Living Green: The Wonders of Heat Pumps

Air to air heat pump for cooling or heating the home. Outdoor unit

A month ago I was at a friend’s newly built home. It’s under 1,000 square feet and well-insulated — yay! But I noticed it was heated with propane. 

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t put in a heat pump. I felt a little deflated. Why are people still defaulting to fossil fuels when, for the same price as the propane heater, they could have installed a heat pump that is more energy-efficient, costs less money to operate, provides better indoor air and is better for the climate?

By contrast, notes Laura Bozzi, director of programs for the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health and a Village of Cold Spring trustee, “oil burners are like little power plants in our basements, creating pollution outside.”

Last month, I wrote about a campaign by Beacon Climate Action Now to get the City Council to pass legislation that would ban gas or oil in new construction. Some of the readers who responded asked how electric could be cheaper than gas, and whether there are realistic alternatives to fossil fuels. I realized there is still much work to be done to explain the benefits of heat pumps. 

There are two types: air source and ground source (aka geothermal).

Air-source heat pumps have an external compressor. You can have the heat and AC distributed by ductwork or mount individual wall units, which are known as ductless heat pumps or mini-splits. These pumps extract heat from the air outside and distribute it inside. In the warmer months, the process is reversed — they pull hot air out of your home. 

When we installed air-source heat pumps in our 2,700-square-foot home in Garrison, we put two downstairs and one in each of the three upstairs bedrooms. Most of the time in the winter we only used the downstairs heat pumps, waiting until about an hour before bedtime to turn on those upstairs.

Ground-source heat pumps extract heat from the ground. In most cases that means digging a well to put in the piping that connects to the pump. When you dig deep enough, the ground temperature is always steady. So in the winter your system extracts heat from the ground and in the summer the process is reversed. 

Either type of heat pump consumes far less energy than electric resistance, propane or oil heating systems. And you have none of the carbon monoxide and air quality problems associated with burning fossil fuels.

I’d like to put to rest the argument against anything electric, i.e.: “What is the point of switching to electric if the grid is still powered by fossil fuels?” Even if the grid is currently powered by fossil fuels — eventually it won’t be — electricity is still more efficient.

You also hear the fallacy that heat pumps don’t work in a northern climate. There are cold-climate heat pumps that operate in temperatures lower than 5 degrees, although any heat pump works best if a house is insulated and sealed up.

Finally, even with fluctuating electricity rates, a heat pump will save money compared to fossil fuels. We used to pay $2,500 to $3,000 over the winter to heat our home with oil. After switching to heat pumps, our annual electricity cost dropped to about $2,600; that included powering our home, heating, cooling and charging an electric car.

In October, Cold Spring launched a clean heating and cooling campaign. Bozzi noted that if the village can document five or more installations of heat pumps, energy audits or electric hot water heater installations, it can qualify for a $5,000 grant from the state Clean Energy Community program.

There’s more information for Cold Spring residents at cleanheatingandcooling.energy. Or you can email Bozzi at [email protected]. 

5 thoughts on “Living Green: The Wonders of Heat Pumps

  1. What Krystal Ford didn’t tell us is how much it cost to remove and recycle her oil heating system and install five heat pumps. Did she have to convert to electric for hot water? This cost must be added to the overall monthly cost and how long until the payback.

    Many people might like to do a similar conversion but find the costs prohibitive. Also, what fuel is used to power the generator and is it large enough? If you have multiple heat pumps, the generator must be large enough to power them — otherwise, no heat. If new homes are to be totally electric, large generators will be required. [via Facebook]

    • We never removed the oil furnace and tanks, we just disconnected them for now. We do have plans to eventually scrap them, we just haven’t looked into it. The total was $23,500. The cost for the five heat pumps was $22,000 and our new energy-efficient hot water heater cost $2,000, minus the $500 rebate from Central Hudson. My husband installed the hot water heater so there was no installation cost for that. Ten years of oil use would cost us $30,000 if prices stay the same, and the $3,000 oil bill I am referencing was now more than three years ago, before prices really started to increase.

      So, all in all, I would say payback is in less than 10 years. Also, I am not including the furnace maintenance fee we paid that was at least a few hundred dollars a year. The only servicing the heat pumps need, as far as I am aware, is filter changes that you can do yourself. Lastly, I have never had a generator. I have lived through many power outages in Garrison over 13 years. I put a lot of blankets on at night to sleep, use a camp stove to boil water and heat up food or melt snow to flush toilets, light some candles and in a day or two the power comes back on. No big deal.

  2. If everything is electric or battery and the power goes out, nobody can charge their cars and they can’t go anywhere. The power grid can barely hold up with what we do now. We’re a long way from getting away from fossil fuels. [via Facebook]

  3. Over the last two years we did the same as Krystal Ford: installed high-efficiency heat pumps in each room plus a hybrid water heater. After a winter test, this year we went all-in, removing the oil tank, boiler and radiators.

    The system has no trouble heating and cooling our 1,300-square-foot house. Each unit has a sensor and adjusts to save energy when the room is empty. It recovers automatically after brief power outages. (The oil system relied on electrical components, too, so also wouldn’t have worked during an outage.) The heat pumps are super quiet, indoors and out. We’ve noticed the air is a bit drier, so we purchased small humidifiers for the bedrooms.

    It cost us $28,000 for five units and the water heater (we used Mitsubishi installed by Rycor), so, even with rebates, this isn’t for everyone, yet. It isn’t clear that we save money — we have solar, and electric cars, so the costs are muddled up. But I expect electricity to be cheaper than oil in the long run, simply because electricity can be generated with a greater diversity of sources.

    I like the extra space in the basement and in each room, and the relative simplicity of the new system. (No leaky pipes! No chimney to clean! No boiler to service!) Most of all, I love that, at least in part, I’m heating my house with the panels on my own roof, instead of with 300 gallons of diesel fuel shipped from far away.

  4. We converted to heat pumps last year and it was $20,000 after all the rebates. That’s not realistic for many people. Our resources would be better focused toward rebuilding our failed electric co-op and working to address grid renewable energy sources and transmission. Make clean energy cheaper and more available, and the work will be done for us. [via Instagram]

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