In the past, heat pumps were typically installed in single-residence homes, but nowadays, the technology has evolved and can be used in many other building applications — such as multifamily homes. While legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) might be enough to motivate some building owners to make the change to high-efficiency heat pumps, others might need more convincing.
Mark Reding, ducted systems product manager at Johnson Controls, explained that in multifamily homes, overall savings are not always a driving factor for HVAC replacements because tenants are often the only ones who see their monthly utility costs. This leaves building managers with limited data to justify any investments in more efficient technology, he said. One solution to this problem is the Green Lease program, which was launched in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Alliance and the Institute for Market Transformation. According to Reding, the program allows both the tenant and the building owner to share insight into utility expenses.
“This information can then be used to develop strategies for investing in mutually beneficial capital improvements such as HVAC system upgrades,” he explained. “Multifamily building managers can [also] take advantage of IRA incentives to help offset the cost of system investments.”
Reding added that programs such as the DOE’s Cold Climate Heat Pump Challenge are expected to encourage the adoption of heat pumps in buildings, as the specifications of these new systems will likely translate into multifamily housing.
Although nearly all multifamily homes can at least be partially electrified with heat pumps, Reding said the most common retrofit obstacle is when building managers try to reuse existing components to reduce costs. He added that the best way to overcome this problem is by recommending systems that already operate with similar parts.
Factors to Consider
Though different types of heat pumps, such as variable refrigerant flow (VRF) and mini-split systems, can all work well in multifamily homes, Dennis Cobb, senior director - business development, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS), said the application and size of the project can help determine what product to use. He added that factors such as the capability of the building, as well as what region a building might be located in, can all affect product choice.
CONVENIENCE: Wall-mounted mini-split units can allow homeowners to easily adjust heating and cooling to their own personal comfort. (Courtesy of METUS)
“As far as cold climates or southern climates, VRF may make a better solution than mini splits on larger buildings,” he noted.
Cobb said when it comes to replacing existing systems in older multifamily homes, sometimes a backup electric heating source does not need to be provided because heat pumps are capable of going down to zero degrees (or even lower) while still maintaining their heating capacity. This eliminates the need for a power grid upgrade, he explained, which can provide end users and building owners with significant savings. He added that this extra capital can then be reinvested into the building or be used to upgrade systems to higher efficiency mini-split or VRF products.
The ownership of these homes also comes into play. For example, when dealing with individually owned units in an apartment building, Cobb said the process is typically much longer, as more steps are involved in getting the approval to install new equipment. If the homes are owned by a single person or entity, then he said the owner would make the decision for the whole building. Cobb noted that sometimes when an owner is short-lived — for example, those who buy properties to renovate or flip them — it might be harder to persuade them to invest in a new HVAC system.
“Our challenge is to convince them that whatever they put in that building is going to be an asset for them to sell the building, as well as an asset for the new ownership behind it,” he explained. “At that point, we're really talking about energy efficiency and longevity and a return on investment for them.”
Clean Heat for All
As trends in electrification and decarbonization continue to grow, more building owners and homeowners have been trying to replace old equipment to meet new standards. However, making this change can be complicated when it comes to multifamily homes, which are often found in large cities. New York City is an example of an urban area that is working to close its green energy gap through its “Clean Heat for All Challenge”. Organized by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), New York Power Authority (NYPA), and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the Challenge aims to address NYC Local Law 97, which states that the city must cut greenhouse gas emissions from its housing developments by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.
“Municipalities are really trying to shift their buildings to meet the new laws promoting electrification and decarbonization,” said David Leezer, retail AC R&D team leader at Midea America. “Taking advantage of this opportunity, we submitted a bid on the Clean Heat for All Challenge and won the bid to supply 20,000 units.”
Leezer said packaged window heat pumps (PWHP) are a unique new technology that could help multifamily homes make the shift from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources. When creating new products for multifamily homes, however, he noted that manufacturers should consider that every building might require different methods of installation. For example, he said that when designing PWHPs for the Challenge, Midea had incorporated an adjustable “bridge section” to the product because windowsill depths can vary across housing units. This addition made the unit more accessible for different applications.
According to Leezer, one of the biggest challenges when designing the window-mounted unit was how to manage condensate. He said Midea’s aim with the product was to self-contain the condensate without the risk of it dripping down the building or freezing in extreme temperatures. About 30-36 units will be going through testing during the winter of 2023, Leezer said, and the proposed start for installation in NYC multifamily buildings will be in 2024.
Senior product manager
Education is Key
Though many incentives have been designed to encourage the installation of more efficient HVAC technology, David Rames, senior product manager at Midea America, said these incentives will not do much good if the general public is not informed about them.
“Heat pumps, by nature, are more expensive than air conditioners. So in order to drive the consumer to make the change, you have to incentivize them,” he explained. “People's understanding of heat pumps and what heat pumps are is usually not there — that education to the general consumer and general public is kind of a challenge.”
The importance of proper education even goes past the consumers. Rames said as HVAC technology evolves and improves over the years, manufacturers have the responsibility to connect with their distribution partners and work on educating contractors about each product and proper installation methods. He added that when it comes to multifamily building applications, it is important to let contractors know that they should embrace the new challenge and technology.
“The contractor should ask for this training because there's going to be more and more inverter technology penetration into the market in the future,” Rames said. “They can't be scared of it.”