing between a split system or a packaged system. Split systems are those with one coil system outside the home connected with another coil system located inside the home. Packaged systems refer to those that have both coil systems outside and require ductwork to carry the air inside (Central Electric Cooperative, 2022).

A third distinction to keep in mind are those air-source heat pump systems that are either multi-zone or single-zone. Single-zone systems are designed for a single room while multi-zone systems can have two or more indoor coils that allow a household to heat or cool different "zones" of the house at different temperatures (U.S. Department of Energy).

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Consumer Tips

Before buying your new heat pump, be sure to look for the ENERGY STAR label. This will help you choose an EPA recommended heat pump that is more energy efficient.

1. Warmer climate homes should choose a heat pump that has better Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating 2 (SEER2) ratings. This rating considers the measure of a system's energy efficiency in cooling mode. Aim for a rating of 17 SEER2 or above, with the 22 SEER2 being one of the highest efficiency ratings available. 
2. In colder climates, homes would be better off choosing a heat pump with higher Heating Seasonal Performance Ration 2 (HSPF2) ratings. This rating considers the measure of a system’s energy efficiency in heating mode. Aim for a rating of 9 HSPF2 or above, with 10.5 HSPF2 being one of the highest efficiency ratings available. 

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act has generous incentives for installing heat pumps. While some federal and state rebates require a selected heat pump that achieves the Consortium for Energy Efficiency's highest tier for efficiency to qualify for programs, others simply require heat pumps that meet minimum standards required by the Department of Energy . Tax credits of up to 30% of the total cost of what you paid for your heat pump, along with the cost of labor up to $2,000, are available. Starting in 2023, states will begin rolling out programs that will provide up to $8,000 in rebates for a heat pump based on your income level. Make sure you look into state, local or utility specific rebates as well. The Dsire database has one of the most comprehensive listings of heat pump incentives at the federal, state and local level.

Other Heat Pump Technology

Water-Source Heat Pumps

These are increasingly used in larger units like apartment buildings but not in single family homes. The addition of a cooling/heating tower loop allows it to extract or disperses heat by water instead of by air.

Geothermal / Ground-Source Heat Pumps

Ground-source heat pumps, also known as geothermal heat pumps, utilize the temperature of the earth as the exchange medium instead of the outside air temperature like air-source heat pumps. Because geothermal units can be nearly three times as expensive to install as air-source units, they are not quite as popular for residential homes. However, if you can afford the investment of a geothermal unit, costs could be returned within the broad range of four to fifteen years, depending on location and existing energy infrastructure (U.S. Department of Energy,Energy Sage, 2022)! However, the typical payback period is between eight and ten years (Rise, 2019).

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For more information,

  1. ENERGY STAR Air-Source Heat Pump Products (ENERGY STAR®, 2023)

  2. Here’s How You Can Get Up to $14,000 For Home Renovations (CNET, 2022)

  3. Heat Pumps (Department of Energy, 2023)

  4. Heat Pump Buying Guide (Consumer Reports, 2022)

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