Even though Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) reported that air-source heat pump shipments in 2012 decreased 3.8 percent from 2011, there is no question this equipment has become increasingly popular over the years. Consider that in 1992, only around 800,000 units were sold, but by peak-selling year, 2005, that number jumped to over 2.1 million.

Manufacturers predict that sales of air-source heat pumps will continue to increase, particularly in colder climates such as the Plains states, Midwest, and Northeast. Heat pumps have not typically been as popular in these areas, as their performance suffers during extended periods of subfreezing temperatures. That’s why most heat pumps in colder climates still require some sort of backup heat — often an oil- or gas-fired furnace — but they are an excellent option that can provide customers with a more energy-efficient year-round solution.

Sales Growth

Joe Leighty, co-owner, Brewster Heating and Cooling, Brewster, Minn., started offering heat pumps in 2008, mainly due to the high cost of propane. Since then, heat pump sales at his company have increased 25-30 percent each year. “We usually combine them with a gas furnace, because typically you can run the heat pumps until it gets down to about 20˚F outside. A dual-fuel thermostat automatically switches it over to the furnace during colder weather.”

Also seeing an increased demand for heat pumps is Gregg Swenson, co-owner, Swenson Heating & Air Conditioning, Princeton, Minn., who has offered these systems for seven years. “Interest started growing when we moved our business into a more rural area where many of our customers use LP gas or fuel oil. An air-source heat pump, along with off-peak electric rates, offers a much more efficient and affordable system, especially when combined with a high-efficiency furnace. Sometimes we also install electric modulating plenum heaters.”

Swenson is surprised that customers often do not know anything about heat pumps, so it is usually necessary to educate them about how they work. “Most are very curious to learn about them and often purchase them when the option is offered. We explain that when properly installed, the benefits include a greener source of heat, higher efficiencies than what they can achieve from their furnace alone (often in the range of 150-300 percent), and lower installation costs if they are already replacing an air conditioner.”

Heat pump sales have also been increasing for Michael C. Wall, president, Michael C. Wall Inc., Birdsboro, Pa., who noted that customers became more interested in them about four years ago. “Sales started ticking up with the federal tax credits and manufacturer rebates. Plus oil prices were really high, and customers couldn’t rely on consistent operating costs for the home. One year oil prices would remain steady, and then the next year they would increase 45 percent. People were getting tired of it — they couldn’t manage the utilities for their homes that way.”

In fact, when oil prices reached $4 per gallon, customers could heat their homes with space heaters for less money than using oil, said Wall. “That’s when people really starting jumping on board with heat pumps. We don’t have much natural gas in our rural area, so we promote them to homeowners as an alternative — instead of paying the high cost of home heating oil, we can significantly decrease their operating costs with an electric heat pump system.”

The heating season in Wall’s area usually lasts about six to seven months of the year, but he estimates that for at least four of those months, the heat pump can handle the load without any backup. “We install a lot of Broan iQ Drive equipment, and with these newer systems, we can actually size the equipment a little bit closer to the customer’s heating needs, rather than the air conditioning needs. We can do that, because this system will ramp down in capacity to as low as 40 percent of the design, which helps maintain the humidity level in the home for the cooling cycle.”

Better Technology

Mitch Bishop, president, Auburn Plumbing, Heating, and A/C Inc., Auburn, Neb., agrees that newer heat pumps are an easier sell in colder climates. “With the early heat pumps, there were a lot of defrost issues. Manufacturers have since straightened out their circuit board issues, and now defrost is not a problem.”

Utility rebates offered in the 1990s were the main reason why Bishop started offering heat pumps to his customers. “Our local utility was actively pushing heat pumps, and they were offering huge rebates at the time. We were a new company, and we took advantage of the rebates in order to get going. It really took off for us, and now our heat pump sales are about 80 percent of our HVAC business.”

Bishop has a heat pump at his house, and he said it satisfies the demand on its own for at least nine months out of the year, at a much lower cost. Some customers, he noted, have a high-efficiency gas furnace installed along with their heat pump, so they can get their savings in the spring and fall. “From December through February, a heat pump doesn’t do you a whole lot of good on its own, which is why many choose to have the high-efficiency gas furnace as well.”

In addition to saving energy costs, Bishop likes the even heat that multistage, modulating heat pumps produce. “The air moves longer, so it evens out the heat and air conditioning throughout the house. Most of the heat pumps we install now are multistage, which means we can upsize slightly for the heating side and not have to suffer on the cooling side. We have high humidity here, so you don’t want to cool the house too fast or else there will be a humidity problem. The multistage units dehumidify really well, so we can lean more toward the heating cycle when sizing the heat pump.”

Swenson also prefers to install multistage heat pumps because they can be sized for the heating load (single-stage equipment is sized for the cooling load). “We tend to choose a unit that’s about half a ton larger than what’s re-
quired to cool the home, so we can get more heat out of the unit in the winter. We really like the upper-level Lennox units, as the larger physical dimensions of these units’ coils seem to transfer heat better. They are also very quiet.”

All in all, heat pumps provide just the right combination of energy savings and comfort, which is why this equipment is so popular with customers, said Wall. “Heat pumps provide constant heat into the home, rather than one big blast of hot air that you get with an oil furnace. Providing the duct system is sized properly, people can feel more comfortable than with an oil furnace and also enjoy lower utility rates.”

It looks like consumers around the country are coming to the same conclusion, as AHRI recently reported that for the first two months of the year, heat pump shipments increased 18.2 percent over the same period when compared to 2012. This bodes well for strong heat pump sales throughout the hot and humid summer ahead.

Unico to Design Cold-Weather Heat Pump

Unico Inc., a manufacturer of small-duct, high-velocity (SDHV), central heating and air conditioning systems, recently announced that it has started developing a heat pump for cold climates. Funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), this heat pump would be the first of its kind to be able to achieve 100 percent of the unit’s rated capacity, even when the outdoor temperature dips to -13˚F.

The new product will be designed to work with SDHV equipment, or a conventional system, said Randy Niederer, vice president of marketing, Unico Inc. “By creating a product that works with SDHV or conventional systems, we increase the opportunity for greater sales potential.”

The new heat pump, which will be marketed for both new construction and retrofit applications, will be designed mainly for residential and light commercial use.

“Because there are homeowners who are dependent on fuel oil or propane to heat their homes, this product could be a retrofit solution for that specific market,” said Niederer. “For new construction in remote areas that don’t have access to natural gas, it will give homeowners a lower-cost solution to heat and cool their homes. For now, the product will target the Northern colder climates of the U.S. that have a longer heating season and a shorter cooling season.”

The company plans to develop the new heat pump over the next three years, with full commercialization at the end of the third year.

Publication date: 5/27/2013

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