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Dear Pat and Brad: My cousin just had a heat pump installed, so now she has fan units high up on the walls instead of her old baseboard heaters. My neighbors just got a heat pump too, only theirs replaced their basement furnace and air conditioner, so it blows through the old furnace vents. Could one of these options work for me?  - Anke

 

Dear Anke:

 

The short answer is yes. The two most common kinds of heat pumps, which you’ve just described, are often good options.

It sounds like your cousin replaced her inefficient electric baseboard heaters with a ductless mini-split heat pump. The system has a compressor outside that is connected with refrigerant lines to the blowers inside. A ductless system can serve up to 4 zones so it can heat a small house or can be used in combination with another heating system in a larger home.(1) The ductless mini-split system is a great option for a home that does not have a duct system, or if the existing duct system is leaky or poorly designed.

 

Your neighbors most likely replaced their central heating and air conditioning (HVAC) system with a central system air-source heat pump. The compressor is also located outside, but in this case it’s hooked into the house’s duct system to distribute cold or warm air through the existing vents.  The central system heat pump can be a good option if your existing duct system is in good order.

 

A less common type of heat pump is a ground-source, or geothermal, system that taps into heat that’s naturally underground all year round. It’s typically a bigger investment, but is very efficient.

 

Heat pumps are much more efficient than electric resistance systems and can be a solid solution in a wide variety of circumstances.   They can be the right choice in a manufactured home, an addition, or as a replacement for a broken or inefficient HVAC system. They’re also becoming more popular for central heating in new construction.

 

Here’s how heat pumps work: in winter, they pull warmth from the outside air into the house; then in summer, the process is reversed and warmth from inside the house is exhausted outside. It may seem odd that warmth can be found in outdoor winter air, but heat pumps are amazing inventions. They have been getting more efficient in recent years to the point that they can be effective year round in most cold winter climates.(2) The efficiency of a heat pump is measured in two ways.  The HSPF rating measures heating efficiency and the SEER rating measures cooling efficiency.  The minimum ratings for a heat pump are HSPF 8.2 and SEER 14.  Heat pumps with the ENERGY STAR® label are significantly more efficient than the minimum standard.

 

Here’s how to know if you should consider a heat pump for your home:

 

  1. Want to save money? If you are currently heating your home with electric resistance or propane or heating oil, and you seal some air leaks and install some insulation as you install an efficient heat pump, you could your heating costs by up to 75%.(3)And if you are currently cooling your home with an old AC system or window AC units, you could also cut your cooling costs.(4)

  2. Want heating and cooling flexibility? A ductless heat pump can serve up to 4 individual rooms, and each room’s temperature can be controlled separately.

  3. Want safe heat? Heat pumps eliminate the need to burn fuels inside your home and exhaust combustion gases.There’s no risk of carbon monoxide or gas leaks that can come from flaws in a system that runs on natural gas, propane, fuel oil or wood.

 

Before you make any move toward any new HVAC system, I strongly suggest you get an energy audit, including a test for air leaks, and then install the cost-effective air sealing and insulation measures. Your co-op may have auditors on staff or a list of preferred providers. They might even offer financial incentives.  As with any home upgrade, when it comes time to do any upgrades or system installation, be sure to get a few quotes, and get references before committing or making any payments. Good luck!

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on whether a heat pump is right for your home, please visit the October 2019 more information page.

 

Footnotes

(1) SOURCE: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-and-cool/heat-pump-systems

(2) SOURCE: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-and-cool/heat-pump-systems

(3) SOURCE: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-and-cool/heat-pump-systems

(4) SOURCE: https://www.efficiencymaine.com/heat-pumps/

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A single ductless heat pump can serve up to four rooms through blowers installed in each room. Source: NW Energy Efficiency Alliance.