Heat Pumps in Real Life
Here at Acadia Center, we’re big proponents of air source heat pumps. As we pointed out in EnergyVision 2030, electrifying heating can take a typical New England home from 6-8 tons of GHGs per year to less than one ton, which is why New England needs to electrify at least 10% of its building stock to be on track for 2030 climate goals. Heat pumps work by moving heat, not generating it – so they can be 3-4x as efficient as other heating or cooling sources. As I said in Wirecutter, “a heat pump is probably the biggest thing that consumers can do to help fight the climate crisis.” But even more important than climate, I have young kids, one with asthma, and our carbon monoxide alarm has gone off 3 times in the 9 months we’ve lived in this house. I’m getting anxious about the idea of burning fossil fuels in my house, particularly after reading studies that highlight the potential health impacts.
So, in early May, I put my money where my big mouth is and electrified my 1880s, gas-boiler-heated house. For now, we’re keeping the high efficiency boilers in place in case we need them in the next polar vortex, but I’ve already warned my husband that I’m going to fight hard to avoid turning on the fossil fuel system this winter. Plus, with heat pumps, we got air conditioning just in time to sleep comfortably and cool during the recent heat wave!
Here’s what I learned from the experience:
- Think about what you want beforehand: we don’t have a forced air system (with which you could just drop in a central heat pump) so we went with mini-splits. I knew I wanted to get both heat and air conditioning capacity from the heat pumps, so asked for cold climate heat pumps (to carry us into, and maybe even through, the winter) with a unit in each of our bedrooms and the kitchen for air conditioning capacity. That also let us get rid of the ugly and high energy window units – savings right off the bat.
- Think about what you are flexible on: I explained what I wanted, and then asked each vendor how best to get there and got proposals in multiple configurations. Do I need units everywhere, or can the living room/dining room/kitchen blob of doors and walls all get heated and cooled from one unit in the kitchen? (Yes, as it turns out) Can we put a smaller one in our family room over the garage because we also have a wood stove there? (Yes, but the price difference isn’t as much as you’d think, so we went with the big one to ensure enough AC).
- Shop Around: I got quotes from 2 local heat pump specialists and one all things HVAC company, and the bids were different enough that I asked a lot of follow up questions did additional research into the different equipment they recommended, why they suggested it, what assumptions they made, and what “goodies” like wifi enablement came with the system. I went with LG, which was a bit cheaper than the Mitsubishi hyper heat units. Each vendor also offered different financing options, in addition to the Mass Save HEAT loan, with 0% financing on up to $25,000 of efficiency improvements including heat pumps.
- Look for incentives: Thanks to MassSave, we got a $10,000 rebate for our whole home system (7 heat pumps in total on 3 compressors). Because I know the MassSave program (I hold a seat on the EEAC), I knew to get my weatherization done first and ask for the right kind of units to ensure that the system I got would qualify for the max incentive. Check out the rebate forms up front to make sure you qualify, too.
- Book it ASAP: Heat pumps are a hot market. Once you decide what you want and who you’re going to work with, don’t sit on the idea. I was able to get my install scheduled about a month after I made the call, but I’ve heard wait times are increasing.
- Get ready for disruption… mostly outside: I was surprised that it took a full week of long days to get my system up and running, particularly since all the inside work seemed to be completed on day one. The pipes that carry the coolant to the wall units take a lot of planning and work, throughout the house, basement and garage. Then they’ve got to test the lines to make sure the coolant is working and won’t leak out.
- Read the manual, ask questions, and learn new tricks: heat pumps have a lot of awesome settings (ionization, energy saving, jet mode, even programmable timers) but it can be complex to figure it out. Plus, the way that you save energy with a heat pump (set it and forget it) is very different than the way you save money with a gas system (though setbacks and catchups). The temperatures you’re used to seeing on the thermostat may also change. I’ve left the unit installed high on the wall in my office set at 76 all week but it’s been a pleasant constant 72 at my desk, in fact almost a little chilly! It silently blows air every now and then (seriously, this thing is QUIET!) and just keeps me cool, no questions asked.
- Bolt the remotes to the wall: my brilliant installers thought to put my heat pump remotes in brackets next to the light switches. Now we always know where the remote is – even when my husband was the last one to touch it. Wonder if that trick would work for the TV, too?
I’m so happy I made the leap. For me, it was an investment in my home and my family’s quality of life, more so than a chance to save on energy bills. But they’ve sure delivered on that – the heat pumps are so quiet and so effective at cooling. I don’t have a great sense of how much power they’re using (almost want to rent a kill a watt meter from the library to figure it out!) but look forward to seeing my electric bill and evaluating the impact they had, compared to last summer’s window units.
Look out gas stove. You’re next on the chopping block.