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Contractors work hard to install equipment and other measures to improve the performance of their customer’s homes. Energy upgrades have many benefits, improved indoor air quality, comfort, lower energy bills,…

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Building electrification and heat pumps are getting a lot of attention these days. Most of the conversation centers on taking advantage of clean, carbon-free electricity from renewables. Heat pumps are…

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There is a trend in the industry to electrify everything, and heat pumps play a crucial role in buildings. Can the approach be as simple as replacing gas appliances with…

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The rush to a carbon-free future is in full swing. The effort has slowly been gaining traction, and funding from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will significantly advance…

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The Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries (IHACI) is a nonprofit trade organization representing the Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) industry. Once a year, IHACI hosts a tradeshow…

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When a building owner or homeowner contacts a heating and cooling professional, their primary concerns may not always be in their best interest. The restoration of service and price frequently…

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Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

What’s the deal with California and natural gas in buildings? It started with cities and counties requiring new construction projects to be all-electric. On Sept. 22, 2022, California policymakers voted unanimously to ban the sale of gas furnaces and water heaters after 2030. What’s with all these restrictions, and why now?

Over the last few years, California legislators have set increasingly aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals. Perhaps the most aggressive legislation is SB 100, the California 100% Clean Energy Act, signed into law by Jerry Brown on Aug. 29, 2018. SB 100 sets the goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. The state is aiming for emissions reductions across the board at the same time.

To help meet this goal, researchers have categorized the state’s leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions by sector. Most people would not be surprised to learn that transportation is the largest single source, responsible for roughly 40 percent of GHG emissions in the state. What may come as a surprise is that burning natural gas to heat buildings and water accounts for nearly 10 percent of GHG emissions in California.

Reducing GHGs From Transportation Will be Challenging

Addressing GHGs emissions from transportation will be challenging. Unfortunately, with the millions of cars on the road in the state, the transition to electric vehicles will be a process that occurs over decades. Electric cars are seeing more adoption, but the numbers today represent a small fraction of the overall sales of automobiles. Compounding the issue is that electric vehicles (EVs) are selling at a premium compared to their gas counterparts. The cost premium and lack of availability put EVs out of reach for most of the population for now. The good news is things are changing. There are more choices daily, and as more EVs enter the market, prices will eventually reach parity with internal combustion alternatives.

Emission Reductions in Buildings are Easier Than Transportation

Natural gas provides ninety-five percent of residential heating loads in California today. The two largest natural gas consumers in buildings are furnaces and water heaters. Every house or apartment building that burns gas has an exhaust pipe (flue) that spews greenhouse gas into the atmosphere for long periods. When you realize how many buildings there are in the state, you can see why controlling these emissions is critical.

Reducing fossil fuel use in buildings is more attainable than electrifying transportation, despite the high number of existing gas appliances we use. This is because we already have viable electric options that provide the same service with additional benefits over their natural gas counterparts.

Electric heat pumps are time-tested and have been around for years. Heat pumps are everywhere. The refrigerator in your home uses a heat pump, and so does your air conditioner. You can find electric heat pumps in grocery stores, cars, and spaceships. Heat pump space heating is a mature technology, and heat pump water heaters are the most efficient way to heat water today.

Heat pumps have already obtained cost parity with their natural gas alternatives in many applications. For all these reasons, weaning buildings off fossil fuels will be much easier than electrifying the transportation sector.

Renewable Energy Plays a Part

Why is the state so determined to transition to electric cars and electric heat pumps in the first place? The answer is renewable energy. Today, renewable generation, such as wind and solar, is the cleanest, cheapest energy available. Unlike fossil fuels, which are often sourced from hostile regions, local renewable generation can be made in the state or your backyard (or rooftop).

In recent years, California has dramatically increased the amount of renewable energy on the grid, and this trend will only continue. Electricity from renewable sources will replace the combustion of fossil fuels in almost everything we do.

How to Reduce Smog and Improve Indoor Air Quality

Nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions are a byproduct of combustion. High NOx levels can pose serious health concerns, such as increased asthma and lung cancer rates. Most of us are familiar with the effects of Nitrous Oxide, or NOx emissions, as they are a primary component of smog. But I bet you never considered how your hot shower contributes to the smog levels outside your home. Furnaces and gas water heaters are significant contributors to NOx emissions.

The Los Angeles basin has been combating smog for years and has significantly reduced air pollution by requiring natural gas furnaces and water heaters to meet strict particulate emissions ratings. Manufacturers have been forced to meet these regional ultra-low NOx standards with new products. While these products have helped measurably decrease smog, they are also expensive and sometimes unreliable.

Heat pumps, on the other hand, don’t create GHG emissions or produce any NOx. In LA, many contractors have given up on ultra-low NOx gas appliances and switched to heat pumps. These heat pumps can meet customer needs and their fossil fuel counterparts, are more affordable and reliable, and take advantage of zero-carbon electricity. When sized and installed correctly, heat pumps offer safer operation, improved comfort, and zero site-generated emissions.

In Conclusion

To meet the state’s aggressive GHG reduction goals, we must transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free electricity as much as possible. Some sectors will be a challenge to electrify. Electrification of the transportation sector will take years.

On the other hand, many all-electric buildings exist today. Gas furnaces and water heaters will not be available for sale in the state after 2030, but you don’t have to wait that long to switch. Heat pump technology is tested and proven and can be installed right now.

Emissions are a genuine concern. Greenhouse gas emissions, NOx emissions, and particulate emissions are health concerns and a threat to our environment. The state is taking aggressive steps to reduce all forms of emissions.

We are amid an energy transition focused on transitioning to clean, renewable energy. There will be winners, losers, and tremendous opportunities. The train has left the station. Are you in a position to take advantage of the changes? I certainly hope so.

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The Biden administration has taken a significant step to address climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has been signed into legislation. Over half of the $737B in the legislation…

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We spend a great deal of time talking to contractors. Understanding their challenges helps us focus our efforts as a trade organization. We continue to hear the same two concerns…

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Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

Recent events have proven that relying on foreign suppliers for oil and gas is dangerous. Russian oil and gas profits are fueling the war in Ukraine. Much of Europe is being held hostage to its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. The war has also pushed up global energy prices, contributing to inflation.

On June 6th, 2022, President Biden announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to accelerate the manufacturing of five key clean energy technologies to lower energy costs for consumers, strengthen national security, and move toward energy independence.

One of these key technologies was heat pumps. Heat pumps can drastically reduce thermal loads (heating and cooling) and have other benefits. Because buildings consume more than 40 percent of the energy in the U.S., any technology that can reduce these thermal loads is considered an essential solution.

Today, most heat pumps are manufactured outside of the United States. If we depend on others to produce heat pumps, we will continue to be vulnerable to supply chain issues and the political will of outside interests. President Biden and his advisors want to change this by increasing the domestic production of heat pumps in the name of national security.

States are also taking bold steps. In California, utilities offer generous incentives for homeowners to install heat pumps. In addition, recent legislation (SB 1477) created a statewide rebate program to promote the adoption of heat pump space and water heaters. The TECH, Clean California program has been so successful that it has burned through most of its rebate budget in less than a year.

What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is a mechanical device that moves heat from one area to another. Heat pumps rely on refrigerants to absorb and transfer heat to another location. Compressing the refrigerants generates heat, releasing the compressed refrigerant gases cools. The process of compressing and expanding the refrigerants is called the refrigeration cycle.

The Refrigeration Cycle

An air conditioner is technically a heat pump. In a residential air conditioner, the blue side is an evaporator coil in the house. Air is blown across the evaporator coil to cool the air. The red side is the heated refrigerant, which moves to the condenser outside the home, where it discharges into the air. When this process repeats, it transfers the heat to the outside, which provides cooling. Unlike air conditioners, which can only cool, heat pumps can also reverse the direction of the refrigerant flow to provide heat.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the technology let’s look at five reasons why heat pumps are getting so much attention these days.

#1 – Heat Pumps Run on Electricity

Heat pumps use electricity to power the compressor, which starts the refrigeration cycle. This means that they can run on clean, zero-carbon energy.

Do you have solar panels on your house? If so, you should take advantage of the clean energy from your solar system and use it to heat and cool your home and make hot water. Imagine cooling your house or building in the summer, or heating it in winter, at minimal cost, using the sun’s energy. This isn’t science fiction; it happens around the globe every day.

Even if you don’t have solar panels, using electric appliances like heat pumps still makes sense. In many parts of the country, the electrical distribution grid is getting cleaner every day as utilities add more and more low-cost renewable generation such as solar and wind. As we transition from fossil fuels, homes and buildings will become all-electric. Heat pumps are the ideal solution for heating and cooling all-electric buildings.

#2 – Heat Pumps Are More Efficient 

Natural gas appliances have gotten very efficient over the years, but they will never match heat pumps. Today’s top gas appliances can be up to 98 percent efficient, which is impressive. Physics dictates that combustion (burning something) always produces byproducts and can therefore never reach or exceed 100 percent efficiency. This means that gas appliances have effectively reached their limit.

On the other hand, today’s heat pumps are more efficient than ever, with base-level models achieving 200 percent efficiency and some of the best models achieving nearly 500 percent efficiency. If you have a heat pump and want to confirm its efficiency, look for the COP rating (Coefficient of Performance). A COP of 1 is equal to 100 percent efficient. A COP of 3.5 is 350 percent efficient. When selecting a heat pump for your application, COP is an important consideration.

How can anything be over 100 percent efficient? The simple answer is that the electricity used to power the compressor is less than the energy the heat pump moves from one area to another.

Another advantage to heat pumps is that they come in a wider range of sizes than their gas counterparts. Gas furnaces are often too big for mild climates, such as the Mediterranean climate in California. An oversized furnace fires up to make heat, reaches its set point, and turns off. The on-and-off cycling of oversized heating equipment is a real problem and creates comfort issues and high operational costs. Smaller heat pump units correctly sized to heating and cooling loads improve comfort and reduce operating costs.

#3 – Heat Pumps Are a Proven Technology

The technology behind heat pumps is everywhere. As I alluded to previously, an air conditioner is a heat pump. Your refrigerator is a heat pump. Heat pumps keep your food cold at the grocery store. Ice machines use heat pumps. The air conditioner in your car is a heat pump. Spacecraft have relied on heat pumps for decades. The list goes on.

Heat pumps are a time-tested and well-understood technology. That’s not to say they don’t present some challenges. Heat pumps are less forgiving, so equipment sizing must be correct. Duct systems must be sized correctly and appropriately sealed. Put in an under or oversized heat pump and use an old leaky duct system, and you will have issues.

Contractors often push gas appliances because they are familiar, have lower upfront costs, and are easier for the contractor to install. This means that the customer is sacrificing long-term comfort, efficiency, and sustainability for the contractor’s benefit. If you are shopping for a heating and cooling system or a water heater and the contractor is trying to talk you out of a heat pump, I would consider it a red flag and move on to another contractor. If you are a contractor doing high-quality work, installing heat pumps is easy.

Don’t believe a contractor who tells you heat pumps don’t work well in cold climates. Heat pumps have been used in Alaska for over thirty years. Heat pumps indeed lose efficiency as the temperatures drop. Old school units relied on electric heat strips to address this problem when it got very cold. Newer “cold climate” heat pumps work well down to temps as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit, even without heat strips. Even “standard” inverter-based heat pumps without heat strips are very effective in most climates.

#4 – Improved Comfort

A properly sized and installed heat pump system will provide better comfort than a gas appliance. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the best overall comfort is delivered when the heat source temperature is close to the desired set point. If you want the inside temperature to be 70 degrees, it would be ideal to deliver heat at 80 or 85 degrees over a long period. The challenge is that 85 degrees is cold to the touch for humans, as our body temperature is 96 degrees. This means air at the ideal heating temperature might actually feel cool if it blows directly on someone. Good heat pump design keeps the conditioned air off the occupants. Educating the client and setting an expectation for how the system operates must be a part of the installation.

A basic heat pump has two modes, on or off, just like a gas furnace. Single-speed heat pumps can have some of the same issues as gas furnaces. The constant cycling on and off can impact comfort as they are constantly chasing the desired set point (temperature on the thermostat). Manufacturers have addressed this issue with two-stage systems. Think of a two-stage heat pump like a car with a two-speed transmission. Two-stage systems are an improvement, but there is a better option.

Modern heat pumps can vary their output based on actual loads. This technology is called VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) in the commercial world and  Variable Capacity or Inverter Driven in the residential market. Variable-capacity equipment provides much better comfort, lower operational costs, and tends to be much quieter. The downside is that the upfront costs of variable capacity equipment are more than two-stage or single-stage equipment.

In most cases, the long-term operational costs of matching the output to actual loads offset the initial upfront investment of variable capacity equipment. You should factor in the long-term operating cost when replacing any mechanical system. In my opinion, variable capacity is the correct solution for 99 percent of applications.

#5 – No On-site Emissions

All buildings with combustion appliances (natural gas, propane, or fuel oil) have one thing in common: emissions. Most of us don’t think about buildings having tailpipes like cars, but they do. They happen to be on the roof and pointing straight up.

These emissions account for about 28 percent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the United States. The simple fact is we cannot afford to keep burning fossil fuels for thermal loads in buildings. The good news is heat pumps are a reliable and proven technology that can replace combustion appliances and provide the same or improved service.

It’s Time to Champion Heat Pumps

Water heater and heating and cooling systems have an expected useful life of 12 to 15 years. We must embrace heat pump technology today and stop installing GHG spewing appliances in our buildings. We have the technology and the means to do this. We must educate the public on why it makes sense and encourage contractors to embrace the technology.

To fight climate change and reduce our dependence on foreign energy, we need heat pumps, and we need them now. We are better off if we can manufacture them in the United States. The Biden administration is taking some aggressive steps in this direction. Invoking the DPA to increase the availability of U.S.-made heat pumps sends a clear and bold signal that we should all pay attention to – our future depends on it.

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