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Electric Heat Pump Technology: Your Questions Answered

  • Written by Lynn Belken
  • April 23, 2024
Daikin Fit Heat Pump next to home with view of yard

Heat pumps, a “hot” topic in recent years, have a longer history than commonly perceived. The first modern, electrically-powered heat pump emerged in the 1940s, and ground-source heat pumps gained popularity in the 1970s. This innovation holds particular significance considering that over 35% of the United States' total energy consumption is allocated to heating and cooling structures, including buildings, residences, offices, and various facilities. Heat pumps distinguish themselves for their efficiency in maintaining comfortable temperatures across a range of climates in both residential and commercial settings. 

I recently had the opportunity to explore the world of electric heat pumps with Matt Baker, National Manager of Energy Efficiency and Electrification Program Development at Daikin Comfort Technologies North America, Inc. Our conversation spanned topics ranging from the basics of heat pump technology to the cutting-edge innovations propelling its widespread adoption. Join us on this enlightening journey where sustainability intersects comfort and innovation leads us toward a brighter, greener future. 

LB:What are electric heat pumps? How do they differ from other heat pump technologies (such as gas, ground-source heat pumps)? 

MB: Electric heat pumps are systems that utilize electricity to provide both heating and cooling functions. They operate by transferring heat from one place to another using a refrigeration cycle. Unlike other heat pump technologies such as gas or ground-source heat pumps, which rely on combustion or tapping into the earth's stable temperature, electric heat pumps solely use electricity as their energy source. This distinction sets them apart in terms of their energy input and the mechanisms through which they extract and distribute heat. 

LB:What are the best applications for HPs (i.e. heating in cold weather, restaurants, etc.)? 

MB: Heat pumps are incredibly versatile and can be applied in various settings. From residential homes to commercial establishments like restaurants, heat pumps offer efficient heating and cooling solutions. In colder climates, modern heat pumps are designed to operate effectively even in sub-zero temperatures, making them suitable for all-electric or dual-fuel applications. They can replace traditional heating systems like electric furnaces or baseboard heaters and are particularly beneficial in retrofit projects, where they outperform older units and enhance energy efficiency. 

LB:I’ve heard that not all contractors and installers are convinced that heat pumps can work reliably, cost effectively, and/or efficiently in cold climates. 

MB: While skepticism among some contractors and installers still exists (largely due to past experiences with older heat pump models), the newer technology has proven otherwise. Education plays a crucial role in dispelling myths and misconceptions surrounding heat pumps, especially regarding their reliability and efficiency in cold climates. Barriers to adoption can be overcome with concerted efforts to provide information and incentives. 

LB: Heat pump sales are still lower than traditional heating systems. Why? What is the barrier to installation? 

MB: Several factors contribute to the lower adoption rate of heat pumps compared to traditional systems. Cost, lack of education and training among contractors, and the time investment required to learn about new products and technologies are common barriers. Educating homeowners about the benefits of heat pumps and providing incentives for their installation may help overcome these barriers and accelerate their adoption. 

LB: What is the market share of heat pumps vs. traditional heating/cooling? 

MB: The market share of heat pumps has been steadily increasing, especially with the inclusion of mini-split systems in recent data. However, comparing heat pump sales directly to traditional heating and cooling systems may not provide an accurate picture due to differences in technology and application. Nonetheless, the growth of heat pump installations, particularly in states promoting electrification, signifies a shift toward more energy-efficient heating and cooling solutions. 

Efficiency and Other Benefits 

The increasing prominence of heat pumps signifies their pivotal role in reducing consumer energy expenses, enhancing energy efficiency, and alleviating the impacts of the climate crisis. 

LB: What are the main advantages of using heat pumps for heating in residential settings? 

MB: Heat pumps offer a combination of energy efficiency, cost savings, comfort, versatility, and environmental benefits.  

  • Efficiency: Heat pumps are highly efficient, resulting in lower energy consumption and reduced utility bills compared to traditional heating systems.  
  • Comfort: Heat pumps provide consistent heating throughout the home, avoiding the fluctuations in temperature associated with traditional heating systems. They also operate quietly, enhancing indoor comfort. 
  • Versatility: Heat pumps provide cooling during the summer months, eliminating the need for a separate cooling system. Their compact size also saves space, both indoors and outdoors.   
  • Environmental: By utilizing electricity and leveraging energy-efficient technology, heat pumps play a pivotal role in reducing carbon footprints. Additionally, as renewable energy sources become more prevalent in the electric grid, the environmental benefits of heat pumps are further amplified, leading to a greener and more sustainable future. 
  • Grid stability: Modern, inverter-driven variable capacity heat pumps contribute to grid resilience by employing low-Watt "soft startups" and operating designs that allow them to hum along in "cruise control" which reduced demand on the grid, even during periods of extreme temperatures. 

LB: Are the advantages the same for commercial settings? Do they vary?  

MB: While the advantages of heat pumps in commercial settings are similar to those in residential settings, the scale, complexity, and specific requirements of commercial buildings require particular skill, care and attention to ensure successful application. Proper design, installation, and maintenance are essential for maximizing their benefits. 

LB: Is it an easy switch to go from traditional HVAC furnaces to heat pumps? 

MB: In most cases, transitioning from traditional HVAC furnaces to heat pumps is relatively straightforward. However, upgrades to electrical panels may be necessary, especially if the building does not already have air conditioning installed. Consulting with HVAC professionals can help streamline the process and ensure a successful transition. 

LB: Does climate affect the performance of heat pumps, and are they suitable for all regions? 

MB: Climate can indeed impact the performance of heat pumps, but modern systems are designed to operate efficiently in a wide range of climates. With proper sizing and installation, heat pumps provide reliable heating and cooling in almost any region. Additionally, advancements such as variable-speed compressors and improved refrigerants continue to enhance their performance and efficiency across diverse climate zones. 

LB: What type of incentives and rebates are available to assist homeowners with the installation of heat pumps?  

MB: Many states and local utility companies offer rebates and incentives for homeowners who install energy-efficient heating and cooling systems like heat pumps. These incentives may vary depending on location and can help reduce the upfront costs of upgrading to a heat pump. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) modified and extended several existing tax credits and allows homeowners to make claims for energy-efficient improvements. There will also be rebates made available through the HOMES and HEEHRA programs, once those programs become available on a state-by-state basis later this year and into 2025. Homeowners will be able to take advantage of both the tax rebates and tax incentives, but they cannot receive both HOMES and HEEHRA rebates for the same upgrades.

Heat Pump Innovations

Technology is constantly evolving, with numerous developments dedicated to enhancing the effectiveness, sustainability, and overall functionality of heat pumps. There are technologies today that can address almost any homeowner's need. As technology continues to advance, heat pumps are likely to play an increasingly integral role in the quest for energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly HVAC solutions. 

LB: What trends do you see in the future of heat pump technology and its adoption in the residential and commercial sectors? 

MB: The future of heat pump technology lies in inverter-driven variable capacity systems, which offer enhanced efficiency and comfort. As electrification efforts continue and energy efficiency becomes increasingly important, heat pumps are poised to play a vital role in both residential and commercial heating and cooling systems. With ongoing advancements and greater awareness, heat pump adoption is expected to rise, leading to a more sustainable and energy-efficient future. 

LB: What are some common misconceptions or myths about heat pumps that you'd like to debunk? 

MB: One common misconception is that all heat pumps are the same. There are significant differences in performance and efficiency between different models and technologies. Additionally, the myth that heat pumps require backup heating units is outdated, as modern variable capacity systems offer reliable heating even in extreme conditions. 

Heat pumps have emerged as a vital technology in our shift toward more sustainable and energy-efficient heating and cooling solutions. Their versatile application extends across residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. Heat pumps will undoubtedly remain central to our quest for sustainable heating and cooling solutions. Through ongoing innovation and collaboration, we can expect further advancements, increasing adoption rates, and ultimately, a brighter, more environmentally-conscious future for all. Keep an eye out for the next installment in our blog series for deeper insights into gas heat pumps and an exclusive interview with a manufacturer.