Heat pumps are poised to become one of the biggest winners in the HVAC market as the nation moves toward electrification. But recent events show some challenges for the technology. Industry experts see these obstacles as temporary and expect acceptance to grow.
Incentives exist in many parts of the country to move away from natural gas usage. Some cities rewrote building codes to promote electrification. More than 30 cities in California are outright banning new natural gas hook-ups. This improves the attractiveness of heat pumps as an option for home heating. Traditional heat pumps use electricity to make a coil function as an evaporator and use outside air to heat the home.
Last winter’s unusually cold weather in Texas showed how widespread use of heat pumps creates a challenge that states need to address as they increase electrification. Lee Rosenberg, chairman of Rosenberg Indoor Comfort in San Antonio, Texas, said many parts of the state lack residential natural gas connections and depend on heat pumps for warmth.
That’s not a problem in a normal winter, but the February storm saw temperatures plunge and heat pumps kicked on across the country. The devices run efficiently but get a full amp draw when they turn on. This boost in energy helped tax an already-limited electric system and contributed to the blackouts that caused problems across the state. In addition, the heat pumps worked harder than usual because of the abnormal temperatures, further taxing the electric grid.
Proper Maintenance, Newer Models Solve Problems
When everything becomes electric, from HVAC to cars, avoiding overwhelming the grid becomes a bigger issue. Resolving the issue is possible with some effort from contractors. One solution going forward is improved maintenance. Dirty filters and coils cause heat pumps to use more electricity because it takes more energy to move the refrigerant and air.
Another is installing newer heat pumps that run more efficiently. Mike Smith, senior manager of marketing communications for Mitsubishi Electric Trane US (METUS), said a heat pump with a inverter-driven compressor system and VRF offers a very low amp draw at start-up. That means enough time for electricity providers to adjust output.
For areas that fall short of full electrification, hybrid heat pumps provide another option. These systems combine a heat pump with a gas-powered heat source as a backup. There could be many states that still use natural gas to some extent going forward as full electrification proves too expensive. A recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the cost of an electrification mandate for new homes in New England’s coldest states would be more than $4,000 a year.
No Incentives, Little Interest
Incentives work as long as they are in place. In the late 1980s, utility companies in Louisiana offered large rewards for consumers to install heat pumps. This led to the creation of what was then called the Louisiana Heat Pump Association. Last year, the group changed its name to the HVACR Association of Louisiana. The new name reflects a larger focus on all the industry’s needs, said Charles Weckesser, the association’s president.
“Having all these great things that should lure dealers into our association, they couldn’t look past the name,” said Weckesser, who is president of Comfort Specialists Air Conditioning and Heating in Marrero, Louisiana.
Weckesser said part of the problem is there’s enough business keeping people cool in this hot, humid state that few contractors see the point in promoting heating options. In some cases, they even advise against installing heat pumps.
“There’s a lot of contractors that just won’t touch them,” he said. “They want to keep it simple.”
He finds that thinking short-sighted. It’s true that very cold winters only occur every few years in Louisiana, and most parts of the state stays fairly warm year round. Still, temperatures during the winter reach the high 40s. This is perfect weather for heat pumps to provide comfort at an affordable price, Weckesser said. That’s the message contractors need to share with their customers.
“Most consumers don’t ask about them,” Weckesser said. “We have to educate them.”
Industry Sees Bright Future
Despite some challenges, heat pump manufacturers see a bright future for the products. Tom Carney, director of sales for Halcyon at Fujitsu General America, said heat pumps have seen 12% growth so far this year. This follows four years of growth around 9%.
Terry Frisenda, national accounts manager for construction sales for LG Air Conditioning Technologies, said heat pump growth will continue as more homeowners seek an electric option that reliably delivers year-round heating and cooling.
“As the movement to reduce the impact of traditional fossil fuels progresses, the preference for a more efficient and connected home increases,” Frisenda said.
Smith from METUS agrees.
“How else are you going to heat your homes if you can’t burn fossil fuels?” he said. “There will be a heat pump revolution in this country.”