Heat Pumps: They Heat. They Cool. They burn no fossil fuel.

Heat Pumps are a relatively new way to heat and cool indoor spaces. There’s a variety of different models that can work for apartments, offices, and for single-family homes. Three of our staff sat down for a conversation about the options for single-family homes.* OEC’s Deputy Director of Philanthropy, Teke Dillender is considering a heat pump for her home. Joel Schoening, OEC Director of Communications is about to have a heat pump installed and Sara Wright, OEC’s Transportation Program Director, already has a heat pump. Here’s our chat. 

 

Teke Dillender (TD): So, why did you start looking into heat pumps, and what was it that motivated you to make the investment? Why’d you finally take the plunge?  

Sara Wright (SW): Well, Joel told me the other day after an interview that I need to work on being more quotable, so I’m going to try to step it up, but no promises! (Laughs) Seriously, we’d been thinking about it, but not very hard. In our house, we tend to suck it up, put on a sweater when it’s cold and open the window when it’s hot. Plus, we’d installed a gas furnace 10 years ago when we bought the house, and that has a lot of life left in it. Then, you know, we experienced some heat waves, and then the pandemic started and we got to thinking about what it was going to mean to have four people in the house, all the time. It used to be that during a day of extreme heat, some of us would be in the office, taking transit, where there’s AC. Now, with all of us home, we had to think about how to make the house inhabitable without making us all miserable. We started asking about air conditioning options, but it became clear very fast that a heat pump was the best option.

I’m not going to heat the earth to cool my home. - Joel Schoening

TD: What kind of system did you end up getting?

SW: We chose a system that uses the heat pump, but can switch back to our gas furnace that kind of, acts as the emergency backup, when the heat pump is not operating optimally. 

 

TD: So, it was the hotter summer days that lead you toward a heat pump? 

Joel Schoening (JS): For me, I was like, I’m never going to have air conditioning. It’s a great technology for hospitals and other places where it’s, you know, essential. But for the average home in a temperate climate, A/C is just dumb. I’m not going to heat the earth to cool my home. Then the heat dome happened. We moved into our basement. We were putting tin foil and three layers of covers on the windows and we couldn’t get the house below 85 degrees overnight with three fans running. Then, I start learning about heat pump technology. That combined with the passage of 100% clean, and I started to shift my thinking. Like Sara, we are going with a dual fuel system. Our gas furnace is very efficient by gas furnace standards, and isn’t that old, so we are going to keep it, and plug a heat pump system onto that. If and when the gas furnace dies, we hope to use the heat pump only. 

 

TD: What about those that don’t have central air? My house has radiant heat and no central ductwork. 

JS: There are heat pumps for homes with no central air systems. In fact, I think those might even be more common. I think they call them “mini-splits”, as if that were any more descriptive than “heat pump”. They can hang on an interior wall. I actually stayed at a place on vacation in Applegate valley, just before the late summer fires in 2020. It had one of these systems and it was great. That was one of my first introductions to a heat pump. Daytime high temps were in the high 90s while we were there and this wall-mounted heat pump was cooling a 1500 square foot space effectively.

SW: We had our heat pump installed before the June 2021 heat dome, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that we had it installed already. It was one of those moments when you can just thank yourself for your past choices. I appreciate those rare moments. 

TD: During the heat dome there were a few days when we couldn’t get our house below 95 degrees! We had some window units cooling off some of the rooms, but the central house was unbearable. I was visibly dripping sweat just standing in front of a video meeting. 

TD: How much does it cost? Are there incentives or rebates? 

We had our heat pump installed before the June 2021 heat dome, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that we had it installed already. It was one of those moments when you can just thank yourself for your past choices. I appreciate those rare moments.  - Sara Wright

JS: I have to admit that, after the heat dome, we were so set on finding some solutions that we didn’t even look at tax credits or rebates, though we will when we file. We’re fortunate enough to be able to make that investment this year. I do know that heat pumps can be competitive with the installation of a central airconditioning unit though, depending of course on a lot of factors like the size of your house local climate, and things like that. I also was like, I’m going to be the early adopter in my social group. I may not get the tax credit but I’m going to get this thing and tell all my friends how great it is. 

TD: All your friends will be at your house on the hot days. (Laughs) 

JS: No they won’t. Not until they replace their gas furnace or A/C unit with a heat pump! (More laughs)

 

TD: What about the install process? What was that like? 

SW: It was super easy. It was one day. I was on Zoom calls all day and hardly noticed it happened. It was expensive for us, but I have also heard that the cost is similar to installing a central A/C system. I haven’t regretted it for a second. 

JS: So far our contractor has been great, but I’ll know for sure when they put it in on Friday. Supposed to be one day. I first asked Sara for a recommendation. Then we called a couple of others to get estimates. What I found is that there are basically two brands that the big HVAC companies are installing. It’s like Coke and Pepsi. You get either a Mitsubishi or a Daikin. We were told that we’d have to get rid of our old furnace to make the Mitsubishi work. So we went with Daikin so that we wouldn’t end up sending a working gas furnace to the landfill. 

 

TD: So, you can switch between your gas furnace and your heat pump? Do you use your gas furnace as a backup? 

SW: We got a new thermostat. There are settings, so you can switch to the gas furnace from the thermostat. We thought that that would be automatic, but it’s not. So, the heat pump keeps going. We need to learn more about when to make that switch. 

JS: That’s something I’m still learning about too. What I’m told is that when it drops below 25 degrees outside, our system will switch over to the gas furnace, which will then be the more efficient heat source. My understanding is that if you get the right size heat pump – with enough power for the space you are serving – it can serve as the sole source of heat, and cooling, for most places where people live in Oregon. 

SW: There is a difference in how it feels. From the furnace, you get that blasting hotness. Both my kids really enjoy sitting by the vent with a book getting baked. This is different. The air that comes out is not as hot. 

JS: The upside of that is that heat pumps run more frequently but at a lower level. Old furnaces were either on or off. So you got that heat blast, but also a constant swing in temperature which is inefficient. New gas furnaces are better. Heat pumps are better yet. They run at a low level, nearly all the time, keeping a stable temperature. That’s what they tell me anyway.  

 

TD: Anything you wish you would have asked about? 

SW: We would have asked more questions about that gas override question. But really, I’m just super grateful that we did it. I have no regrets and I’ll tell you, I’m big on regrets, but this is not one of them (Laughs). 

JS: One thing that we haven’t talked about yet that was a big concern for me was noise. We didn’t have a lot of good options for where to locate it. And there is a box with a fan that has to sit outside your house somewhere. So, asked about that a lot. I’m told they are very quiet so, like, if you’ve got it running, but are hanging out outside, it’s not going to drown out your conversation or be so loud that you’ll hear it inside.

SW: Ours sits right outside our bedroom window. You can hear it but it’s a low white noise and it’s not been a concern. I think it’s quieter than most window units. 

 

TD: Were you two both calculating costs and efficiency? Or was it more about the heat? Were you doing this to convert to electricity from gas? To save money? I hear that heat pumps are more efficient, do we know that to be true? 

SW: I don’t know the hard numbers but yeah, they are supposed to be more efficient. For us, it was about getting electric air conditioning, and being able to move away from fossil fuels. My heat pump becomes “greener” every day as we transition to clean energy in the pacific northwest. For us, it’s an ongoing project to not pipe explosive gasses into our house anymore. 

My heat pump becomes “greener” every day as we transition to clean energy in the pacific northwest. - Sara Wright

JS: Savings-wise, I’ve read reports that it saves money, but the payback on the initial investment takes years. And of course that all depends on factors like how much you use it. So yeah, I’m hoping to see a few bucks in savings every month, maybe 50 bucks or something in the coldest months. But our choice was more about being able to get a cooling system in place for our home that’s not actively heating the planet at the same time. 

 

*From this conversation, it is clear to us that heat pumps are an exciting new technology for both families and the planet, but there is a long way to go in making them more accessible and affordable for more people. We’re glad to see organizations like Energy Trust and Verde offering grants to provide these systems to BIPOC and low-income communities. See more here

 

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