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Straight Talk Articles

Ductless Heat Pumps: Heat and Cool Without Blowing Your Budget
October, 2017

Dear Pat: My husband and I are tired of paying such a high electric bill in winter. We think it’s because of our baseboard heaters, and we think our window AC units are driving up our bill in summer, too. Our neighbors just had a ductless heat pump system installed in their home. Do you think that would work for us? - Karen

 

Dear Karen:

 

Mini-split ductless heat pumps are becoming more popular for good reason – they can heat efficiently even when winter temperatures drop below the freezing point and they are an economical and energy efficient replacement for window AC units.

 

Ductless heat pumps are often installed as the primary heating source and paired with a backup system that kicks in when outside temperatures are extremely cold. Baseboard heaters are an electric resistance system, and use much more energy than a heat pump which is just moving heat in or out of the house.  If you make this change you should reduce your heating costs considerably.  Heat pumps  work harder as the outside air temperature drops, but combining the heat pump with a backup heating system solves that problem. 

 

I talked with Joe Hull, an Energy Services Advisor with Midstate Electric Cooperative in Oregon. Members there have found that ductless systems with a backup heating system can work effectively to as low as -28 Fahrenheit.

 

Ductless heat pump systems could be an ideal solution if your home doesn’t have a duct system in place or the ductwork isn’t in good condition. Installing a ductless heat pump may be more practical or less expensive than sealing, insulating or updating your existing ductwork.

 

A ductless heat pump has two main components: the outdoor compressor and the indoor air handler.  Coolant and electrical lines run through a conduit from the compressor outside the home through the wall to the inside air handler(s).

 

Ductless heat pumps can be configured in different ways.  A common approach that could provide the most value is to provide heating and cooling to one large zone in the home using a single compressor and a single air handler.   Or you could use one compressor to power as many as four inside air handlers, each with its own thermostat.  A home could even have more than one outside compressor.

 

Scott Mayfield, an expert from Kootenai Electric Cooperative in Idaho, said installing a ductless system in his home had benefits beyond cost savings.  “With baseboard heaters, the heat used to rise along the walls but with the new ductless system, it flows throughout the rooms evenly. It would have been worth switching to ductless for the comfort alone.” 

 

In some parts of the country, ductless mini-splits are becoming more popular in new home construction as well. In fact, a friend of mine in Hood River, Oregon had a ductless system installed in her new home.

 

Ductless heat pumps are often a great solution.  But as you explore this decision it would be wise to consider:

  • What are the other investments you could be making to reduce your energy costs or improve comfort?Is the ductless heat pump the best option?A good energy audit will help you answer these questions.

  • Check with your electric co-op for rebate programs.

  • What is the best size and efficiency level for a ductless heat pump in your situation?

  • Are there contractors in your area with experience installing ductless heat pumps? Your co-op might have a list of recommended contractors and the www.energystar.gov website has tips on hiring contractors.

 

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency.

For more information on heat pumps, please visit the October 2017 more information page.

FOOTNOTES

(1) https://goingductless.com/assets/documents/uploads/DHP_Homeowners-Guide_FNL_REF.pdf

(2) NRECA Tech Surveillance “The Business Case for Retrofitting Manufactured Homes with Mini-Split Heat Pumps”.

A larger or smaller blower can be installed depending on the size of the room. Photo Credit: NW Energy Efficiency Alliance.