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As a Green Designee, you likely know the difference between a heat pump and a furnace — a furnace heats the home with natural gas, oil, or propane (fossil fuels), and a heat pump uses electricity. A heat pump can also take the place of your air conditioner since it cools the home as well. Heat pumps have been in the news a lot these days as more states, utilities, and localities focus on electrification. A lot of rebate and tax credit dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act have been earmarked for heat pump installation — so if you haven’t seen many of them before, you definitely will in the coming years.

Every month there are nearly 50,000 searches for “heat pump” in the United States alone — about 1.5 million if you count variations of the phrase. That’s a lot of people looking for ways to upgrade their home’s heating and cooling. Given the importance of this piece of equipment to a home’s comfort and efficiency, let's take a deeper dive into some heat pump basics as I hear a lot of misinformation about their performance and applicability.

It used to be that heat pumps worked best in moderate and hot climates, and one may still hear that statement coming from HVAC contractors who’ve not kept up with the technology. However, heat pumps have advanced significantly such that you can now purchase one designed specifically for cold climates like we have in the northeast, and they will work just fine to heat a home. It is important, however, to make sure that the home is air sealed and insulated properly before installing a heat pump. Frankly, every home should be air sealed and insulated first before upgrading HVAC equipment. Why? Because it will allow the contractor to downsize the new equipment (cost savings!) since the unit won’t have to work as hard to heat or cool the home. Plus air sealing and insulation make for a more comfortable home. Period.

Aside from the carbon savings, a big benefit that comes from switching out a furnace for a heat pump is indoor air quality. A heat pump is basically an air conditioning unit that functions in reverse, allowing the cooling cycle to run backwards, making it a heating cycle. Thinking about the basic physics involved, a heat pump works simply by moving energy or heat from one place to another. Because it doesn’t require combustion to produce the heat, unlike a furnace, it does not generate carbon monoxide or other off gassing, which negatively impacts indoor air quality. Yes, a heat pump is way more efficient than a furnace, but a big advantage to it, not as often discussed, is how it can improve indoor air quality.

But what about comfort? A furnace has shorter run cycles but produces more heat per cycle. If you hold your hand up to the air register, the air coming from it will feel warm. A heat pump warms the home more gradually, producing less heat per cycle. The air coming from the register is obviously warm enough to heat the home to the thermostat setting, but it may not feel as warm to the touch. For many homeowners, this lower intensity is appealing — they’re not subject to big temperature swings throughout the day and enjoy consistent temperature throughout the home.

Just how efficient are heat pumps? The Department of Energy estimates that modern heat pumps can reduce your electricity use for heating by 50 percent when compared to furnaces and baseboard heaters (basically any system that uses electric resistance to heat your home). A heat pump’s efficiency is rated by HSPF or SEER (the higher the number the better), but an easy hack is to ask for one which qualifies for ENERGY STAR®. This way you know it will be highly efficient and eligible for a tax credit and rebate (if your utility offers one).

When it comes to matching a system to your home, budget, and location, working with a high-quality HVAC contractor is the best way to go. If you are switching out a furnace for a heat pump, your home’s electrical panel may need an upgrade as well. Ground source pumps generally require access to a backyard or underground water source. Air source pumps only need enough space outside for the compressor. Mini splits offer the most flexibility, especially for an area or home without existing ductwork.

For most homeowners, a silver box looks like a silver box. They often don’t know the difference between a furnace and a heat pump, much less the different types of heat pump solutions available to them. But in order to achieve the carbon savings needed to mitigate climate change, the U.S. is going to have to replace a lot of aging and inefficient furnaces. REALTORs can bring awareness to their clients on the benefits heat pumps can bring for energy savings, indoor air quality, and comfort.

*Originally posted in the December 2022 edition of REsource News, by the National Association of REALTORS, GREEN Designees

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