In the last several years, heat pumps have skyrocketed in popularity and are now a common HVAC solution, even in colder climates. Technology advances have made heat pumps an efficient heating source at temperatures as low as -15 degrees Fahrenheit.
In fact, Maine’s 2020 Climate Action Plan set a goal to have heat pumps in 45% of the housing stock in Maine by 2030. Energy-efficient heat pumps can be an effective tool to help reduce your climate impact, especially when powered by renewable energy. Further technological advances could make this heating and cooling solution even more appealing and cost-effective. Let’s explore how they work, whether they save money, and what to look for when installing a heat pump.
How do heat pumps work?
Heat pumps consume less electricity than electric baseboard heaters because they move heat instead of generating it. These units efficiently pull the heat out of the air and transfer it to a home or building. In reverse, they remove heat from a space, providing air conditioning. This technology provides both space heating and cooling from the same unit, which is one of the reasons they are so appealing.
The most common system is an air source heat pump, which consist of two types of units: one or more indoor air handlers and an outdoor unit that contains a condenser that circulates refrigerant. They can reduce electricity use for heating by 50% compared to electric resistance heating systems, such as furnaces and electric baseboard heating. When running in cooling mode, a heat pump has a similar efficiency to an air conditioner, depending on the energy efficiency rating of the individual unit. There are both ducted and ductless heat pump systems available, and ductless systems are usually preferable when retrofitting homes without ductwork.
In addition, there are heat pump water heaters for domestic hot water. They also provide heat by moving it from one location to another and not by directly generating it.
Will I save money if I heat my home with a heat pump?
You will likely have lower heating bills with a heat pump, but the potential cost savings depend on how you currently heat your abode and the cost of the electricity or fuel source. Efficiency Maine has a calculator where you can compare home heating costs by inputting variables for the cost of electricity, natural gas, propane, wood, and heating oil.
Typically, geothermal heat pumps, wood stoves, and ducted and ductless heat pumps are less expensive to operate than electric baseboard heating, oil furnaces, and propane heating systems. However, potential future savings are difficult to determine because the cost of energy varies over time unless you install a home solar energy system.
How can I select the best heat pump for my home?
There are several important factors to consider before installing a heat pump.
Ducted vs. ductless heat pumps
More than half of all homes already have ducts for heating or cooling systems. If your home has ductwork for a furnace, a ducted heat pump can use your existing ductwork to distribute heat throughout your home. If you do not have ductwork, a ductless heat pump, also known as a mini-split, is a good option.
According to Consumer Reports’ member surveys, the median price for the equipment and installation of ducted heat pumps from 2016 to 2021 was $7,791. However, that amount varies by brand and model, and more efficient units are typically more expensive.
The installed cost of ductless mini-splits can range from $2,000 to $14,500, depending on the system’s capacity and the number of zones in the home, according to HomeAdvisor.
Efficiency of the heat pump
The heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) measures the energy efficiency of a heat pump when heating. Cooling efficiency is measured by the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). The higher the HSPF and SEER, the less energy it needs to operate. Energy-saving heat pumps are usually more expensive but the energy savings can pay you back several times the extra initial cost throughout the unit’s lifetime. Also, some heat pump incentives have minimum energy-efficiency requirements.
Heat pump tax credits and rebates
Many utility companies and state programs offer heat pump rebates or other incentives. Under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), air source heat pumps are eligible for up to a $2,000 federal tax credit. Also, if you need an electric panel upgrade to install a heat pump, there is an additional $600 tax credit available. In addition, due to the IRA, there will also be state-administered rebates potentially worth thousands of dollars, but many states have not announced the details yet.
Select a unit that is protected by strong warranties to help protect your HVAC investment. Some of the leading manufacturers of heat pumps include Bosch, Carrier, Daikin, Fujistu, LG, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Rheem, and Trane. The warranties can include two components, the equipment and the labor. Most warranties cover the equipment for at least 10 years. Sometimes the labor warranty varies, depending whether it was installed by an authorized dealer.
Is my home a good candidate for a heat pump?
Heat pumps work well in most homes, especially if you need to upgrade or replace your heating or cooling system. However, there are a few cases where they aren’t ideal. For example, if your home has 60- or 100-amp electrical service, you might need to upgrade your electric panel, especially if you run a larger-capacity heat pump. However, this might allow you to qualify for an additional tax credit.
Also, if you live in an extremely cold climate where temperatures at often below -25 degrees Fahrenheit for days on end, heat pumps might not provide sufficient heat. However, it is possible to combine heat pumps with another heating system.
From a sustainability standpoint, it’s also important to consider the energy source for your electricity. If much of your region’s electricity is generated by coal, it will reduce the climate benefits of installing a heat pump. One easy way to switch to renewable energy is to join a community solar farm.
How heat pump technology is advancing
Although the technology has advanced considerably in recent years, further innovation is likely. Scientists in Spain have developed a residential heat pump that generates 6.5 kilowatt hours of heat for each kilowatt-hour of electricity it consumes. Plus, it can heat water up to 75 degrees Celsius. A French startup has created a heat pump that doesn’t use refrigerant and generates three to four-kilowatt hours of heat for every kilowatt.
Innovations in water and space heating are critical for conserving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Although renewable electricity use is soaring, cleaner heat sources are critical for mitigating the climate crisis. Installing a heat pump in your home can be an excellent way to reduce your heating costs and potentially, your carbon footprint.