Innovation, or Just Hot Air? Heat Pumps Gain Popularity in Cold Weather Climates

  • Mike Morrie works on installs soffit and fascia on a Southscape home in Wilder, Vt., on March 15. 2018. The homes are energy-efficient and have heat pumps installed in them. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Electrician Rob Hassard works on an energy-efficient home in Wilder, Vt., on March 15, 2018. The home in the Southscape development built by Prudent Living, Inc., has heat pumps installed in them. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • This energy-efficient home built by Prudent Living, Inc. uses heat pumps. The home is close to being finished, in Wilder, Vt., on March 15, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographer — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2018 12:16:08 AM
Modified: 3/26/2018 9:47:36 AM

Hartford — A new report shows that heat pumps, an electric home heating system favored by a growing segment of environmentalists and energy efficiency buffs, are being installed at a blistering pace in Vermont, even though another recently released report says not all owners are receiving the expected benefits.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report it commissioned with Vermont Energy Investment Corporation that showed Vermont is installing an estimated 4,141 units per year, which amounts to 1.26 percent of the state’s 330,000 households — the highest penetration rate in the Northeast.

By comparison, in New Hampshire, 1,230 installations are happening each year, just 0.16 percent of the state’s housing units. Other states are doing even more poorly by this measure — New York is at just .06 percent annually.

“I would never be without it again. We love our heat pump. I love our heat pump,” said Nancy Wolfe, 65. She and her husband, Norman Wolfe, 66, both retired music teachers, live in Hartford.

When the Wolfes converted their home to solar power a few years ago, they added an additional eight panels to their roof to help supply the energy needs of a newly installed heat pump that came as an option through SunCommon, a Waterbury-based solar company.

Heat pumps use electrical power to extract heat from the air outside your home, and then blow that concentrated heat into your home. In the summertime, heat pumps can reverse the process to function as an air conditioner.

It used to only be practical to run a heat pump in areas with milder winters, but around 2010, manufacturers started putting out affordable models — cold climate heat pumps — that can suck heat out of the air up to 15 degrees below zero.

That’s when heat pumps began blitzing their way through the state’s households — since 2010, when there were virtually no heat pumps in the state, the Wolfes and an estimated 18,000 other consumers have made the decision to purchase and install the units.

And that’s just the beginning.

Because heat pumps run on electricity, which can be produced by renewable resources like solar and wind, they have been hailed as an integral part of the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which has set a goal of achieving 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The plan, which was updated in 2016, calls for an increasing ramp-up of heat pumps — from 20,000 by 2020 (a benchmark it seems poised to beat), to 200,000 by 2050, enough to meet the heating needs of 38 percent of the state.

The NRDC report, which compared heat pump usage, and heat pump regulations, across different northeastern states, credits Vermont’s success to an aggressive campaign to promote a pipeline of manufacturers, distributors and contractors, as well as energy policy that creates incentives — Efficiency Vermont has handed out rebates of between $600 and $800 to owners of more than 8,000 heat pumps over the last several years. The report also praises utility companies with heat pump programs; Green Mountain Power offers leasing programs to put the heat pumps within easier reach of interested homeowners.

But a state-sponsored report has found that heat pumps, which have for years been hailed by environmentalists as the greenest way to heat Vermont’s homes, are delivering only a fraction of projected cost-savings for many of their owners.

Saving Less Than Hoped

One of the selling points that helped to jumpstart the explosion of heat pumps into the marketplace was the cost savings.

In 2014, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group estimated that a family of four spending $3,000 a year on oil could save $1,000 to $1,500 per year by using a heat pump to provide between 60 and 80 percent of the home’s heating needs. By financing a unit, which costs somewhere between $3,000 and $8,000 installed, “you’ll save money from year one,” VPIRG said, in a heat pump FAQ that is still on its website.

But in fact, most people with heat pumps are not realizing anything like those sorts of savings, according to a November report from the Vermont Public Service Department, which found that “the average annual energy cost savings was approximately $200 per heat pump, significantly less than had been assumed before the study.”

The November study, which relied on an examination of 77 functioning heat pumps, noted that the amount dramatically expanded the payback period for the installation cost, which it estimated at $2,500.

It said Vermonters should know what to expect — and not to expect — when considering a heat pump.

“With the adoption of cold climate heat pump technology accelerating in Vermont, it is important that consumers are making an informed decision when purchasing an expensive piece of equipment that will affect their energy bills for years to come,” said the report. “Simply because a (heat pump) is ‘high efficiency’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it will lower energy costs. There is a need for sufficient information for customers.”

One of the critical factors in whether a heat pump will be adequate to heat an existing home is how well insulated that home is, according to Geoff Martin, energy coordinator for the town of Hartford (which heats its recently renovated Town Hall with a heat pump). Martin said the units can dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of a residence by swapping out oil or propane for green electricity.

“But in most situations, the first step should be to make sure that the home is properly weatherized,” Martin said.

Martin gears his programming around the idea that heat pumps should be considered alongside other possible energy-saving improvements. On April 7, he will host an event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Wilder Library, during which area contractors will talk homeowners through the process of performing an energy audit.

During the event, called Warm Up Wilder, the contractors will also offer time blocks to walk through the homes of Wilder residents, at no charge.

Jeff Porter, 32, a timber framer, said he’s an example of someone who could have benefited from advice from a heating-system expert before building a home last year with his wife in Tunbridge.

“The majority of the issues I’ve dealt with are a mistake on my end,” Porter said. “It’s not cheap, and you want to get it right.”

They decided to install a heat pump themselves, and he thought a combination of good insulation and ample natural sunlight would allow him to heat the home with an inexpensive model.

Instead, he said, he’s found that it only works for him during the shoulder seasons, and so during cold spells, the couple relied primarily on a wood stove, setting the heat pump to kick in at 3 a.m. to carry the house through until daylight.

When Heat Pumps Work

The November report also contained some good news for heat pump enthusiasts.

Though the average savings was $200, there was a wide range, which demonstrates that some homes are better-suited for heat pumps than others, and that savvy heat pump users can wring much more out of their savings by using them correctly.

In optimal situations, heat pumps can completely eliminate the heating bill of their owners.

For example, look at the Southscape development, a cluster of homes on Chandler Road in Wilder. The developer, Prudent Living, makes a bold claim to those who purchase one of the eight Southscape homes on offer: take advantage of a solar panel-heat pump combo, and your home will be “net zero,” meaning it will use green energy sources to produce as much energy as it uses.

If they wanted to make that claim without the aid of heat pumps, the company would have had to explore drilling geothermal wells, which would have added significantly to the $344,000 price tag of a 2,300-square-foot home, said Tim Biebel, 34, of Prudent Living.

Biebel said the company spends between $15,000 and $20,000 to install heat pumps in every bedroom, living room and kitchen. The cost is comparable to a baseboard heating system, he said, and comes with the added bonus that there are no energy bills for the person who buys the house.

There are always new technologies on offer for the home building industry, but Biebel said heat pumps stood out from other offerings.

“The technology seemed to be getting better,” he said. “We had done research and seen that they could perform, as long as a lot of attention was paid to the insulation.”

The company began using heat pumps as backup systems in 2012, and began using them as primary heat sources in 2014.

By May, the development will have five of eight heat pump-equipped homes constructed (one is owned by Hartford Selectman Alan Johnson), including a model.

Heat pumps are also being integrated into other super-efficient homes, such as the modular ones built by Vermod, a White River Junction business that focuses on the low end of the market. By leveraging state and federal incentives for low- and moderate-income home buyers, a qualified buyer can get a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home for $113,000, with no energy bill.

Other Benefits Touted

Bob Walker, 64, plans to get a heat pump this year.

Walker knows energy — he has been chairing the Thetford Energy Committee ever since he founded it in 2002, long before heat pumps became a part of the local discussion.

He built his own 2,000-square-foot home 23 years ago, and made sure it was so well-insulated that he can heat it comfortably with a cord and a half of wood that he cuts himself.

At first glance, Walker’s house seems like the perfect candidate for a heat pump — the double-studded walls and tight envelope support the capacity of a heat pump, and the open floor plan means a point-source heating system would work fine.

But the economics still don’t play in Walker’s favor, because he’s a victim of his own success. His wood burning system is so cheap, he might never make back the $5,100 he expects to pay for the installed heat pump.

But there are other reasons for him to make the switch. At 64, he can foresee the day when it will be a little tougher to manage the annual task of cutting and splitting his own wood.

Heat pumps are also healthier, he said.

“I think it’s a little cleaner,” said Walker. “My wife has some asthma issues, and the wood burning is dirtier, in terms of particulates in the air.”

Life with a heat pump will also get a little easier. After 23 years of stoking morning fires, he likes the idea of waking up to a toasty home.

And that points to another key revelation in last year’s Vermont Public Service Department study — to many, it’s not about the cost savings.

In fact, “of the 135 homeowners surveyed, none expressed dissatisfaction with their choice to install a heat pump,” wrote the study’s authors.

The Wolfes are a good example of that.

Norman Wolfe reviewed his heating bills recently to assess the impact of the heat pump. Their heating bills have gone down, but mostly because the cost of propane has dropped over the last few years.

“Gallon-wise, we’re using about the same, I guess,” he said. “We’re not necessarily using fewer gallons of propane.”

While in some houses, heat pumps are the primary heating source, the Wolfes can’t rely on the heat pump entirely, because it’s not equipped to heat their finished basement, which is where the propane stove is located. And if the propane stove is warm enough to heat the basement, the upper levels are often warm enough that switching on the heat pump would just make them too hot.

“We don’t have the ideal setup,” he said.

Wolfe said that he knew when he bought the system that it wouldn’t produce big savings, but they still wax enthusiastic about their solar-supplemented purchase, the primary benefit of which is that it keeps the house cool in the summer — for free.

“We have no electric bill,” he said. “When the sun is shining and you’re making electricity, you just say, ‘Why isn’t the whole world doing this?’ ”

And Hartford Selectman Simon Dennis, who has relied on a heat pump for most of his heating for the last two winters, said that, while he knows their home isn’t set up for optimal efficiency, he’s reaping other benefits.

“It’s a huge sense of satisfaction to know that our heat source is not contributing to the carbon emissions at the same level as it would be if we were burning wood or with oil,” Dennis said. “Absolutely you suffer if you have to know the kind of carbon impact that the average house is having.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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