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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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heat pump

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

Electric heat pumps for space heating are getting a lot of attention these days, and with good reason. Heat pumps are a readily available alternative to gas furnaces. They are more efficient and perform as well or better than gas alternatives. Given the greenhouse gas impact of space heating, heat pumps are a critical component of the effort to reduce emissions.

Given these advantages, we should expect mass adoption over the next few years. And yet, the reality is that contractors are talking their customers out of heat pumps all the time and installing gas appliances instead. Sometimes even after the customer asks for a heat pump.

As a result, tens of thousands of new gas appliances will be installed this year, each one with fifteen or more years of effective useful life.

There are loads of incentives available for heat pump HVAC systems. So why are more contractors not embracing this important technology? And how can we make things different?

First off, we need to look at the typical contractor’s business model. With the standard triple bid process, customers are often drawn to the lowest-priced option. Unfortunately, this creates a race to the bottom. For contractors this means you will likely get more work if you can shave a few pennies off your bid and be cheaper than your competition. If you subscribe to this business model, the best solution is the one that requires the least amount of effort. In most cases, this means replacing a failed appliance with the exact same thing.

Regulators have tried to end this practice. They implemented a third-party verification process for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems to confirm the equipment is sized and installed correctly. A HERS rater is required to check specific functions, namely the refrigerant charge and duct leakage on all new installations. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. If a contractor knows a third party will be testing the refrigerant charge and ducts for leakage, they are far more likely correctly size equipment and include improvements to the ducts in their proposals.

But contractors have an easy an easy workaround:  don’t pull a permit, and your project won’t trigger the mandatory HERS inspection. How pervasive is this practice? Before regulators started requiring third-party HERS testing on all HVAC installations, roughly eighty-five percent of HVAC installations were done with a permit. Today, and less than ten percent are.  More often than not, contractors will try to convince homeowners that getting a permit is optional and not in their best interest. Neither of these things is true, of course. In fact, it is against the law to install an HVAC system without a permit in California. The problem is enforcement.

The main reason is that contractors are avoiding the extra cost and paperwork associated with the building permit and HERS inspection. Consider the following example. Two contractors bid on the same HVAC project, and one follows the law and pulls a permit. The other contractor convinces the customer that a building permit is not required. All things equal, the project with the permit will ultimately be more expensive. The HERS raters fee will add roughly $350 to the cost of the project. The building permit fee will add a couple hundred (varies by region) to the price, not to mention the time required for the contractor to obtain the permit. It is not uncommon to see a legal, fully permitted and inspected project cost $750 to $1,000 more than a project without a building permit.

When I was a contractor, we played by the rules. Every one of our projects included a building permit. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to lose a job to a hack undercutting you by not complying with the regulations.

Contractors not pulling permits is a big deal, and the powers that be are aware of it. There have been hours of discussion at the California Energy Commission about ways to solve the problem. Some have considered using a registration system to track the serial numbers of equipment. As you might guess, equipment distributors are not keen on this idea. Local building departments don’t have the human resources to address the issue, so the practice continues. But one way or another, regulators and industry will have to solve this problem.

Simply replacing an existing gas furnace with the same device is a missed opportunity. In California, most HVAC systems have oversized furnaces and undersized ductwork. For the best performance, the new system should include ductwork too. The best approach is to determine the actual heating and cooling need first and then design a complete solution that includes appropriately sized ductwork.

Building codes address this too. A heating and cooling load calculation is required on all new HVAC installations. Using computer software models, high-quality contractors perform load calculations before installing the system. These load calculations determine the size of the heat source, the airflow required for each room, which dictates the size of the ductwork and register grills. A fully engineered system will perform better, provide increased comfort, and be cheaper to operate. Overall, it will outperform a “rule of thumb” installed system and provide years of savings with improved comfort.

As you might expect, a fully engineered HVAC system costs more upfront. Long term though, a well-designed system will be cheaper to operate and perform significantly better than a slam-and-go system. Pay a little more upfront to get years of benefits or choose the lowest cost option.  Consumers usually don’t understand the impacts of this choice though. From the contractor’s perspective, if your business model depends on your proposal being as cheap as possible, you will do everything you can to avoid a comprehensive approach.

Some contractors have an issue with heat pumps because heat pumps are not as forgiving as gas furnaces. It takes more effort to install a heat pump properly, as they don’t have loads of extra capacity. I believe this is another big reason why contractors and talk consumers out of heat pumps. Poor installations will lead to callbacks for the contractor, which has nothing to do with the technology. Contractor pushback on installing heat pump HVAC systems should be a red flag for consumers.

If you are working with a high-quality contractor, the heat source is not that big of a deal. The contractor should design the system first, based on heating and cooling loads. Next, they engineer the duct system to match. At that point, the choice of fuel, gas or electricity is not that important as far as performance is concerned. The advantage of properly sized electric heat pumps is that they improve comfort, are safer, more efficient, and don’t directly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Heat pumps are perfect for California, but sizing matters. A correctly sized heat pump HVAC system has minimal excess capacity, and that’s a good thing. Heat pumps come in a much wider range of sizes than gas furnaces. A good analogy is a small fuel-efficient car. A small car has a small engine. There is no extra capacity, and it takes a while to get up to speed on the freeway. Once it does, it gets excellent gas mileage. Stuff a large V-8 engine in that same small car, and it gets up to speed very quickly, but it drains your wallet with poor gas mileage. California furnaces are like the V-8 engine in most cases. We need smaller, high-performance solutions that use only as much energy as they need.

It’s time to bring HVAC contractors out the dark ages and encourage them to make heat pumps the go-to standard. Many contractors are already doing this, and they are having success. Now we just need to bring the rest of the industry along.

Here are some suggestions to help move the needle to make heat pumps the de facto standard.

1. Enforce existing HVAC regulations

Require permits and impose penalties for failure to comply. Include proof of the design in all HVAC applications. Load calculations, proper equipment sizing, and good duct design are required by code. The intent of these regulations is solid. The follow-through and enforcement are almost non-existent.

2. Heat Pump Education

We need increased public awareness about the benefits of heat pumps and how to find an HVAC contractor to install them. We need to educate the local building departments and building officials about the existing regulations and encourage enforcement. Enforcement will require additional staff at local building departments. Funding this staff should be a part of the solution (creating rules without considering the cost of enforcement is bad policy). We need to educate contractors and their sales teams. Heat pumps have come a long way in the past ten years. Many contractors have not taken the time to learn about their capabilities or advantages, which needs to change.

3. Promote value over price

This is a big one. Let’s prop up contractors who comply with regulations, obtain permits, and appropriately size and install systems. If contractors continue to lose jobs to others taking shortcuts, we will never achieve our objectives.

4. Regulate out the older, dirty HVAC technology

We need to price in the negative impacts of fossil fuel heating solutions and account for their greenhouse gas emissions. In Los Angeles, the Southern California Air Quality Management District (So Cal AQMD) placed NOx (Nitrous Oxide) emission restrictions on natural gas appliances to curb smog. Manufacturers responded and made ultra-low NOx furnaces. The furnaces are expensive and have reliability issues. In response, contractors are installing heat pumps as a viable solution. Heat pumps don’t rely on combustion and therefore are zero NOx. We need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and support technologies that align with the state’s goals.

The days of ignoring the greenhouse gas implications of burning fossil fuels are over. The state has a clear and aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation strategy. We will be transitioning residential heating loads from fossil fuels to electricity. The planning process for phasing out residential natural gas is well underway at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). We will be moving to a future powered by all-electric buildings.

It’s time to start supporting the contractors who are leading the way and enforce existing regulations to get others to join along. Time is not on our side in this effort. We need some real action from policymakers and all stakeholders involved in the heating and cooling industry. Forget triple bid and lowest cost bidding and promote quality work that fully complies with our existing regulations. It is an easy first step.

Charley Cormany

Executive Director

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