The 1970s: Heat Pumps Return, Solar Heats It Up In

November 6, 2001
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The availability of oil and natural gas became a problem in the 1970s. As an energy crisis arose, the electric air-to-air heat pump and solar energy began to be touted as a way out of what The News called “our energy predicament.”

Heading into the decade, heat pump shipments were at modest levels. Average annual growth in shipments from 1966 to 69 was 7%. The shipment level reached 100,000 units in 69.

Electric heat, in which category some included heat pumps, was getting increased attention in 1970. Some News readers responded very positively about the heat pump. One Nixon, TX, reader noted, “Ninety percent of all central installations are heat pumps.” A Franklin, IL, reader remarked, “Within two years, I intend to make a concentrated drive to introduce heat pumps with strip heating in this area.”

A Lennox manager, speaking at an electric space conditioning seminar, said that four improvements in air-source heat pump design were made possible with the development of the oversized container for the hermetic compressor. The improvements, he stated, were better liquid slugging protection, larger lubricating oil charge, triple lubrication, and improved suction and discharge gas muffling.

Heat pump shipments, however, remained level in 1970.

A staged heat pump system was featured in Westinghouse’s “Electra 71” home of the future, which was designed to show how a family of four might live in 1975. According to the company, “The heating or reheating comes entirely from the refrigerant cycle, and the job gets done at about one-third the cost of conventional electrical resistance heating systems. This is made possible by using the hot refrigerant gas to do the reheating and the heat pump to do the heating.”



Efficient Or Wasteful?

In the April 12, 1972 issue of The News, a study by the Electric Energy Association proclaimed that residential electric heat is efficient; meanwhile, the president of the National Oil Fuel Institute stated that electric space heating is “wanton wastefulness.”

The president of the National Coal Association told Congress that the best way to ensure enough energy and maintain national security would be to encourage use of coal.

A heat pump efficiency study by University of Wisconsin engineers indicated that the units cost more to operate than heating-only products, but they have the advantage of providing air conditioning at no added cost.

A May 1, 1972 story explained 13 heat pump problems and their solutions. The problems were isolated by William T. Smith’s investigations when he worked for the U.S. Air Force. Also in 72, Alabama Power Co. decided to decertify some heat pump models due to excessive maintenance and repair costs.

On the other hand, Georgia Power Co. started to phase out its own heat pump service program. “We feel the heat pump has come of age in Georgia and is able to stand on its own merits,” a utility executive said. Independent contractors would take over their service.

Heat pump shipments in 1972 increased 15%. Proponents of the product said that their forecasts indicated “a strong comeback for the all-electric heating-cooling units,” The News reported.

General Electric (GE) told its dealers the heat pump may be the hvacr industry’s answer to problems regarding energy and the environment. At a series of dealer meetings, GE speakers suggested that the heat pump could be part of the answer to natural gas and oil shortages and air pollution concerns.

“It doesn’t burn gas. It doesn’t burn oil. It returns less heat to the environment than any other heating-cooling device. It produces no on-site combustion pollution. It produces less than 1% of the ground-level respirable particulates of fossil fuels, if the fuels were used to heat the same house,” one speaker declared.

In 1973, a solar-powered absorption-cycle heat pump design was made available by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for use by private industry. Energy from the solar collector was stored in a phase-change material for use in the heat pump when solar power was insufficient. Supplementary heating was also required. Also, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it would spend $2.5 million on projects to advance solar technology.

Heat pump shipments in 73 grew by approximately 28% and predictions for 74 indicated another big increase.



Energy Legislation

At the beginning of 1974, Congressional lawmakers were considering more than 50 bills on a wide range of energy-related matters.

Proposed legislation included giving the president power to undertake actions such as ration-ing of fuels; permitting more offshore drilling; establishing a national program of research and development; allowing income tax deductions for more effective insulation and heating equipment; and reorganizing federal energy efforts.

Back in 1971, The News had pointed out the need for a comprehensive national energy policy, and in 74, editor Frank J. Versagi again emphasized the need for such a policy — rather than pieces of emergency legislation covering one area at a time — to solve the country’s energy problems for the long term.

The chairman of Westinghouse Electric Corp. told those in attendance at his firm’s annual stockholder meeting that the electric heat pump is the “home product with the most exciting future.” He noted that, “After many years of development and improvement, the heat pump is ready to take its place as the workhorse of residential heating and cooling.”



Taking Their Time

An article in the Aug. 5, 1974 issue of The News noted that the industry was moving with caution toward heat pumps. One executive commented, “I’m not about to risk rushing into the market before the product has been field tested.”

According to a discussion at the Northamerican Heating and Airconditioning Wholesalers (NHAW) 1974 fall convention, interest in heat pumps had increased around the nation, and improvements had been made. However, more training was needed for service technicians, along with “re-education” of consumers because of past bad experiences.

A study by Alabama Power Co. reported that some heat pumps had proven by their field performance to be reliable and had demonstrated an acceptable compressor failure rate. The cost to service the units was also considered reasonable.

Debating the use of electric heating in new residential and commercial structures, the Petroleum Institute Research Foundation said that electric heating would increase energy consumption. An executive with the Edison Electric Institute disagreed, stating, “Our experience does not show that consumption would increase. Electrically heated structures are insulated better, and they don’t have a chimney, so the heat loss is less.”

A $10,000 grant for solar research was presented by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) to Colorado State University. The money was to be used to install a solar heating system in the college’s Solar Energy Application Laboratory’s Solar House II. With the solar system adjacent to a hydronic system, computer comparisons could be made.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 550 attendees from 24 states and Canada were at the first in a series of heat pump seminars presented by the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES). Simulated operations of heat pumps and other displays were set up by equipment manufacturers.

Copeland introduced a compressor designed specifically for heat pumps. Besides beefing up some mechanical characteristics, the company also came up with some unconventional ideas, such as using a simple capillary tube, which can be more effective than a thermal expansion valve.

In 1975, the Department of Defense (DOD) withdrew an 11-year-old ban on the use of heat pumps in military housing. The ban, ordered in 1964, was issued due to “the severity of maintenance problems experienced, and particularly because of the high failure rate of compressors.” The DOD renewed the use of the products after ongoing, extensive research and development.

The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs warned the public to beware of exaggerated solar heating promotions. Claims about solar systems should be checked out with reliable engineers, said the agency. However, in October of that year the Conference on Standards for Solar Heating and Cooling discussed several projects to speed up the practical application of solar energy by government and private agencies.

In order to avoid the problems previously associated with heat pumps, nine electric utilities who called themselves the Midwest Utility Group developed and presented to original equip-ment manufacturers a nine-point guideline for heat pump installations. Most manufacturers said they would accept the criteria to ensure proper installations and good service.



Steady Growth

Because of the steady growth in the overseas market, Carrier Corp. introduced a 50-cycle heat pump for international sales. A redesign of the unit marketed in the U.S., the new heat pump was suited for the electrical characteristics of other countries.

In 1976, a Sears, Roebuck & Co. store in Melbourne, FL, featured a solar water heater product display. A listing of prices for the components added up to $580.25. It also stated that normal labor was $218.75, bringing the overall total to $799.

A contractor in Americus, GA, stated that heat pumps accounted for 90% of his residential installations and that it had been that way for about 10 years.

Taking a new approach to heat pumps, the American Gas Association announced that it was working with several manufacturers to develop gas-fired heat pumps. The association’s projects included three heat-actuated heat pump systems.

Champion Home Builders Co., a manufactured housing company, was gearing up to build packaged solar furnaces at several of its plants around the country. The product was designed for use with existing forced-air heating systems.

Even prisons got into the solar energy movement. Inmates at the Tampa (FL) Community Correctional Center were making solar water heating panels for Florida Division of Forestry Buildings around the state. They were also putting together panels for the solar heating system at their own facility.

The first significant production of electricity from a solar-driven turbogenerator was demonstrated in July 1976, at a testing firm which would use waste heat from the system for heating and cooling. The demonstration took place at the Solar Total Energy Test Facility at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. The 32 kW of electricity generated was said to be the most produced to date by a solar thermal electric process, according to the federal government’s Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA).



Little Red Solar House

Also in 76, the Little Red Schoolhouse training facility of the ITT Fluid Handling Division’s Bell & Gossett operation reported that a fluid-circulation solar energy heating and cooling system installed there was able to provide 53% of the building’s annual space heating load.

The system was installed in late 74 and began operating in January of 75. It was designed to provide space heating, some space cooling, and a small amount of domestic water heating.

Experts from NASA and Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, architects and engineers, speaking at a solar energy luncheon, argued that it would take an economic breakthrough rather than additional technical advancement to make solar energy viable. They explained that packaged systems and mass-production techniques were needed to get the first cost down to an affordable level.

The first of two commercial solar heating installations in Virginia, which were authorized through a grant from ERDA, went into operation in 76 to heat the offices of an hvac contracting company, Terrell E. Moseley, Inc., of Lynchburg. Moseley, a professional engineer and president of the company, designed and installed the system himself.

Collected heat from his system was stored in a 2,000-gal insulated hot water storage tank. The water was circulated from there through a hot water duct coil in a conventional forced-air distribution system.

Consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. estimated that the solar market for 76 would be in the range of $40 million to $50 million. The company also projected an annual market from $800 million to $1.5 billion by 1985.



Soaring Interest

A surge which had started late in the previous year generated a huge 96% increase in heat pump shipments for 76. Deliveries were a problem in the first half of the year as the industry had difficulty keeping up with demand.

According to a survey by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), the solar market received a major boost in 76, with 23 states passing laws or resolutions to encourage solar energy systems. By the end of the year, 35 states were providing support for solar energy.

Manufacturers of solar equipment at the 1977 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrig-erating Exposition (AHR Expo) found attendee interest even greater than they expected. Several manufacturers also said that heat pumps remained strong in the South and were growing in the North and East.

A national solar energy convention inaugurated in San Francisco, CA, called SolarCon 77, had daily attendance of more than 5,000 people. “The public obviously is hungry for every scrap of information it can get on solar energy,” said one of the organizers.

Heat pumps continued their sharp rise with a 52% increase in shipments in 77. It was primarily a new construction product at this time.

In 1978, an alternative energy expert told The News that solar energy was priced out of reach for most families because the majority of the research being pursued was not tuned in to making it affordable for middle- and lower-income households.

The National Energy Act, which was passed in 78, included residential and commercial tax credits to get the country to “go solar,” the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) stated.

Shipments of heat pumps rose 16% in 78, a third straight year of solid gains for the product. The heat pump saw installation in 42% of the 797,000 new homes constructed with central systems. A total of 1,441,000 units were then in operation in U.S. homes.

At the beginning of 1979, The News reported that awards totaling $1,396,000 were announced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the design and construction of homes using passive solar heating systems. The 242 awards were selected in HUD’s Passive Solar Residential Design Competition and Demonstration, conducted in cooperation with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Solar Energy Research Institute.

The Board of Supervisors of San Diego County ordered that solar water heaters be required for all new homes built by October 1980. This was the first county law of its kind in California. By late 79, subdivisions would have to guarantee access to sunlight.



Solar Efficiency

A University of Florida team of researchers achieved solar cell efficiency of 18.3% in concentrated sunlight, exceeding by seven years a goal set by the DOE for 1986. The team expected that changes in the design would allow it to reach 20% efficiency. This was in comparison with devices on the market that supplied a maximum of 14% efficiency.

The Edison Electric Institute called for standardization of solar components and systems as well as certification of solar installers. A spokesman noted that, although the DOE cited the use of standards to determine who was qualified to be on state lists of qualified installers, “Thus far, there are no standards.”

In a meeting with representatives of the SEIA, President Jimmy Carter voiced strong support for commercializing solar heating and cooling, saying, “No one at this table wants to see us turn to renewable energy more than I do. I am totally dedicated to it.”

A May 21, 1979 story in The News reported that the emphasis on energy conservation had brought growing acceptance of the water-source heat pump. Besides standard applications, solar-assisted systems were also available.

Despite the growth of solar water heating, data collected by the Florida Solar Energy Center indicated that “A very significant fraction of domestic solar water heating systems we have inspected have major problems, current or impending, either of a design or installation nature,” a representative said.

Honeywell announced that a new microprocessor-based heat pump control system, including memory and communications capability, would be incorporated into the new models of six oem’s in 1980. The memory would indicate to the service contractor what condition triggered a shutdown.

Reports from correspondents in Westchester County in New York and the Denver, CO-area indicated that users of solar systems were satisfied with their performance. The Denver families said they were seeing savings in addition to no major service problems.

The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) and SEIA announced that they would proceed with parallel certification programs prior to putting together an eventual common plan. The hope was to develop and put in place certification in order to avoid a federally imposed program.



Pumped Up And Sunny

As the decade came to a close, heat pumps had indeed come back strong as predicted and had grown into a major force in the heating-cooling industry. Prior problems had been addressed and sales blossomed.

Solar energy also became a much talked about and growing alternative to traditional systems. That growth and promise, however, was soon to end in the next decade.

Publication date" 11/12/2001

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