ACHRNEWS

Heat Pump Popularity Keeps Growing

May 25, 2009


The volume of heat pump shipments may be dropping, according to the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute’s (AHRI’s) monthly shipment reports, but that doesn’t mean the units aren’t gaining ground in the industry. After The NEWS informally surveyed several heat pump manufacturers, the general consensus found was that heat pump popularity is increasing and continuing to gain market share percentages.

Looking back to 2008, increased heat pump technology awareness went hand-in-hand with increased product popularity. The end user push for more environmentally aware, greener, and energy-wiser equipment helped increase demand for entry-level heat pumps that were price competitive at the 13 SEER range.

“In the last few years, heat pump sales trends have increased and they continued to do so in 2008,” said Jeff Hartnett, product manager for commercial splits, IAQ, and heating at Lennox International. “Growth has been stronger in residential and small commercial spaces where heat pumps can make more of an impact by providing necessary heat to the occupants during moderate outside conditions.”

According to Mark King, Rheem’s manager of residential products, outdoors, in 2008, 74 percent of residential split heat system heat pumps sold were 13 SEER (minimum standard). “Almost 19 percent were either 14 or 15 SEER, 5 percent were 16 SEER, and the remaining 2 percent were 17 plus SEER,” he pointed out. “This is rather interesting when you compare to condensing units, of which 80 percent sold were 13 SEER.”

Beyond higher SEER ratings, 2008 trends included an interest in higher HSPF ratings, smaller-sized units, and a shift to geothermal heat pumps. There wasn’t much change in the air source heat pump market, according to Dick Hanna, director of product management, Bard Manufacturing Co. Inc., but there was a “huge increase in interest and activity in geothermal heat pumps.

“Geo is simply the most efficient method of heating and cooling, and the 30 percent residential tax credit - a tremendous benefit - is helping to offset the initial installation costs,” he said.

Looking ahead to 2009, those questioned predicted that the increasing heat pump trend would continue. King suggested, however, that the interest in 13 SEER heat pumps might actually shift to 15 SEER as a result of the tax credits made available for heat pump systems rated at 15 SEER, 12.5 EER, and 8.5 HSPF by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Trey Wilder, an applications engineer for Daikin AC (Americas) Inc., summed up much of what he expects in 2009 when he said, “Increased understanding of heat pump technology, more manufacturers coming to market, more product offerings, as well as increased energy efficiency and improved system performance are all to be expected during the remainder of 2009 and beyond.”

TECHNOLOGY DRIVES TRENDS

Beyond federal tax credits, new technology applications are also expanding the horizons for heat pump installations. Typically installed for conventional heating and cooling of a residence or light commercial facility, heat pump popularity originated primarily in southern climates. With the advancement of controls and thermostats for heat pumps, however, “this product has stepped to new levels,” said Jeff Preston, product manager for Johnson Controls Inc. “The function of the defrost control has grown from binary inputs to multi-level algorithms that maximize efficiency and reliability.”

“Probably one of the most significant controls improvements has been enhancements and applications of demand defrost,” noted King. “By using demand defrost controls, time spent in the defrost mode is minimized. This is important because a unit that cycles into defrost prematurely has a lower HSPF than a heat pump that cycles into defrost when needed.”

Hartnett further explained that this feature “makes the units more attractive and easier to use in applications needing supplemental heat beyond the heat pump’s heating capabilities. More heat pumps are now available with demand-defrost as a standard feature. This defrost method allows units to maximize energy and comfort while minimizing energy consumption.”

REFRIGERANT CHANGES

With the 2010 phaseout of R-22 and other HCFCs approaching, there will be differences in every system that previously operated with these refrigerants. Some units have already been changed over and the effect is expected to be minimal, but there will be situations that need consideration along the way.

“The biggest effect is with the existing R-22 refrigerant lines during retrofit,” said Chuck Applebee, product manager for Mitsubishi Electric HVAC, advanced products division. “Because of non-compatible coils and line size changes, it’s always recommended that new refrigerant lines be installed with R-410A equipment.”

Wilder suggested that the changeover would provide increased opportunities for heat pump-related technologies and applications, “especially where older equipment is being replaced and new equipment selections are being considered and specified.

“One thing to consider in the replacement market is that the components used with the refrigerants being phased out, such as R-22, are not compatible with the newer refrigerants like R-410A. This means that whole systems may have to be replaced instead of just the indoor or outdoor unit. This is an ideal time for the customer to change over from a traditional system to a new high efficiency, high performance, inverter driven heat pump system.”

TRAINING CONSIDERATIONS

New technology, new applications, and new refrigerants require technician training.

“Technicians need to be trained on the controls, wiring, and operation of heat pumps and dual-fuel units,” said Hartnett. “Sequences of operation and controls methodologies vary from unit to unit, and these differences need to be understood for proper installation, start-up, and troubleshooting or service.”

Some of the training options suggested by the manufacturer participants included attendance at training seminars conducted by an authorized instructor, training classes with brand technical managers, and North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification.

“In theory, a technician who is qualified to install condensing units should be able to transition to heat pump installations,” said King.

He did, however, list a few items for technicians to consider. Location of the heat pump should be considered in regards to the water run-off during the defrost cycle. In the winter, this run-off can freeze, and if it is next to a sidewalk, it is capable of creating a hazard.

“Additionally, the unit should be elevated to allow the ice to gather below the bottom and off of the outdoor coil during the defrost cycle,” noted King. “Following the manufacturer’s guidelines on charging the unit is essential, as is air flow setup, and ensuring the proper size duct system has been installed.”

The bottom line was that technicians should be able to install heat pumps with about as much ease as a standard comfort system.

“Basically, installation is the same for heat pumps as it is for air conditioner systems - same design and installation practices for the indoor air delivery system, and recognition of the outdoor defrost cycle in heating mode in regions subject to outdoor temps below 40°F,” said Hanna.

UTILITY PRICING OPPORTUNITIES

The costs of different utilities also affect the overall and regional demand of heat pump systems. “As natural gas and propane costs increase, home- owners and dealer/contractors may look to heat pump installations as an opportunity,” said Nathan Walker, product manager of split systems for Goodman Global Inc. “Geographical areas that historically were considered heat pump territory are expanding as homeowners become more comfortable with the increased performance and lack of cold blow of heat pump operation.”

Preston has witnessed regional increases in demand based on natural gas pricing, too. “Heat pump demand growth is following multi-family construction as well,” he said. “There are more multiple system buildings shifting to electricity over natural gas.”

INCREASING MARKET SHARE

New trends, technology, refrigerants, and utility challenges have combined to push the heat pump further to the top of unitary and light commercial comfort systems choices.

“Heat pumps have long been associated with negative comfort connotations,” said Preston. “With the improvement of today’s technology, coupled with consumer education, heat pumps have pulled the invisible barrier as a premium provider for comfort.”

This snapshot may not be the whole story, but each of the segments covered have played a role in the growing popularity and advancement of the heat pump system. The coming trends and improvements remain to be seen.

Publication date: 05/25/2009