Heat pumps are key to electrifying our homes

But first, some basics: what’s a heat pump?

Reducing U.S. carbon pollution is front and center. How can homeowners help?

Our federal government just set a goal of slashing buildings’ climate footprints in half by 2032. To achieve this, many homes will need to be efficiently electrified.

Home heating units can consume a lot of electricity. It might be time to look at your home heating and air conditioning system.

About a quarter of Vashon homes use natural gas for heat; is yours one of these? Or is it fueled by oil? Or an older struggling electric furnace? No air conditioning? Excessive heating bills? Most U.S. home systems need an upgrade.

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, consider installing an electric heat pump. These units plug a home more fully and efficiently into the electric grid. Today, our Vashon electricity is generated using some coal and natural gas, but a few years from now, it will run predominantly on clean energy like wind and solar. Electrifying homes now is key to reducing US carbon pollution in the decades to come.

Some basics: what’s a heat pump?

Despite the name, a heat pump can both heat and cool your home, taking the place of your furnace, air conditioner, or both. Most heat pumps look like a large air conditioning unit that is fixed to the outside of your home. The pumps have both an outdoor and an indoor component, and keep your home comfortable by moving warm air into your home in the winter — and out of your home in the summer. They don’t generate heat by burning fossil fuels, they transfer it. Systems can be ducted, wall-mounted mini-splits, or even geothermal.

And because heat pumps don’t directly burn fossil fuels, installing one reduces both carbon emissions and monthly heating bills. Last year, heat pumps met a major milestone, surpassing gas furnaces in annual sales by a wide margin. So, should you buy a heat pump? Advantages include:

They’re easy to install. In some parts of the country, they already cost less to install than other kinds of HVAC systems.

They’re super-efficient so save money on monthly electric bills over homes that heat with gas, oil, or “regular” electric-resistance systems. Gas and oil are always expensive, even when we aren’t in the midst of a massive price spike. And electric resistance heating uses almost 3 times as much electricity as a heat pump to produce the same amount of heat.

Heat pumps include air conditioners, a big plus for those summer heat waves.

A mini-split system is “zone” targeted, so heat or AC only goes where directed, saving costs. There’s no heat loss, as in ducted systems. They lower the temperature in rooms rarely used, a feature not available when using ducted heating and cooling.

They’re climate-friendly. If 30% of U.S. buildings used heat pumps, this would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10%—one of the biggest contributions of any technology. And in the Pacific Northwest, where lots of our energy comes from hydro-power, heat pumps do even more.

Even in cold weather, electric heat pumps work. Many “cold” countries, like Norway, Sweden and Finland, are increasingly embracing heat pumps. Fossil-fuel industry groups have been the origin of many exaggerated and misleading claims that they don’t work in regions with cold climates and are likely to fail in freezing weather.

The main downside to installing a heat pump is the up-front cost; they’re an investment. Prices vary; in 2021 I received a bid of $7,000 for a mini-split to heat the main area of our 1200-square-foot home on Vashon from an island company. Now there are federal tax credits of at least $2000 and local rebates that can help to lower the cost. Credit unions and some banks offer low-cost loans for energy-efficient home improvements. Monthly cost savings can balance out loan payments. Do the math; lots of online calculators are available.

If you’re ready to buy a heat pump, look for a reputable contractor who installs and services them. Get several estimates to determine the right system for your situation. Depending on the size of your home, where you live and other factors, the most efficient type of heat pump will vary. That efficiency, combined with ongoing grid-wide improvements to greener energy sources, means that over the life of your heat pump, your carbon footprint will be significantly lower.

Let’s electrify our homes for comfort and for the climate.