Heat pumps have come a long way. Homeowners should feel reassured that a properly designed heat pump system meets 100% of any weatherized home’s heating needs in colder climates. For the best results, a thoughtfully-designed heat pump system needs to take into account a home’s particular features such as age, square footage, room configuration, etc.
With this article, The Lexington Observer begins a regular series, written by Gerry Yurkevicz, addressing energy, climate and environmental issues that may be important to Lexington residents. We begin with a discussion on home heating electrification and the role of heat pumps. We invite readers to submit their ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org for future topics such as electricity, solar power, natural gas, electric vehicles, water, waste handling, energy costs, climate change, the role of trees or any other related area.
Almost every energy and climate scenario to get the world to net zero emissions by 2050 depends in some way on a shift to electric heating using renewable power. Buildings make up over 70% of Lexington’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Town of Lexington’s net zero plans and initiatives incorporate multiple strategies: the use of zero-emission electricity from solar and wind power, switching away from fossil fuels, and improving the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings. Heat pumps can be a superb option to accelerate the conversion away from fossil fuels.
It is the perfect time of year to be talking about adding or converting to heat pumps, which can provide both heat and air conditioning — an increasingly attractive option for Lexington residents who want to move beyond window unit air conditioners. A huge post-pandemic demand in the Boston area for home construction and improvement projects means that contractor schedules are booking up fast. So while now is the time to act, it is also the time to consider whether heat pumps will work for your individual situation.
Overcoming Barriers to Adoption
There are still barriers to wide adoption of heat pumps by consumers, which include performance at temperatures below 50F as well as installation challenges. Do heat pumps work in cold climate regions like Lexington? As a consultant, I did a significant amount of consumer research in the past which frankly pointed to comfort and reliability issues with heat pumps in northern regions, but a lot has changed. During the February cold spell, there was considerable positive press (e.g., in the Boston Globe) that heat pumps held up very well as temperatures dipped below zero.
Heat pumps have come a long way. Homeowners should feel reassured that a properly designed heat pump system meets 100% of any weatherized home’s heating needs in colder climates. For the best results, a thoughtfully-designed heat pump system needs to take into account a home’s particular features such as age, square footage, room configuration, etc. Industry rules-of-thumb with natural gas and oil equipment that have evolved over many years make fossil-fuel design and sizing issues somewhat easier. Good design, equipment selection, and sizing make all the difference. Making energy efficiency improvements to your home can also significantly improve the results from a heat pump project. Measures such as insulating walls and attics, air sealing, and installing energy efficiency windows all have a dramatic impact on reducing heating requirements. Ideally these measures should be taken before or in tandem to a heat pump project. Keeping your existing fossil fuel system as a backup to a heat pump system is also an option for times it may be beneficial (e.g., with below zero temperatures).
All signs point to continued consumer acceptance and growth in heat pump installations as the technology steadily improves. Multiple brand name equipment manufacturers now offer cold climate heat pumps that do well in climate zones like Lexington’s. I find it telling that I now regularly hear and see advertising for heat pump contractors on common media outlets in the Boston market. It’s not just about furnaces, boilers, and central air conditioners any more. It should also boost homeowners’ confidence that regional energy organizations have tested and developed ratings for heat pump units that meet efficiency and capacity criteria for Massachusetts. The U.S. Department of Energy is also driving increased collaboration within the industry to accelerate the rollout of heat pumps to meet comfort and efficiency needs in cold climate regions.
Having a relationship with a trusted heat pump system design and installation contractor is critical to both making good choices and making the system do what it is supposed to do. The number of heat pump system installation contractors is growing by leaps and bounds, but unfortunately we do not yet have enough in the U.S. to meet current demand, especially for cold climate heat pump systems. And while, as noted above, the market is expanding, some heating and air conditioning contractors have neither the skill nor the will to support this energy transition and the use of heat pumps.
The best time consider a heat pump system is when you have an aging natural gas or oil system in need of replacement or if you are contemplating adding central air conditioning to your home. Like most significant home improvement projects, heat pump projects are not cheap: the upfront costs for a heat pump project can run to tens of thousands of dollars depending on whether the retrofit covers the whole house or only a part of the home. As an example, we installed a mini-split heat pump in part of our home in 2022 for an all-in cost of $7,000.
However, there is a lot of money floating around that can help lessen upfront costs. Through MassSave, the Commonwealth offers heat pump rebates ranging from $1,250 to $10,000, as well as zero interest loans. More rebates will be available in 2023 under the Federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that will be channeled through the Commonwealth. In addition, the IRA also makes increased Federal tax credits for heat pumps and electrical upgrades available. Each of these programs has rules and qualifications, but they can significantly offset first costs.
Questions about the operating costs of a heat pump versus alternatives are a bit tricky to answer due to wide price fluctuations for natural gas and oil. Natural gas prices were very high in 2022 but have since plummeted. Oil reached $120 a barrel in early 2022 but has retreated at the moment. For Lexington residents, the Town’s Community Choice Program provides a competitively priced and stable renewable power supply cost (which represents about 40% of your current electric bill; the other portion of the bill is the delivery charge from Eversource). What does all this mean? Factoring in rebates and credits, a decent payback on your investment in heat pumps may be possible. Oil users are best positioned for decent returns on investment. Gas customers may face more challenges if lower operating costs are their motivation to switch.
Help and Resources
One source to help consumers on their clean heat journey is Lexington HeatSmart, a town-wide initiative providing educational resources and a marketplace of third-party vetted contractors.
As part of this program, Lexington has contracted with Abode Energy Management (Abode) to connect residents with reputable contractors. Currently the list includes 17 vetted contractors. The program also includes Lexington resident volunteers (including myself) who act as Energy Advisors. Through the HeatSmart program, residents can have initial clean energy consultations with an Energy Advisor, tap expert consultations with Abode, and obtain comparison reports from Abode after receiving contractor quotes.
As someone who has spent his career in energy, the transition to a cleaner and greener future represents an exciting time. During Tesla’s Investor Day on March 1, 2023, Elon Musk outlined his “Master Plan 3” for sustainable energy for all — a big and bold plan. Musk believes that a sustainable energy economy is within reach and that we should accelerate it. Heat pump adoption in homes, businesses and industries represented about one quarter (22% if you want to be exact) of Musk’s plan to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Heat pumps are a real and exciting piece of the energy transition that make sense today.
Gerry Yurkevicz is a long-time Lexington resident. He has spent his entire career in the energy industry as a management consultant as well as a utility executive. He currently volunteers as a HeatSmart Advisor for the Town of Lexington.