"Heat pumps have the potential to cut global emissions by 500 million tons in 2030—as much as pulling all cars in Europe today off the roads." ~ MIT Technology Review
More and more of us now have energy efficient heat pumps in our homes - over 20 MILLION more are expected to be installed thanks to the energy efficiency legislation passed by the government, and a whole lot of us are happily rockin' the ductless heat pump systems (also known as "mini-split" or "multi-split") that make even more energy efficiency happen big time. Our history with HVAC has been pretty diverse over the past 20 years so I thought I'd share this first...
In my first home, I converted from an oil tank to natural gas when I bought the house, having been greenwashed into thinking this was more environmentally astute. While it was cheaper than oil, there ain't nothing 'natural' about natural gas. I was literally trading one fossil fuel for another, not to mention endangering my health with not only gas fumes from the range I'd bought, but also with the other deadly risks of gas (anything that can cause your house to explode in an earthquake or kill you in your sleep if there's a leak is now a no-go for moi, y'all!). I'm deeply disappointed that I did not know about the heat pump option back then, and even my purportedly 'green' city of Portland did not recommend a heat pump in their free energy audit. Fortunately my home was a small one, and I invested a lot over the years there in fully insulating, replacing windows, weatherizing, and more, but it was a big lesson looking back...
When we moved to the farm, it had a ducted heat pump with a backup electric furnace. What an inefficient shitshow when you have 2 stories. Why? Because at night you're spending money heating an ENTIRE floor you're not on, rather than just your bedroom, and vice-versa during the day. If I'd only known back then about how a mini-split could have saved our arses (with our high efficiency Blaze King woodstove as the sole backup), I'd have had that old HP replaced in a heartbeat. In a 2,200 square foot home with all bedrooms upstairs, and the other two bedrooms rarely occupied, we spent a ton in winter heating areas we didn't occupy.
Later, when we downsized to a house half the size and returned to city living, we were stoked to see a mini-split unit on the living room wall. However, in this house there was a hybrid ducted/ductless heat pump system in place - a mini-split unit in the living area and a ducted setup for the bedrooms. While this can potentially be a terrific idea for homes where all bedrooms are occupied (and a) if you don't need to customize temperatures by room, and b) no one has dust allergy issues, a common problem with traditional ducts), for those of us with extra rooms we don't use? Notsomuch. Better than the farm, for sure, because we could still program the living area to be cooler in the evening while we kept our bedroom toastier at night, and vice versa. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of the city's weatherization program which used federal funds to bring insulation, air leak sealing and whole-house ventilation products installed at no cost to us or the other working class folks who qualified for the program, which meant the world to us (and the couple who ultimately bought the house from us last year!) while making a marked difference in our utility bills.
This past summer, when we decided to leave the city and return to semi-small-town living an hour out of the city, we installed a multi-split ductless heat pump system before even moving in! I also had 100% of the gas appliances & furnace removed and the line not just capped inside, but retired out to the street & the meter removed. With the lessons learned from the city and farm houses, I knew we needed the mini-split wall units in three key places: our bedroom, our living room, and our open dining/kitchen area. It has been PERFECTION!
If you are contemplating moving over to a heat pump, congratulations! Here are the biggest tips I can offer:
HVAC contractors will most likely try to push you in the direction of a ducted system. Do NOT blindly take their advice. Know your specific heating/cooling needs. Do you have multiple levels of your home? Are all your bedrooms occupied or are one or more used as an office or guest room that don't need to be heated* all of the time? (*and by 'heated', I don't mean zero heat, I just mean the same level of heat you'd want in a room you were watching TV or cooking or sleeping in)? Have you had your ducts fully sealed and insulated in your home to prevent air leaks and pollen/dust mites from exacerbating allergies (and if not, is that an expenditure you want?). Do you know what kind of shape your ducts are even in? Our nextdoor neighbor just had her new HP installed and just took their recommendation to go ducted in her small 2 BR home, and while our ductless took one day to install, because her vents/ducts were such a mess (something the contractor did not know about in advance), the contractors were there for a WEEK getting everything installed. Ductless means less work for contractors and more control for the homeowner. We have a Daikin system that we programmed and it's literally 'set and forget' til the shoulder season when we power the whole thing off, then summer when we have it cooling during heat waves. Love it.
Heat pumps, whether ductless or ducted, cost about the same - it's installation that drives up costs. Make sure to get multiple quotes - 3, like they say, is important - as you will be amazed at the difference in approach, style, service, and timelines. We got 3 for ours here and the couldn't have been more different. The first guy flaked out multiple times and was on my property for almost 2 hours chit-chatting and left with no clear timeline as to an estimate, while claiming we'd need to upgrade our electrical panel for an extra $2500+ (he was wrong), and I never did get a written estimate after multiple follow ups. The second one was very responsive on setting up the estimate time but did all kinds of unnecessary 'tests' (like blasting the gas furnace we were literally getting rid of, wtf?) and pushing a ducted system that we didn't want, then telling me he wouldn't give me a specific written estimate til he could come back 'when my husband was at home', while their range of estimates were a good 20% higher than their competitors. The third was worth the wait - he was in and out within 30-40 minutes, did his estimate in the car and brought it back to me, printed, and within 2 weeks they had come back and installed it - in ONE day.
Make sure you thoroughly research energy assistance programs and unless you are wealthy don't assume you won't qualify! Do your homework on the various incentives in your area - it can save thousands upfront. Sure, there are tax credits on the federal side, but you don't see those til the end of the year AND they are income-dependent (meaning, if you don't make a ton? You won't see the full benefit then anyhow, as it is calculated based on your taxes paid and is NOT refundable, so it can only bring your tax burden down to zero). Go to your electric utility website and see what energy efficiency rebates and programs they have. Google "energy efficiency programs" and "weatherization programs" in your county and state...and if you're in a metropolitan area, definitely look for them in your City. I found the $11K worth of weatherization assistance we got at no charge on the City of Seattle's weatherization program page and it was definitely clunky - I had to print out a 12 page application and mail it in old-school, and while it took 7 months from application to install, it was obviously worth dealing with the red tape. Here in the Skagit Valley, they have a couple of publicized programs, but they don't state upfront they're just discounted, not free, and only after a 4 month wait on one waiting list did I learn this and that the FREE program was not publicized through the local housing authority - I had to email them for an application and am now waiting another 6-12 months for their services, oy vey...!). And don't assume you won't qualify! In Seattle, the combined income was in the low six figures to get the free weatherization work ! So unlike some programs where they want homeowners under the poverty line (which most who can afford to own a home are not, for obvious reasons especially in big cities), these ones are often more generous. In Seattle, they even have a program that will upgrade folks' oil heat with a heat pump - for FREE. Now that's rad.
Got seriously cold weather where you live? They still work. You won't freeze. There are a number of companies who have also begun to come out with models specifically designed for areas of the country that regularly deal with subzero temps in winter. The companies took the government's innovation challenge and this is one of the cool things coming out of the climate change legislation the Biden administration passed. We recently had temperatures that hit 9 degrees and we stayed toasty warm. Heck yeah. And don't forget, heat pumps provide air conditioning as well, and oodles more efficient than those mega hulking A/C units outside of homes.
There are a number of uninformed folks out there who will tell you that natural gas is cheaper than electric, so you shouldn't get a heat pump, but guess what? It's utterly false. The numbers that are quoted are inclusive of ALL forms of electric heat - like radiators and old electric furnaces and the like. "The electricity costs for heat pump operations are around 39% below costs for natural gas, energy contract provider Verivox says. Even with a less efficient heat pump, costs are around 11% lower." (CleanEnergyWire.com).
Plus, like I mentioned before? 'Natural' gas won't cool you during those heat waves in summer, y'all. So give it some thought. Do some homework of what's available in your community. It's definitely been a game-changer for us.