Is the Heat Pump a Joke?
By Gerry WagnerGreen Technology Heat Pumps Heating HVAC Systems education heat pumps HSPF SEER
The technology has changed significantly over the past 40-plus years, yet customer education is still required for the uninformed.
As many of you likely don’t know, I got my start in the HVAC trade/industry at the HydroTherm Boiler Company. The man I commonly refer to as my father, Elwood Weaver, the executive vice president and ultimately a part-owner in HydroTherm, had a joke back in the 1970s. The joke was: “You would never install a heat pump north of Richmond, Virginia.”
Now this was a joke, but one that had some real basis in truth.
You see, although the heat pump dates much further back, it wasn’t until the 1970s where they were starting to gain some traction in North America.
Before 1980, many heat pumps had a seasonal energy efficiency rating (SEER) of 6 or less and a heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) below 5. These numbers simply didn’t work for most climates north of Richmond, because the 1970s-vintage heat pump crapped the bed at approximately 47F/8C outdoor air temperature. They weren’t de-rated at this outdoor temperature, but rather they were OFF!
How the 1970s heat pump attempted to make up for this rather extreme limitation was with an electric heat backup, better known as the electric strip heater.
When the outdoor temperature dropped below the lowest operating temperature of the heat pump, the electric strip heater kicked in, and so did your electric utility meter.
Again, the joke in the boiler business was that the “meter would spin right off the wall!”
Ok, let me jump to 2023 and some recent occurrences in my own life that made me realize there still is a misperception among some (mostly civilians) that heat pumps still can’t perform in cold weather climates.
I was at an airport (story of my life) going through the TSA checkpoint. The TSA officer noticed I was wearing a shirt from an HVAC distributor, and he said to me:
“You are into those heat pumps, yeah?”
I replied, “Yes sir!”
To which he replied, “Yeah, they aren’t any good here in Pennsylvania.”
In that moment, my instinct was to go into my full HVAC heat pump advocate mode and begin to tell him why he was so wrong, but then I thought again.
I simply smiled, thanked him, and moved on to place my backpack on the X-ray machine conveyor belt.
And another recent reminder revealed that even civilians who claim to be educated in such matters are often just plain wrong.
In the state of Maine, someone running for a seat in the State House of Representatives, and whose resume claims he currently is a member of the National Conference of State Legislatures Committee on Agriculture and Energy, made the following statement:
“Fossil fuel use reducing devices such as heat pumps are insufficient for households.”
Wow! Pennsylvania and Maine, not heat pump territory?
Portland, Maine, being 1,349 miles/2,171 km south from St John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, where heat pump installations are on the rise with the support of Federal incentives and initiatives?
When I’m not travelling across Canada, I reside in central Pennsylvania where I installed an inverter-based heat pump unitary system in our home three winters ago, and our home is warm, comfortable and efficient!
I train HVAC installers and technicians on heat pump products that are as high as 38 SEER with HSPF as high as 15 with heating capability down to -22F/-30C (80% of rated heat capacity at these numbers, but heating capability well below these numbers).
We as a trade/industry still have much work to do to combat this misconception about heat pumps.
Another of my mentors early in my career was Harry Eklof, an icon in the HVAC manufacturer’s rep business. Harry use to say, “Perception is reality to the uniformed.”
I am an HVAC heat pump advocate. My career and income for the last decade has been solely based on the promotion of inverter heat pump technology, but I’m also a realist.
I do have great concerns that we may be a bit short-sighted in our goals to eliminate fossil fuels in both Canada and the U.S.
The electrical grids are not prepared for every home to be “electrified” and “de-carbonized” and every car to be electric, yet some political and industrial leaders seem to think otherwise—or maybe more accurately, haven’t considered the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Let me be clear, electrification and de-carbonization is the correct path; not only environmentally and economically but also to reduce dependency on unreliable (and often unfriendly) fuel sources globally.
Elwood Weaver never saw the heat pump as a real threat to his boiler business. He thought it was a joke.
But I know if I could have a conversation with him today, that even Elwood would see that the heat pump in Canada and the U.S. is no joke … it is our future! <>