For many of your clients, the natural response when the HVAC system breaks is to replace it with a newer version of whatever was there.
But that's a missed opportunity, given that heat pumps provide a more efficient and sustainable way to heat and cool air, enhance comfort, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminate safety concerns like carbon monoxide poisoning.
Plus, they can reduce utility bills by about half compared to other heating sources like furnaces and baseboard heaters, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Legislators also have an eye on heat pumps. For instance, an all-electric mandate just passed in Washington state that requires most new commercial buildings and large multifamily buildings to install heat pumps. In addition, the HEATR Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate in May, would allow a new tax credit for energy efficient consumer and commercial heat pumps.
When talking with clients about the best way to heat and cool their homes, be sure that heat pumps are part of your conversation. Flexibility and adaptability
Here's Energy Star's explanation of how heat pumps work: Conditioned air is delivered to living spaces through a system of ducts and registers. Heat pumps have an exterior unit that extracts heat from the outside air, even when it's cold out, which is then carried by refrigerant to an interior unit for distribution throughout the home. The systems work in reverse to provide central air conditioning in summer.
Heat pumps provide flexibility to address heating and cooling needs in new construction and vintage homes. Among the options are:
• Air source heat pumps (ASHP) that draw heat from outside air.
• Ground source heat pumps, often called geothermal, transfer heat from the ground outside into your house. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, they can reduce energy use by 30% to 60%.
Heat pumps are available as:
• Ducted – Ducted systems can use a home's existing ductwork.
• Ductless mini splits – Ductless mini splits allow you to cool and heat a space without traditional ductwork. They rely on indoor air handling units mounted on walls or ceilings and are ideal for heating and cooling hard-to-reach spaces.
The technology is flexible and customizable. Depending on your needs, you can opt for a single- or multi-zone system, a dual-fuel system (combining your existing furnace with a heat pump), or one that combines ducted and ductless units.
Comfort, aesthetics, and flexibility
Beyond the energy savings and doing a good turn for the environment, people also pick heat pumps for comfort and aesthetic reasons.
They're quieter than old-school HVAC systems, and they deliver consistent warmth and coolness, unlike traditional HVAC systems that can cause rooms to get too hot or cold.
In addition, Mary Love, GREEN, a REALTOR® with Love the Green Real Estate Consulting in Asheville, N.C., notes that her geothermal system delivers improved air quality and a less dusty environment.
Heat pumps also provide practical advantages.
For example, combining both ducted and ductless systems allow you to heat and cool a space for which adding ductwork is complex. One example is a room addition that can't be easily connected to a home's existing duct system.
On the other hand, vintage properties often lack ductwork, and many homeowners don't want to tear up their homes to install it. In such situations, a whole house mini-split system can make sense.
Craig Foley opted for an ASHP for the complete remodel and decarbonization of his 1890s Victorian home in Melrose, Mass. He’s also adding a heat pump water heater and an induction cooktop.
"I'm making the switch because I see the real estate market shifting significantly to decarbonization in this decade," says Foley, GREEN, Chief Sustainability Officer for LAER Realty Partners, and the 2019 Chair National Association of REALTORS®' Sustainability Advisory Group. "It also cost me $25,000 less to switch to an ASHP, rather than installing a new natural gas heating system and central air conditioning," he adds.
For others, it's advantageous to remove ductwork. Christopher Matos-Rogers GREEN, a REALTOR® with Coldwell Banker Realty, Atlanta, finds the ceiling ductwork in his Mid-century modern home visually intrusive. He's also decarbonizing his house and plans to install a heat pump at some point in the next couple of years. The heat pump will allow him to remove some existing ductwork, something he sees a plus because it will make the house feel more open and could be a future selling point.
Costs? That all depends
The upfront cost for heat pumps and their installation can be higher than a traditional HVAC system, and prices vary widely. Each house is different and presents its own quirks. The purchase and installation price depend on numerous variables, including the quality and type of system you choose, your location, and the weatherization upgrades you need to make before installation.
Fixr says the national average cost ranges from $5,000 to $30,000, with most people paying around $10,539 for a three-ton heat pump with a central air handling unit. Air source heat pumps can range from $5,000 to $20,000 installed, and for a geothermal system, which entails the extra step of excavation to install below-ground coils, expect to pay more – between $12,000 and $30,000 on average.
All that said, incentives and rebates can reduce out-of-pocket costs. For example, there are Federal tax credits for geothermal heat pumps in place through 2023, and you may find local rebates and incentives that further offset your upfront costs. Search for them here.
The other consideration to factor into decisions is operating costs. For example, a study by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, released in May, shows that highly efficient electric heat pumps will reduce annual heating costs by 30% compared with gas homes in warmer climates like Phoenix or Las Vegas. They'll also reduce climate emissions by 60%.
And the Rocky Mountain Institute analyzed the costs of all-electric homes versus a new mixed-fuel home that relies on gas for cooking and space and water heating in several cities.
The results show that in Austin, for example, a new all-electric home has 7% lower annual utility costs, saving $4,400 in net present costs and 15 tons of CO2 emissions over a 15-year period. In New York City, such a home has 10% lower annual utility costs, saving $6,800 in net present costs and 46 tons of CO2 over the 15 years. See the results on all seven cities that RMI examined here.
Get a head start
Choosing and installing a heat pump is more complicated than picking an off-the-shelf furnace and having it installed the next day.
So, it's wise to plan for your HVAC system's end of life. It could be time for a replacement if your equipment is ten years old or more, energy bills are rising, and you need frequent repairs.
Love recommends giving yourself a 10-month lead time for researching and finding the right professionals and heat pump, factoring in supply chain delays and getting an energy audit to identify what upgrades – weatherization projects like sealing and insulating – you'll need to do first.
That audit and the fixes it recommends are critical because you want to maximize energy savings. Why spend the money introducing a highly efficient system in a leaky house? Plus, your home's energy efficiency affects the size of the system that's appropriate for your space.
Finding your contractor
Installing a heat pump isn't a DIY job or one left to your cousin's brother-in-law.
It's essential to hire an experienced contractor who understands the technology, keeps up on industry developments, and is familiar with all the options.
Here are five tips for picking the right contractor.
1. Ask for referrals from friends and neighbors, trusted HVAC companies, and your local utility company.
2. Vet contractors and installers. Ask for their recommendations specific to your house and the rationale behind the system and design options they're recommending.
3. Request references and ask former clients about their experience with the contractor, thoughts about their heat pump, and what they'd do differently.
4. Listen for the term "Manual J" when asking contractors how they'll determine what system to install. It's a method of determining what size HVAC size is appropriate for a home. "The first question to ask is if they do a Manual J," says Love. "That'll give you a sense right off the bat if they know what they're doing." If they don't use Manual J or haven't heard of it, move on.
5. Get detailed, written estimates from each contractor, and be sure you're making apples-to-apples comparisons before making your choice. For more detailed questions to ask contractors, see Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships