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What's the deal with heat pumps?

The humble heat pump: invented in the US in the late 1840s and installed across the temperate Southeastern US in the 1980s, this device was once only capable of working in moderate regions that don’t see the unforgiving winters of New York City, Denver, Chicago, and New England. Modernly, however, heat pumps, which have been called “the most overlooked climate solution” and “an answer to heat waves,” can work in the cold and the really cold.

A recent video and accompanying article by Shannon Osaka at Grist illustrates why heat pumps are not only key to reducing personal carbon footprints by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses we put into our atmosphere, but they may also be key to lowering your utility bills.

Heat pumps have been pumping up sales across the globe. In 2020, 117 million units were installed worldwide, up from 90 million in 2010. Interestingly, most were established in Europe’s coldest countries. And for a good reason too: The International Energy Agency calls for 1.8 billion heat pumps to be installed in buildings by 2050 in order to provide 55 percent of the energy demand for heating globally, and keep us on the pathway to net zero.

Heat pumpsーheating and cooling systems run entirely on electricityーcan be powered using renewable energy.

According to Grist, a heat pump can turn 1 kilowatt-hour, or kWh, of electricity into up to 4 kWh of heat. Compared to traditional heating systems which can only reach an efficiency of about 100 percent, heat pumps can reach efficiencies of 300 or 400 percent. This is because instead of making heat, they move heat around.

For example, if your house is too hot, it takes the heat from inside your house and pumps it outside, just like an air conditioner. On the flip side, if your house is too cold, the heat pump brings heat from outside, into your home. Compare this to a gas furnace, which burns natural gas to create heat, only reaching about 95 percent efficiency. By that metric, heat pumps easily create three to four times the energy it consumes.

Now, here you might have the question of how that works in wintry subzero temperatures. While it’s smart to have a backup heating unit if you like in an area that gets dangerously cold, heat pumps can still perform well in some of the chilliest winters. As reported by Grist earlier this year, Andy Meyer, a senior program manager for the independent state agency Efficiency Maine, has spent the past decade debunking the myth that heat pumps don’t work on very cold, snowy, icicle-laden areas.

“There were two types of people in Maine in 2012,” he told Grist. “Those who didn’t know what heat pumps were — and those who knew they didn’t work in the cold.” But while that concern may have been true years ago, he said, today “it’s not at all true for high-performance heat pumps.”

According to a small 2020 study from the tech company Sealed, 47 percent of US homeowners in the Northeast had never even heard of heat pumps. Years ago, heat pump technology only worked in mild climates. But over the last decade, heating companies began developing a new generation of heat pumps with “inverter-driven variable-speed compressors.”

This mouthful of jargon essentially means that the heat pump is now equipped with the tools necessary to more quickly transport heat from the frigid outdoor air. Now, Efficiency Maine has given out rebates to help homeowners install about 100,000 heat pumps in one of our coldest states. Maine now sells more heat pumps per capita than even the heat pump-crazy Scandinavian countries.

In addition to soaring in efficiency, according to a study in Environmental Research Letters, heat pumps could reduce CO2 emissions in 70 percent of homes across the country. Per a home, that’s saving anywhere from about 1 metric ton to about 7 metric tons of carbon emissions every single year per a household, according to a study by the energy research group Carbon Switch. The high end of those savings occurs when one switches from an age-old electric baseboard heater, and changes depending on which heater you switch from.

But the question for most consumers remains: Even if they are more efficient than gas furnaces and more environmentally friendly, how do they save you money? Well, the heat pump that makes the most sense for you, will depend on the type of house you have. Not only do they come in all shapes and sizes, but deciding between geothermal, air-source, or water-source is crucial. Lucky for us, Osaka at Grist crunched the numbers.

First, let's tally the cost of the installation. The average cost of buying and installing a new oil furnace for a 2,000-square-foot house is about $6,000, according to the home repair site Fixr. Compared to buying and installing a new air-source heat pump that fits snug into existing ducts, this number jacks up to about $10,500. However, electricity is a lot cheaper than fuel oil, and when heat pumps are three to four times more efficient than the traditional furnace, the initial price, which is less than double that of an oil furnace, may make more sense in the long run.

Add that to the $950 Carbon Switch calculates the average homeowner will save on utility bills from switching from a fuel oil furnace to an air-source heat pump, and the pump is paid off in less than five years. After that, you’ll be saving up not only a grand annually but 4 tons of CO2 from pumping into the sky each year.

Now, for every homeowner buying and installing a heat pump isn’t going to make quite as much financial sense. Let’s say you have a natural gas furnace as opposed to an oil furnace. While the price difference between a natural gas furnace and a heat-up is the same as its oil counterpart, the price of natural gas is much cheaper than oil in the US because here, the harm it does to the environment has not been accounted for. Natural gas is only about one-third the cost of electricity. So while the switch will still save you money due to the heightened efficiency of heat pumps, you won’t be saving as much if switching from a natural gas furnace.

Here’s the bottom line: heat pumps can stop loads of carbon emissions from being pumped into the air, it can keep you warm in the winter, even if you live in some of the coldest regions, cool for the summer, and in the majority of cases, save you money. So will you make the switch?


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