Sales of air-source heat pumps used to be concentrated primarily in the Southern U.S., but that is changing as consumers become more aware of their energy-saving capabilities. In fact, in many markets, it may be more cost-effective to use an air-source heat pump for the majority of a homeowner’s heating and cooling needs.

While customers like the energy efficiency of heat pumps, contractors appreciate the wide variety of options that can satisfy any budget — everything from minimum-efficiency equipment to 20-plus SEER, variable speed, multistage systems. And, heat pumps often appeal to customers who want to move away from fossil fuel heating, which adds another selling point for contractors.

Strong Sales

Maryland is not typically regarded as heat pump country, but you would never know that when talking with John Poyle, owner, Hagerstown Heating and Cooling LLC, Hagerstown, Maryland. He has been selling heat pumps ever since he started in the HVAC industry, and he estimates that heat pumps comprise more than 60 percent of his sales.

“We have a lot of oil- and gas-fired furnaces in this area, but personally, I love a heat pump,” he said. “With fuel at $4 per gallon, our customers are interested in other alternatives, so if they have forced air, we always offer a heat pump right off the bat. If they have a gas furnace, we offer a dual fuel option, which we can also do with oil, but we typically try to convert them to propane instead. But, stand-alone heat pumps work fine, too; in fact, I have one in my own home, and the back-up electric heat doesn’t kick in until temperatures drop below 18?F outside.”

The volatility of fuel prices is definitely leading more customers to buy heat pumps because they like knowing their electric bills will be stable and affordable, said Charlie Prather, owner, Charlie Prather Services, Radcliff, Kentucky. “Customers also like the improved efficiency of heat pumps, along with their warmer heat outputs, lowered noise levels, and the extended warranties offered by many manufacturers such as Frigidaire.”

John Henry Zohner, owner, John Henry’s Plumbing, Heating, and Air Conditioning, Lincoln, Nebraska, is also a fan of heat pumps, having sold them ever since he started the company in 1996. About 90 percent of his cooling sales involve heat pumps, and he reached that milestone by taking the time to educate the public about their benefits.

“I have written articles for a local newspaper since 2001 because I believe it’s the responsibility of plumbing and HVAC contractors to explain the benefits of things like heat pumps,” said Zohner. “As a result, consumers in our community have a better understanding of the equipment. Consumers also know more because of the Internet, and we find that many of our customers understand heat pumps fairly well before our comfort consultants arrive at their door.”

Contractors like Trevor Miller, residential manager, Classic Aire Care, St. Louis, have also found that offering heat pumps can set them apart from the competition. “We’re giving customers another option that they haven’t yet considered. As people become more energy conscious, and the price of fuel keeps increasing in some areas, customers are becoming more open to the idea of getting a more energy-efficient product.”

That being said, some customers have a negative perception of heat pumps because of challenges that existed with older systems, such as register temperature, efficiency, reliability, and return on investment. But after learning how heat pumps have changed, customers are more apt to buy them, which is why Classic Aire Care is providing increased product training, so that its comfort advisors can become more confident in talking about the equipment.

“We feel the market for heat pumps will continue to grow as contractors and the public become more comfortable with the technology and manufacturers continue to enhance the products with new features that benefit the customer,” said Miller.

What’s Selling?

Once customers make the decision to buy a heat pump, Miller finds they are more likely to be interested in the higher end units that are available to them. As a result, he sells many Lennox and Carrier systems that feature variable-speed blowers and two-stage or variable-speed compressors.

Local utility rebates can also encourage customers to purchase higher-efficiency products, which is what Zohner has found to be the case in his area. “Our local electrical utility company, Lincoln Electric System, offers a sustainable energy program that pays rebates to consumers who install high-efficiency heat pumps. This definitely drives sales, and the result is that consumers can afford higher quality heat pumps, such as the Lennox 17-20-SEER units and the Trane 20-SEER systems. Higher efficiencies result in quicker payback, so it’s a win-win-win situation.”

While Zohner appreciates the increased sales that come about due to the utility rebates, he believes they provide an even greater benefit by encouraging safety.

“It is safer to use heat pumps rather than fossil fuel equipment. We consistently remove fossil fuel equipment that has cracked heat exchangers and replace it with heat pumps. Quite often, we use electric air handlers instead of natural gas furnaces.”

Poyle also sells a great deal of high-efficiency heat pumps — usually Broan iQ drive systems — but he will not sell any of these units unless the customer first agrees to improve any deficiencies in the home. “We are a true home-performance contractor, so we look at the whole house. No one can buy an iQ drive system from us unless they allow us to audit the home. And, if they won’t make corrections to their home, we won’t sell them an iQ drive. I’m pretty strict about this rule because we have a one-year buy-back guarantee — if they don’t like how the system performs during the first year, I will write them a check, which is why we have to get it right the first time.”

So far, Poyle has not had to write any checks for a heat pump installation, and he plans to keep pushing the equipment. “It’s the right thing to do. Some people think heat pumps are only good for a certain region, but they can extract heat out of 10?F air. And the inverter technology puts the home closer to the heating load than the cooling load. It’s crazy not to do it, which is why I see sales continuing to grow. It would be nice to have help in educating consumers in our area, but then again, if everyone sold heat pumps, we would be on the same playing field again. I like being different.”

Sidebar: Heat Pumps Make Sense

Heat pumps have been traditionally known to be best suited for homes that experience relatively mild winters and where natural gas is either unavailable or expensive. Today, thanks to new variable-speed technology, such as Copeland Scroll™ variable-speed compressors, heat pumps are capable of far better heating performance and efficiency, even in cold climate conditions. When thinking about heat pumps, the three major factors to keep in mind are heating capacity, heating efficiency, and heating comfort.

Heating Capacity

Heating capacity is the amount of heat a heat pump is able to pump into the indoor environment at any given time. Since fixed-speed and two-step compressors are usually designed around cooling, or air conditioning mode, their capacity and efficiency tend to drop off when it gets below 35°F outside. Unless the system is intentionally oversized, even the most advanced fixed-speed or two-step heat pumps will not be able to keep up below 30?, at which point the backup electric heat will turn on to ensure the home stays warm.

Because variable-speed systems are capable of being designed to meet multiple capacity needs (variable speed = variable capacity), a variable-speed system is able to over speed the compressor during winter conditions to ensure the home stays warm, even down as low as 0?. This extra capacity is also what enables better heating efficiency.

Heating Efficiency

Heating efficiency has to do with the amount of electricity needed to keep a home warm during the winter. Because variable-speed systems are able to closely match the heating needs of a home, the system will only consume the necessary amount of electricity needed for heating, no more and no less. This precise load-matching capability makes variable-speed heat pumps an excellent choice for energy-conscious homeowners.

Heating Comfort

Heating comfort is about ensuring temperature and humidity levels in the home stay precisely in line with the customer’s preferences. Swings from too humid to too dry can be just as discomforting to homeowners as swings from too hot to too cold. Variable-speed heat pumps can improve humidity levels in a home to ensure that in cooling mode the home doesn’t get too humid and that in heating mode the home doesn’t get too dry, a common complaint of natural gas furnaces. Contractors selling heat pumps in the North should consider discussing the following benefits with consumers:

Focus on comfort and IAQ — Maintaining precise humidity and temperature within the home at all times and in all conditions is what variable-speed heat pumps do best.

Point out the energy savings — Consumers tend to value comfort the most, but the added benefit of saving anywhere from 24-40 percent on annual energy costs is a great bonus.

Explain the reliability benefits — Because variable-speed heat pumps use motor control drives to power the compressor, the drive acts as a shield to protect the compressor from catastrophic failure due to adverse conditions or electrical events. When used in conjunction with proven scroll technology, variable-speed heat pumps can reduce field failures and extend reliability even further.

Information courtesy of Emerson Climate Technologies;

Publication date: 5/26/2014

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