Heat pumps are gaining popularity in both the Northeast and Northwest, even into Canada, as well as traditional markets where their acceptance is secure.
“We’re seeing wider recognition among homeowners and HVAC contractors of how modern heat pumps can condition homes of all different sizes and in a variety of climates — including colder climates in the Northeast and Midwest,” said Michelle Robb, director of marketing, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US. “It’s an exciting time in our industry, and we expect continued market expansion for both split-ductless and ducted variable-capacity heat pumps.”
Today, the vast majority of Americans have a car with air conditioning. Many people (well, apart from HVAC techs) sit in an office all day in the air conditioning.
“I think in general, the expectation of having air conditioning is just a norm now,” said Colin Mullins, product manager of mini splits for Lennox. “Before, a garage or outbuilding where you kind of sweat it out in the past … now you’re like ‘Well, I have the ability to make those comfortable year-round, why wouldn’t I?’ Likewise, if you’re finishing off the attic, putting in carpet, and suddenly it’s a game room, you want that to be comfortable, too.”
It’s a lot easier to set up that kind of air conditioning system or heating system as its own single zone, he said. And as more consumers have become aware of the option to add mini splits in these types of applications, the market has grown.
“Within the heat pump market, ductless or mini splits are the category that is growing the fastest … outpacing, in terms of growth, the incumbent technology,” said Goncalo Costa, director of the a/c regional business unit at Bosch in North America. “It is closing some gaps that existed in the past when end users are looking for cooling options.”
Take the example of a hydronic system, or a ducted system put together only for heating. “In these situations, mini spits are the perfect product,” Costa said. “We’re seeing this product be more and more utilized in those situations. Contractors are more used to it, and users as well, and I think that’s why it’s growing so much.”
Increasingly, heat pumps are being built to perform not just in the home but in more aggressive outdoor environments.
“Looking back, a heat pump sort of has a north-south line, where you don’t really apply them in extreme conditions,” Mullins said. “I’d say that line is trending north in general. A lot of our customers are in markets you’d think of as being too cold for a mini split heat pump, or heat pumps in general.”
Lennox has an MLA low-ambient heat pump line that performs down to minus 22°F and is designed to get full heating down to zero degrees outdoor temperature.
“It puts out heat in places that you wouldn’t expect it to keep up,” Mullins said. “It’s really allowing us to go into markets where you wouldn’t be able to in the past.”
Minnesota’s Center for Energy and Environment demonstrated the effectiveness of modern heat pumps, including mini splits in cold climates, Robb pointed out. Information about the capabilities of today’s mini splits is more widespread, so as a result, there are more people who will use mini splits to condition their entire home.
“We’ve heard from HVAC contractors in cold climate regions who told us that the automated changeover capabilities along with our Hyper-Heating INVERTER® (H2i®) technology were what convinced them to get onboard with heat pumps,” she said. “Our award-winning H2i technology allows heat pumps to recover thermal energy that would otherwise be lost during the flash process. This means that heat pumps can deliver 100 percent heating capacity down to 5°.”
Mini splits have also found applications in metropolitan areas, where through-the-wall a/c units and window units (in apartments) were once the only option available.
“The mini split system is a higher efficiency [replacement] option and one that fits the application very well,” said Costa. “We’ve seen lots of refurbishing projects in New York City, for example.”
They also work well for light commercial applications, he added, because there are a lot of spaces where a ducted system just won’t work — or, it’s used for improving the comfort through zoning.
“Now, with only one condensing unit outside, you can control several indoor units, and this way, provide a much better experience to the end user in terms of comfort … and save some utility costs,” Costa said.
Like the HVAC industry — and perhaps all aspects of life — heat pumps are becoming more connected. Some programs provide end users with additional information about how the system is operating, how much energy they are saving, and when a system might fail.
“Those types of systems help the installation process and also the troubleshooting,” Costa said. “I don’t think anyone has figured out the best way to make money from it … [although] we see some subscription models coming out. I think that’s the biggest trend I’m seeing.”
“We’ll also see heat pumps continue to get smarter and more responsive as the industry expands the use of algorithms designed to personalize comfort, the use of apps like kumo cloud® with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant integration, and as integrated sensors become more sophisticated,” said Robb.
Mitsubishi is launching the SLZ-KF, a ceiling cassette heat pump that offers flexible airflow with 2-, 3-, or 4-way vane control. If applied with the optional 3D i-see Sensor, the SLZ-KF can provide 72 different airflow combinations and a direct/indirect airflow setting for more individualized comfort control.
The 3D i-see Sensor recognizes the presence and location of people in a room by detecting their heat signatures and enables Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC systems to automatically adjust conditioning and airflow as needed for comfort or energy efficiency.
“Our kumo cloud and kumo station® technologies are also advancing the heat pump market by providing app-based control for occupants and automating changeover to auxiliary heating systems in extreme temperatures,” Robb said.
Costa said growth in the heat pump market has been strong.
“It’s clear, and it’s public, and it’s been growing double-digits for a long time,” he said.
And that growth is expected to continue, according to Robb. Contractors can expect to see homeowners become more aware of the different styles of ducted and ductless heat pumps that are available, including ceiling cassettes, wall-mounted units, horizontal ducted units, and air handlers.
“Homeowners who understand how heat pumps can improve their family’s comfort while also reducing their overall energy costs are a big driver of market expansion,” she said. “We also know that the more knowledgeable HVAC contractors, engineers, and architects recognize how variable-capacity heat pumps can help them construct homes that are more comfortable, healthier, and energy efficient.
Nationwide efforts toward decarbonization will have the effect of expanding the market, since heat pumps run on electricity rather than fossil fuels.
“The trend toward smarter heat pumps is part of our larger society’s trend toward smarter and more responsive technologies,” Robb said. “HVAC isn’t exempt.”
On the unitary side, Bosch is seeing more and more inverter technology, which is behind some of the strong growth Costa is seeing, specifically on the models with efficiencies 17 SEER and above. Inverter technology modulates the compressor, allowing for variable speeds, and reduces the cost of operation. It also provides a more comfortable experience by making the outdoor unit quieter.
Lennox offers several options: the low-ambient, high-performance line and the standard Energy Star-qualifying MPB, the company’s entry level line. Bosch has a unitary residential system that is inverter technology-based.
“Because it has 85 steps of output instead of one or two, it basically modulates according to the demand and cuts the utility bills by more than 50 percent in most cases,” Costa said. “It’s compatible with an existing duct system, existing refrigerant line, and existing controller or thermostat. And it brings this inverter technology to North American customers at the same price as a 16-SEER, one-stage product.”
WHY SELL THEM?
Contractors have several main reasons to consider selling heat pumps. In the short term, ductless heat pumps take less time to install, and that opens opportunities for profit, said Robb. In the longer term, the heat pump market will continue to expand.
“So it makes sense for HVAC contractors to cultivate their expertise and experience with heat pumps, so they’re ready for the future,” she said. “Contractors now have hybrid ductless and ducted multi-zone systems for the whole home. This system gives them a complete zoned comfort solution.”
“Thinking about the wall mount, it’s a bracket, one shot; it’s one hole through the wall,” Mullins said.
One thing to be mindful of is that heat pumps are electric units, so contractors need to make sure it makes sense in that area from a cost of energy perspective, versus gas. Also, heat pumps have a limit, in terms of outdoor operation temperatures.
“We see more and more systems working down to 5° overnight,” Costa said. “If it’s installed together with auxiliary heat, it’s good enough for any area in North America, as long as the cost of energy situation makes sense.”
With those considerations in mind, a heat pump remains the most straightforward and cheapest system to provide both heating and cooling, Costa said.
“That’s really the biggest benefit for the contractor. It’s cheaper, it’s easier to install, and in terms of maintenance and troubleshooting, it’s just one system; it’s so much simpler [in comparison with a furnace and an air conditioning unit].”
Publication date: 5/20/2019