Is a Heat Pump More Efficient Than a Furnace?
The two primary ways you can heat your house are by burning a fuel (e.g., fossil gas, fuel oil, wood) or using electricity. Furnaces and boilers distribute the heat from combustion to heat a house. Electric resistance heat makes sense only in limited applications, so heat pumps are the best way to heat with electricity. I love heat pumps and have replaced the furnace in my house with two of them. But let’s get something straight here. To say a heat pump is more efficient than a furnace or boiler is comparing apples to pumpkins.
Missing an important point
Unfortunately, a lot of articles on this topic miss an important point here. Even some reputable sources make this mistake. I just looked at three articles comparing heat pumps to furnaces and boilers and found these claims about heat pump energy use:
- “more than twice as efficient as gas furnaces”
- “a third less energy for the same output”
- “much less energy than furnaces”
How can they make those claims? Well, a good furnace turns about 95 percent of the energy in the fuel it burns into heat for the house. A heat pump uses its input energy to move about 200 to 300 percent as much energy into the house in the form of heat. Let’s put some numbers on this to illustrate.
You put 100,000 BTU of fossil gas energy into a furnace, and you get 95,000 BTU of heat delivered to the house. You put 100,000 BTU of electricity into a heat pump, and you get 200,000 to 300,000 BTU of heat in the house. If that’s all you look at, it would seem those statements above are correct. You put the same 100,000 BTU of energy into the two types of heating systems. Yet the heat pump puts 2 to 3 times as much heat into the house. But something’s missing here.
What’s the catch?
The two types of equipment do different things. A furnace uses the heat of combustion from burning a fuel. A heat pump uses electricity to run mechanical equipment that moves heat from one place to another. But we need to go further to find the real reason those quotes above are misleading.When a furnace burns gas, it’s using a primary energy source. When a heat pump uses electricity, it’s tapping a secondary energy source. The electricity is just a carrier. The primary energy in that electricity comes from:
- Burning gas or coal
- Harvesting the heat from a controlled nuclear reaction
- Taming the kinetic energy of blades spinning in the wind or in a dammed river
- Getting electrons to move when radiant energy from the sun hits a photovoltaic module
In the US, a lot of our electricity still comes from the first one in that list. In the case of electricity generated by burning coal, the efficiency at the plant is 35 to 40 percent. Factor in the losses as the electricity goes from the plant to your house, and you’re down to about 30 percent efficiency. Gas-fired power plants are better but still only about 50 percent efficient, with the same transmission and distribution losses.
The bigger picture
When you use that electricity in a heat pump, you get about three times as much heat as electrical energy used. That brings the net efficiency back up to the 90 to 100 percent range. And that’s about the same as a high-efficiency furnace. What happened to heat pumps being “more than twice as efficient “?
Now, the electricity that gets delivered to your house doesn’t come only from burning gas or coal. The actual mix of primary energy sources depends on where you are. In the Pacific Northwest, much of the electricity comes from clean hydroelectric plants. Quebec has about the cleanest electricity in North America, with 95 percent being hydroelectric. In Wyoming or Georgia, the electricity isn’t so clean.
Apples and pumpkins
Still, making a direct comparison to say a heat pump is more efficient than a furnace isn’t helpful. To do so, you’re comparing primary energy used on site to secondary energy that comes from other energy conversion processes off site.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely not saying you should avoid heat pumps just because the net efficiency might be no better than a gas furnace. I’m just saying you can’t look only at the rated efficiency of the two types of equipment.
Another big difference is that the rates utilities charge for electricity and gas are different. Even when you have a super efficient heat pump going up against an old, inefficient furnace, the furnace may win on cost. That’s because gas rates in many places are really low.
The good news, though, is electricity keeps getting cleaner as solar and wind grow like mad. So, there are good reasons for going with heat pumps, including that they result in lower carbon emissions than a furnace in almost every state in the US. (More on that topic here.) But choosing a heat pump because it’s more efficient than a furnace generally isn’t one of them.
Allison Bailes of Atlanta, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the founder of Energy Vanguard. He has a PhD in physics and writes the Energy Vanguard Blog. He is also writing a book on building science. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.
The #1 Reason to Have an All-Electric Home
The Electricity Multiplier Effect for Home Energy Efficiency
Heat Pumps, Auxiliary Heat, and Resilience
Photo of power plant by stanze from flickr.com, used under a Creative Commons license.
NOTE: Comments are moderated. Your comment will not appear below until approved.
This Post Has 113 Comments
A great concise explanation. Ground source Geo exchange systems add another energy loss in the ground loop pumps howling away 24/7. However, as you stated – clean renewables like hydro, wind and solar are the game changer. Not only cleaner – but increasingly cheaper as long-term utility power purchase agreements slide down into 1.6 cents per kilowatt pricing vs about 8 cents for coal. Two good reasons we can expect renewables to rise to the top of the power generation pile. The pessimists are wrong – with current advances in battery storage, renewables are the future. The NEAR future. The elimination of fossil fuels from most grids is likely going to happen in the next two decades.
Roy, I agree. We’ve already made great strides in cleaning the electricity from the grid, and that will continue. And that’s why it’s better to go with a heat pump, not because of an apples-to-pumpkins efficiency claim.
You’re making a common mistake, Roy. What matters is the monthly electricity bill paid by consumers, which increases as you add more wind and solar. Why do those bills go up? Wind and solar are essentially fuel reduction devices for fossil fuel plants (connected to them with transmission lines). Consumers pay less for fuel but pay far more for increased overhead, i.e., you have far more power stations (the original fossil fueled ones needed to back up wind and solar, plus solar and wind farms) and far more transmission lines to pay for and maintain.
The hypothesis that because wind and solar power stations charge less, consumer bills will go down, doesn’t pan out when tested in the real world. Germany has the highest rates in all of Europe. California rates are high and climbing. Wind and solar lock us in to using fossil fuels. Affordable storage would fix that but it doesn’t exist and likely never will because of the laws of thermodynamics (energy–money– is lost during storage and retrieval).
“By 2025, Germany will have spent around $US580 billion on the Energiewende… had Germany spent those funds on new nuclear plants instead of renewables, the country would have a 100 percent emissions-free electrical grid, as well as enough clean energy to power its cars and light trucks.”
We are in the early days of the transition. Currently (pun intended), one might well consider renewables as fuel reduction for fuel-fired generation stations, but area by area we are seeing the renewables share overtake the fossil fuel share. Hard to argue against nuclear without bringing up the problem of trying to store millions of tons of the most toxic substances ever produced by man for hundreds of thousands of years while keeping them out of the hands of the bad guys – but I digress. Many logical fallacies in the article you linked to and in your own post. Too many to debate in this type of forum. One biggie is regarding the cost of monthly electricity bills. If the real cost of climate change due to CO2 generation, along with the cost of properly cleaning up decommissioned fossil fuel and nuclear facilities had been taken into account early on, we would have started to develop cleaner alternatives a hundred years ago. There are many, many other reputable sources that suggest I am not the one making a common mistake.
Exactly! I was going to reply along the same lines, but I could not have said it better myself. Unfortunately, people believe whatever they want to believe, including that jets produce intentionally-deadly “chem trails” (rather than contrails), the Earth is flat, NASA is a a giant con, global warming is not real, etc., etc. Hopefully, for those who have not committed their minds to nonsense, replies like yours will help them to recognize false statements when they see them.
Allison: What about gas-fired heat pumps? There are people working on this technology for residential applications using ammonia absorption technology. They are claiming Seasonal COP (SCOP) of 1.4 which would be equivalent to an AFUE of 140%. This would seem to be the most efficient in terms of source energy, at least until we get enough renewable electric energy that is available during those cold winter nights.
Roy, I agree with that analysis. You’re actually comparing primary energy to primary energy, though, and my complaint in this article is people comparing the primary energy in gas used on-site to the secondary energy of electricity used on-site.
I guess that I was just trying to point out that “gas heat” is not limited to 100% efficiency. Gas heat pumps do exist, but they are a lot more expensive and complicated than gas furnaces, even the high efficiency condensing ones. But all of this is moot if we eventually ban the use of fossil fuels.
But there are people working on “green natural gas” and “green hydrogen”. Is that coming up in a future blog?
In my world, when homeowners look at efficiency claims, they’re more interested in how much it costs to operate, not source energy efficiency. The problem is, few homeowners can extrapolate even the most accurate heat pump vs furnace efficiency metrics into dollars saved. (And don’t get me started on energy *savings* claims cited by the marketing gurus.)
The math to make apples-to-apples operating cost comparisons with furnaces would be relatively straight forward if it weren’t for highly unpredictable supplemental heat energy in the case of heat pumps. Still, it’s possible to make thumbnail comparisons for a specific home based on local energy costs (and lots of observational experience).
David, yeah, I mentioned the cost issue in the article, and you’re right. That’s what a lot of people care about, and comparing the operating cost of furnace to that of a heat pump isn’t straightforward.
I have to agree with David. Most homeowners are only concerned about how much they are directly paying each month. The other costs are shared with all of the other homeowners no matter what system they use. The comparison that you are making also is for heat pumps that operate only in heat pump mode, which in Cincinnati is only part of the year.
Matt, I agree. That doesn’t change the fact that when someone says a heat pump has three times the efficiency of a furnace that they’re using an inaccurate comparison.
Such a great article I don’t even mind being one of the dunces!
To take it a step further, what about “line losses” with fossil fuels – leaks along the way, in the natural gas distribution, etc?
Dan, yes, that’s another important point. I don’t think it changes the efficiency argument, but it does bolster the case for heat pumps based on carbon emissions.
Not only leaks, but there is a considerable amount of “natural gas” (methane) that is used to power the very large compressors that line the route from the source to the homes, or the electricity plant that is burning the gas. Many people seem to think that the oil and gas pipelines are magically filled and the fuel transported by unseen and non-energy-using forces. While such distribution losses in the electricity grid were noted in the article, the electricity distribution system is not the only distribution system that has significant losses!
Good article but I struggle to see how this is different than the outdated “why buy an electric car if its powered by a coal plant” argument. Perplexing that you say all this, just to end it with “o ya but they do use much less emissions in almost every state but that doesnt mean theyre more efficient!” like…?? ok? Seems like they are considering the prior statement.
Transitioning to renewables won’t happen over night. We must implement solutions to reduce fossil fuel consumption (in every aspect), while also increasing energy efficiency, storage and renewable generation capacity. Heat pumps + electric resistance is a great option in almost any context.
Are we only allowed to tackle these issues once every coal plant is shutdown? What happens when the grid is primarily powered by renewables and we can more effectively store energy? Is that when we implement energy efficient techology? This transition must happen hand-in-hand and making horse before the cart arguments is only regressive.
A, it’s not the same argument at all. I’m just saying that it’s not true for someone to claim a heat pump is much more efficient than a furnace by comparing a primary energy used on site to a secondary energy used on site. It’s not a valid comparison and making people feel lied to will not help get them on board. There are a lot of good reasons to go with heat pumps. Efficiency based on site energy is not one of them.
What you failed to mention or even consider is some people have solar electric on their roofs. I myself plan to get a solar roof and a high efficiency heat pump in my new house.
I was just having a conversation last night with my friend. He currently has a VERY old oil furnace and straight AC with a coil slapped onto the top of the furnace. AC runs good though and for a frankinstein system the comfort isnt bad. The problem is him spending $500-1000 per year for oil. I told him straight up that a HP would save him money. The problem is when trying to calculate electric strip usage. Another problem I have is how do I calculate Air conditioning costs to Heating costs when using the same system when talking about the system minus the electric strips.
Shae, yeah, he probably can save money by converting. The auxiliary heat issue is a wild card, though, as David Butler mentioned in his comment above. There are ways of minimizing that usage, but you’ve got to have someone who understands equipment to get the right design.
@Shane, electric strips may not cost that much more than oil for heating. It’s easy to calculate:
oil cost per therm = price per gal / 1.38 therms per gal / furnace efficiency
electricity cost per therm = price per kWh x 29.3
In both cases, blower energy adds roughly 10 cents per therm for standard PSC blower as your friend likely has, or about 5 cents per therm for a ECM or variable speed blower. But in the case of a heat pump, blower energy is already factored into the COP so we should add blower energy to oil cost per therm for apples-applies comparison of a heat pump + electric strips. If you were comparing to an electric furnace, then you must add blower energy.
The supplemental fraction may be anywhere from 0 to maybe 40%. One thing folks fail to consider is that the colder the climate, the more heating hours you have above freezing when heat pumps typically need no supplemental heat. I can only narrow that down if I model a house and consider climate, and of course, the capacity of the heat pump vs the heat load. (The supplemental fraction can obviously be reduced by oversizing the heat pump, but this will reduce or eliminate latent capacity in cooling mode).
In general, a tighter more efficient home will have a lower supplemental fraction, assuming the heat pump is properly sized for the cooling load. That’s because cooling loads don’t scale nearly as much as heating loads as you make a house more efficient (because of thermal mass and radiant energy, but that’s a whole other discussion).
A heat pump’s COP depends on outdoor (and indoor) temperature, so the seasonal COP depends on climate zone and t’stat settings, but it’s reasonable to assume a COP of 3 for this type of thumbnail analysis. That means the heat pump will cost 1/3rd the amount you come up with for strip heat. The seasonal cost of a heat pump is simply the weighted average of the heat pump and electric strips, using the supplemental fraction as the weighting factor.
When considering a specific model and size heat pump, it’s possible to refine the seasonal cost per therm with an accurate load model and combine that with weighted COP’s at each TMY temperature bin for the site (requires manufacturer expanded performance data). But it’s a folly to extrapolate the supplement fraction from that analysis. I have my own techniques for narrowing down the expected supplemental fraction once I model a home, but it’s always just a guess.
The good news is that you can quickly come up with a couple of thumbnail estimates based on reasonable assumptions for the supplemental fraction, e.g., 15% and 30%, and in many cases, that’s enough to validate switching to a heat pump, especially if the only alternatives are fuel oil or propane. A lot depends on local energy prices, but I don’t ever recall a situation where it made sense NOT to switch from propane or fuel oil to a heat pump , and most cases, it didn’t make sense to keep the fossil fuel furnace as the “supplemental” heat source (except perhaps to use its blower instead of buying an air handler).
Allison, thank you for this article. Heat pumps are excellent technology, but they are in danger of being over-sold. They are not magic. Given your skill at making complex topics easy to understand, I wonder if you would consider addressing comfort from cold climate air source heat pumps compared to furnaces and boilers. I don’t operate heat pump(s) myself, so I feel unsure about that subject. Often I hear about air source heat pumps not providing adequate comfort during the coldest weather here in New Hampshire, but don’t know if that is due to poor installation of the heat pump(s) or other factors. Certainly the COP declines at cold temperatures, but what about comfort? Thanks again.
Great posts. In my town gas is very cheap and everyone told me to get gas for now and transition to electric when my equipment needs replacing in 15-20 years. However once you factor in the extra efficiency of the heat pump it comes out to almost the same cost. And I’m told that our NG prices are so low they aren’t sustainable.
Fortunately the electricity in our state is ranked high in terms of source energy being clean. So I built a highly efficient house that doesn’t need much heat, and am using heat pumps because I don’t believe it’s all about cost. I believe we all need to transition as soon as possible, certainly every time we add or replace a new heating device.
I also will be generating this power free eventually from solar. So looking just at the current cost of NG vs electricity is short sighted.
Those dammed rivers! Funny. 🙂 Nice analysis – keep up the great work Allison.
Allison, I agree with your analysis from a physics of primary/secondary energy angle (with a bunch of smallish caveats such as gas pipeline operation, distance from power plant, seasonal efficiency fluctuation of power distribution, etc), but if we are after emissions…
While we are in the process of gradually dropping the fossil fuel habit, the argument against a vast network of distributed, hard-to-control burn sites, aka gas furnaces vs. one burn site, aka the power plant, has to continue. Unfortunately.
Paul, we’re in 100% agreement. I’ll have a followup article on the emissions side of the equation soon.
I really look forward to that one! It is interesting how there are two major factors that have come up over and over again in this particular discussion. The majority of folks point out (correctly) that it is all about cost for most consumers – then there are those of us who are most concerned with reducing GHG emissions – BUT – they are two sides of the same coin. The world is starting to feel the bite of climate change, and the costs are going to be breathtaking. If consumers had been, or were now, required to pay up-front for the future costs of mitigation, the factors shift dramatically. Unfortunately we really don’t have accurate models to calculate the future cost and assign them to GHG producers, and it is doubtful that we will be able to do so (or find a fair way to apply them even if we do develop them). Maybe cutting out subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuel producers would be the first step?
Allison, looking forward to the emissions side article.
;My’ Mitsubishi installer, installs the outside, part – of the heat pump – as in the picture – close to the wall. I wished that this was installed at least a foot away from the wall and with a deflector, for snow from a steel roof – or install it on a gable end.
As usual, gratitude for a great article & education, Allison! & I always learn lots from commenters–thanks to you all also! Re ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison, I agree with several other commenters: if 1 is considering ‘energy/efficiency losses’ for electricity on the way to the house for electric heat pumps, then shouldn’t we also consider equivalent transmission losses for gas to arrive at a house [power to achieve pipeline pressurization; pump stations along the pipeline; periodic ‘releases’ of gas due to pipe leaks & pressure equalization releases of gas, etc]? Or am I brain-fogged about that? As a mid-Atlantic 30 yr heat pump user, I agree with commenters re the ’emergency’ electric heater elements factor. Historically we haven’t had to use that heater element very often. But as climate change has brought great variability & fluctuation to our local weather, during cold weather last yr & now already this yr, there are an increased # of nights when the electric heater elements kick in to maintain our heat setting at 69 or 70 in our 1960s still somewhat ‘leaky’ house.
Building in the Raleigh NC area I have many of customers that refuse to use a heat pump for 2 reasons; 1. Once outside temps hit freezing heat pumps struggle to maintain warmth, 2. Most of our northern transplants have not heard of them or do not know of anyone who uses one up north, so obviously they can’t be good. I know technology will continue to improve, as will all home heat sources will improve. As for the statements above are an aggregate of opinions and discussions I’ve had will locals and transplants alike.
From everything I hear they only struggle if you have a pretty leaky house, which admittedly there are a lot of. But some of that feeling might be based on old technology. People are using them effectively even up here in CZ 6 (cold). Even though the COP is lower when you approach 0 and below, we don’t spend much time below 10. Most of the time where I am it is 15-35 in winter, and 6+ months a year is shoulder season where it’s in the 50’s, either all day or just at night. At those temps the COP’s are pretty good.
Marc, as Cindi said, heat pumps can perform poorly in houses with bad building enclosures. But that’s not the only reason. They also perform poorly when the wrong type of system is installed, or if it’s the wrong the size. Very good cold climate heat pumps exist now that can heat homes very well. I like to say that a BTU is a BTU, no matter if it comes from a furnace, a heat pump, or a blow dryer. To keep the house warm enough in winter, you just have to supply enough of those BTUs.
Here’s an article you can refer doubters to:
Can a Heat Pump Work in Minnesota?
Gary Nelson heats his house in Minneapolis with a heat pump…and no auxiliary heat!
I relocated from SW Colorado to Northern Arizona last year and cooling is more of an issue. I am considering adding mini splits for heating and cooling and moving away from evaporative cooling and transitioning from electrical central air and gas furnace. How does air conditioning factor in with this option? I have been told cost compares with ‘swamp coolers’ / evaporated air. I am in the Verde Valley on the river so it is more humid than the close by desert.
Great discussions as always, have been following for awhile, thanks everyone!!!
@Tim, swamp coolers are thought to cost less than AC during the dry months when they work well, but as I’m sure you know, they don’t work well during the Jul-Aug monsoon season, so any operating cost comparison won’t be apples-to-apples. OTOH, it sound like you already have central AC? If so, mini-splits will likely cost less to operate (unless existing AC is variable speed). As for heating, if the existing furnace is propane, mini-splits will save at least 50% on heating costs (a LOT more, given current propane prices).
Tim, air conditioning uses significantly more energy than evaporative cooling but has some significant advantages. As David Butler mentioned, swamp coolers aren’t a year-round solution for cooling. In addition, they require a lot of maintenance. And if you’re ducting the cool, humid air, it can grow mold in the ducts and rust them out. Here’s a photo a contractor friend of mine in Arizona sent showing what can happen:
Allison and others,
I appreciate all the recommendations and conversations!
A bit more info:
There is an aging central air unit not worth putting more dollars into but it gets by. That and the natural gas furnace could be replaced by a ducted heat pump system.
The existing ductwork was not optimized when a porch was enclosed and ceiling vaulted so it is under heated or cooled depending on season. That is where a dual head mini split would be added.
Allison, I have been following your website and this blog since we met at a session during the Passive House conference in Denver some years back. I believe may have had some beers later.
I have designed high performance homes ( LEED Platinum, Net Zero, non certified PassiveHaus and others) for many years and rely on these and other similar conversations to increase consciousness of these issues for myself, clients, contracters and building officials. Keep up the awesome work everyone, increasing the knowledge of importance of well designed and installed HVAC systems and importance for the dwelling we all occupy. Thank you all!
One more consideration for the ‘overall cost’ argument: while gas might be cheap, the providers are adding increasingly higher fixed monthly costs (esp. in Texas to ‘recover’ from the 2021 storm), resulting in ridiculous bills where the monthly bill will not be less than $30 regardless of gas usage. Electricity providers have done similar things but not to the same outrageous (imo) extent.
Otoh I couldn’t help but notice people in Texas trying to heat their homes with gas stoves
Does this factor in the emmissions from generating the primary source – aka, producing and transporting that coal/gas/oil? Seems a bit unfair if not, especially given the losses accounted for on the electricity grid in the article. Presumably piped residential gas is lossy and oil delivery is usually a giant diesel truck…
Dan, I’m just dispelling a misconception in this article. Yes, the emissions are absolutely important to seeing the bigger picture. Here’s what I wrote at the end of the article:
“The good news, though, is electricity keeps getting cleaner as solar and wind grow like mad. So, there are good reasons for going with heat pumps, including that they result in lower carbon emissions than a furnace in almost every state in the US. (More on that topic soon.)”
I’ll cover the emissions side, which includes leaks from gas pipelines, in a separate article.
While we should strive for the cleanest energy possible, we also must be practical, so we do not create a situation where we do not have enough affordable energy to handle the required usage of energy. Wind and solar energy is currently a lot more costly than are fossil fuel energy sources, most of the cost is being absorbed through government subsidies using tax dollars. That additional cost is paid for by all taxpayers, regardless of how much clean energy we may use. If we reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy being produced at a higher rate than we are able to produce more clean energy, we are not going to be able to meet the demand for energy usage. This is already being seen in areas of the world that are having to reduce the amount of EV’s added to the electric grid in order to have enough energy to provide more base needs for heating, cooling, cooking etc. We can’t just turn off one source of energy when we don’t have the capability to replace that energy with at least a like amount of cleaner energy. A slower transition to a cleaner energy source will prevent massive issues from occurring. There are cost, availability and environmental issues for every type of energy source available. All factors for all types of energy sources need to be fully addressed before making any drastic changes that may well turn out to be worse than what we are currently dealing with.
For the reasons mentioned, if a fairly new fossil fuel heating system is already in place, I usually recommend installing a heat pump for the primary heat source, using the fossil fuel system for auxiliary heating due to the fact that using electric resistance heating for auxiliary heating will be more costly to operate while putting a lot more stress on the electric grid. We need to be sensible and rational about how we utilize energy sources so we don’t end up not having enough energy to satisfy the needs of everyone.
Robin, the arguments you list are urban legends. Solar PV energy generation cost is already one of the lowest, if not the lowest. I encourage you to page through this report: https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf
And decades of subsidies for fossil fuel industries?
Two states with combined population of 60 million, CA and NY, will ban sales of ICE cars by 2035. Apparently, their respective utility commissions are not panicking about it.
Thanks for posting that link Paul – good myth-busting. There is SOOO much misinformation flying around about renewables – much of it developed and forwarded by the heavily subsidized fossil- fuel industry. They are not our friends.
I hope you guys are correct in what you choose to believe. We’ve been stung too many times by those who simply want to wipe out the oil, coal and gas industries. Time will tell.
Have you looked into this? https://wattsupwiththat.com/2021/06/25/the-real-cost-of-wind-and-solar/
Robin, you link to an article by Willis Eshenbach, a pseudo-scientist employed at South Pacific Oil ltd. A known global warming denier. Try again, please.
Another thing that few think about is that with a heat pump that noisy annoying thing outside. Yes the compressor and it’s fan run when you want heat. Here in Crematoria(Texas) we have to listen to those things run for hours and hours and hours all 9 months of summer. The last thing we want is for it to keep running in the winter time and Oh yeah it makes way more noise in the winter when it goes into defrost etc.
I know of many people that will go back to resistance heat when their system needs replacement. My parents in fact did that a few months ago. That little bit of time in the winter without having to listen to a compressor are well worth the slightly higher cost of operation. Seems no one is thinking about the livability of heat pumps. And also since our AC units run so many hours here the last thing we want is for that compressor to be running more hours in the winter shortening it’s life that much more when there are other heat choices.
There is more to the equation than cost of operation. There is the human impact of the system, reliability, ease and price of repair and cost of the system when new and for replacement time.
Then there is also the 20-25% power transmission losses that isn’t part of anyone’s equations to weather heat pumps are truly more efficient. Now if you have your own solar panels or another situation then it’s a no brainer.
Robert, there are my uncle’s heat pumps, and then there are more recent heat pumps. About the noise, here is a short video I recorded of one we installed recently:
In the video, I mistakenly called it a 1.5 ton. It was a 1-ton, for a 1300sqft finished basement.
That’s a minisplit which is a different animal to a standard heat pump. Typical heat pumps for houses are basically a standard AC condenser with reversing valves and a heater on the compressor and the coils to defrost them. They are noisy in the summer and worse in the winter. They go into defrost every stinking cycle which is very noisy on top of the regular compressor running noise.
I like Minisplits and there are now units coming out that can be used in place of a regular AC condenser which is awesome as they are far more efficient and far quieter than the crap we have been manufacturing here in the US for many decades with very little improvement over that time.
Also Heat pumps are not new they have been using them here in TX since the 80s and they were so badly engineered for so long that their performance was abysmal up until very recently that most people don’t want them because of the experience of them being so bad for so long. The industry has allot of work ahead of them to gain the trust of consumers that have dealt with very poor products in the past that promised to be more than they were so it’s the boy who cried wolf and no one is believing them this time.
It’s not just that the units themselves were bad, but more importantly that people didn’t know how to install and size them right. They just don’t work well in leaky houses which most houses are. You have to oversize them too much and then they cycle constantly.
A Btu of heat is the same regardless of how it is produced or moved. If oversizing a heat pump causes short cycling, that heat pump would be more effective properly sized. Since heat pumps have lower temperature rises than fossil fuel heat systems, the air is moving more with heat pumps. This allows for a more even distribution of heat, even in a drafty home. Before sizing any type of heating system, air infiltration and exfiltration should be addressed. It is a lot less costly to prevent air infiltration and exfiltration while controlling proper ventilation than it is to just add more heat to counter the effects of a drafty house.
Once air movement into and out of the house has been addressed and ventilation is controlled, the proper amount of heat should be installed, regardless of the source of that heat. We should never shy away from heat pumps based on the amount of heat required. Heat pumps do have different distribution needs to prevent them from creating drafty conditions within the heating system. In general, we want the least amount of distance from where a heat pump system supplies heated air to an area and where that air is allowed to return to the blower.
I do like the relative quietness of the mini-splits, but we’ve been using heat pumps at all of our houses since the 1980s. In fact, the Trane 3-ton unit that we installed in suburban Philadelphia in the late 1980s for our 3500 sq ft house was still in use by the new owners almost until their recent resale of the house. You know their motto, “It takes a lot to stop a Trane.” While all of the Carrier units we’ve used since then have been noisier than modern mini-splits and don’t work as well at very cold temperatures as those newer designs, including the one we’ve had here for almost 10 years, they’ve worked well enough and quiet enough that we’ve been comfortable keeping them. When our neighbor recently installed a gas-fired backup generator, we discovered what a lot of noise is, when they tested it: it sounded like the truck from a full-sized tractor-trailer had pulled up next to our house and revved the engine for the full time it was on. It was noisy on the far side of our house, 100 feet away…inside the house! The heat pump is silent, in comparison.
Robert, it is a heat pump. The unit in the video example was coupled with a ducted AH indoor unit. Oh, and you should hear the AH, except you almost couldn’t standing right next to it.
You are very correct about “the crap we have been manufacturing here in the US for many decades”. For some industries in this country, if they could keep producing Ford Model T for half a century, they would.
Heat pump technology has come a long way since they became popular in the 1980s. Properly sized, applied and installed, heat pump systems can be a wonderful heating and cooling source. I only install conventional heat pump systems that utilize a variable speed indoor blower. For my area, which is humid but not constantly hot, the VS blower can be set up for really good dehumidification while providing conditioned air at lower, quieter speeds.
When I moved to SE Arizona in 2006, I lived in a cookie cutter neighborhood with 1/4 acre lots and couldn’t hear my neighbors’ air conditioners from inside the house (perhaps because our windows were double pane… are yours?). The exception: when we opened the bedroom window at night in spring and fall, our immediate neighbor’s AC was audible. But I certainly wouldn’t have considered admonishing him for running his AC when it’s cool at night.
I realize your comment wasn’t about air conditioners but isn’t it the same thing when you argue that people shouldn’t buy heat pumps because you don’t like the noise?!
As for the other considerations you mentioned… A heat pump actually costs significantly less up front than the equivalent A/C + furnace. Repair costs could go either way. A friend recently paid more than the wholesale cost of the furnace to replace his recently-out-of-warranty heat exchanger. As for A/C vs heat pump longevity: compressors are much more affected by cycle count than run time and in any case, anecdotal evidence suggests heat pump failures are more likely to occur when outdoor unit is stressed by summer heat than in winter. Today’s variable speed compressors have much longer runs times and thus far fewer on/off cycles than Paul’s uncle’s heat pump (or your air conditioner). Moreover, variable speed compressors and fans have virtually no inrush current, the primary stressor of motors, and as Paul demonstrated, the compressors and fans are much quieter.
Bottom line, your argument against heat pumps (btw, this is the first time I’ve heard this) holds no water in the general case. You might get more traction if you were advocating for for ground source heat pumps, which have no outdoor unit. In any case, you’re free to spend 3x for straight electric heat.
For the non-variable-speed heat pumps (and air conditioners), the inrush current (and thus a significant part of the noise) can be successfully controlled by using a “soft start” device. These are the opposite of a “hard start” device or kit that some installers may recommend and/or install, because they greatly reduce that initial inrush current rather than adding more inrush current from the additional capacitor in the hard start kit. The soft starters also reduce the impact on the compressor motor and thus improve the longevity of the system, while removing these multi-kilowatt spikes from the grid demand and the noise from the environment.
“Then there is also the 20-25% power transmission losses that isn’t part of anyone’s equations to weather heat pumps are truly more efficient.”
Did ya read the article?
I read an article in bloomberg I found helpful. It explains that converting gas (and especially oil) to electricity or kitchen power is far less efficient than converting then to heat. In fact, most of the process is waste heat (two thirds for gas, 80 percent for oil). This is fundamentally why it makes sense to convert motive power to electricity (the grid is better than 20 percent efficient) but also why focus on home gas usage is misplaced (versus insulation). Moreover, do heat pumps not vary in efficiency? It is this variability that is often the basis for hybrid systems (which essentially let you play the market for home heating). The colderit gets the more energy they need for the obvious reason that there is less heat to be moved indoors? Fwiw we have both a gas boiler and a heat pump, the latter of which we primarily use for air conditioning and shoulder season heating.
I’m an HVAC contractor that installs HP’s, gas, propane, oil and geothermal so I’m agnostic about the appliance. They all have a place and all have weaknesses and strengths. This push towards “electrification” is going to become interesting for those of you in very cold or very hot climates. I hear talk about 100% renewables (solar/wind) in 10 years, 20 years and batteries are wonderful, ect. What happens when the sun doesn’t shine for days on end and the wind doesn’t blow like is happening in northern Europe now? Why is Great Britain buying nuclear generated power from France now? What happens when batteries are cold? Do wind turbines spin when there are storms? How much earth is disturbed when you start scaling battery production? What do you do with old lithium batteries? Where is the plan to dramatically increase the strength of the electrical grid as we rush to close nuclear and coal power plants? What is power grid inertia and can renewables provide it? Who/when/where is/are building the monumental amount of transmission lines that renewables at scale will require? Where is THE PLAN for all this? We build homes with plans, where is THE PLAN to “electrify” the US and maintain our current lifestyles? Can you operate your HP and strip heat on a gasoline generator? You better find out before the brown/blackouts occur. Meanwhile I will be sitting in my 1st stage HP heated home with oil/propane 2nd stage and backup generator, nice and cozy. Nothing as secure as fuel on site. There is an solution to electrification that is scalable and safe and
can handle all our needs and its called nuclear. But I’m just an HVAC guy.
Nuclear is “safe,” you say. One of the actual problems is one that lasts for thousands of years: disposal. Disposal of the “spent” fuel rods (which actually still have a lot of radioactivity in them), of the reactor itself, and even the enclosures that are necessary to contain the radioactivity in order to keep it out of the general environment and the people who work at the plant. All of these structures become radioactive because of the nuclear reactions that are the source of the energy produced by the plant. Such plants are almost always built a long distance away from population centers, for safety reasons, and thus has increased transmission losses (and costs). And don’t forget the huge amount of water that is needed for cooling, and the (negative) impact of said heated water on the environment into which that heated water is discharged.
Getting back to disposal, consider the fact that the US has never implemented any plan to manage the radioactive waste. A repository was designated in 1987 and infrastructure was built (Yucca Mountain) but it remains unused. For decades. So the radioactive waste resides at every plant site, since it cannot be transported to the repository.
Also look at the actual costs, not the costs claimed by utilities which want to build a nuclear plant, such as Southern Power, the parent of Georgia Power. Their latest two nuclear plants (Vogtle) are many years behind schedule (supposed to be operational in 2016, and now, maybe, in 2022 or 2023, after failing to be done at the previous “definite” times, which roughly move one year every year, along with the rising costs), and real costs have ended up about double the “absolutely certain” costs originally claimed when they got the public utilities commission to allow them to charge customers for the construction costs long before even a single watt would be produced (which has turned out to be even longer!). The roughly $25 Billion cost will be doubled again when the true, full decommissioning costs are added, and the decommissioning will probably take as long as it took to build. And then, what to do with all of that radioactive construction material?
I’d hardly call any of that scenario a description of a “safe” energy source.
I have real trouble with statements like: “The good news, though, is electricity keeps getting cleaner as solar and wind grow like mad.” You are just trading one problem for another. The visual, sight, landscape, and physical pollution from all the “madness” (madness -as a psychological term) of wind and solar, is something we will be cleaning up 50 to 100 years from now. There are better, cleaner options, and the sooner we can get them mainstreamed the sooner the madness stops.
I think other than that you are spot on with this article.
I guess the mercury being pumped into the air by coal plants is okay then because it’s out of your sight and impacting someone besides you.
I personally find solar panels and wind farms beautiful.
Better – cleaner options. Do tell. I am genuinely interested – please elaborate.
Look at Finland and also read the post just above mine, again.
Sue, you might want to go back and read my original post, it said nothing about supporting coal.
I was comparing the pollution of solar and wind to the offensiveness of coal. One pollutes the air, and the other pollutes the land, kills the avifauna, and destroys the visual landscapes. Trading something Bad for something Terrible isn’t progress, it is just kicking the can down the road. Especially when there are far cleaner, safer, less obscenely obtrusive options.
As a side note- people use to think the coal smokestacks were beautiful (and a sign of progress). Not my cup of tea.
Tad Englund, of course there is always something better, but we are all anxiously anticipating your telling us what those alternatives are that you favor, and why.
Look at Finland and also read the post just above mine, again. Paul, one could write many books explaining why.
Great blog post. I was just talking to a friend this week who wants to ban natural gas. I pointed out how my city of Bellingham, WA has been moving towards banning natural gas but we have a natural gas plant here in our city.
Also according to Puget Sound Energy’s website while they have a very clean fuel mix Coal is actually the biggest energy source in the fuel mix. So we ban natural gas appliances and yet plug in to a grid that is coal/ng powered. Makes no sense to me.
Anyways I digress. Allison would you care to write one day on heat pumps for heating in colder areas. Im an hvac installer and mostly do new construction custom homes and gas furnace change outs and today was the first day I did a change out on a furnace with a heat pump. When I got it going I was shocked at how not warm the “heat” was. My boss said it was because it was 44 degrees out and heat pumps just dont perform well in our cooler climate. I will admit I am very ignorant on this topic.
Also want to say how much I appreciate your website. It has made me a much better HVAC installer and I will never look at flex the same way.
Kurt, skipping to the heat pump discussion, let me say first that a BTU is a BTU. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from a furnace, a heat pump, or the heating element in the oven. If you size a heat pump correctly and account for its changes in performance as the outdoor temperature changes, there’s no problem with using a heat pump in a cold climate. (Bellingham, of course, isn’t a cold climate, but you know what I mean.) Your boss seems not to understand heat pumps either because they actually can perform very well where you are. And 44 degree air has a lot of heat in it!
I’ll write more about heat pumps soon, but here’s an article you can read about a heat pump in Minneapolis:
Can a Heat Pump Work in Minnesota?
Ah! Perfect explanation. I wonder if maybe the old heat pump was undersized or not performing well for some other reason. We did not install the old heat pump just changed the furnace out. Thanks again for all the info on here!
What you are seeing Kurt is the difference in heat rise for two types of appliances rather than a difference in BTUS. Basically the difference between heat transfer surface area vs. surface temperature vs. airflow volume / velocity. It is a natural reaction when people feel the higher temperature of supply air from a gas or oil furnace for them to assume there is more heat – and there could be if the previous appliance was over-sized (which they almost always are). Slower recovery from night setback often has people blaming the new right-sized heat pump.
@Kurt, as noted by Allison and Ray, heat pump supply air isn’t as warm as a furnace, but that’s a good thing in modern construction — the more efficient the house, the lower the supply air needs to be. For example, the supply air in my own home drops into the mid-80’s when it’s in the 20’s outside, but a 15F delta is more than enough to maintain the house at 70F. Supplemental heat doesn’t kick in until it drops into the teens.
The 130F to 140F supply air typical in a furnace actually CREATES comfort issues in a tight, well insulated home (just as a radiant slab can create comfort issues in a modern home if the supply water is warm enough to deliver the ‘warm toes’ promise). In 21st century homes, if supply air “feels” nice and warm by 20th century standards, then the heating appliance is too large and will short cycle. The large contrast between hot supply air and “room temperature” air off-cycle, combined with short cycling, is what causes comfort issues. By the same token, older, leaky homes are poor candidates for heat pumps as primary heat source, but it’s a relatively inexpensive upgrade when the A/C needs replacement (i.e., dual-fuel heat).
You can raise the supply air temp by reducing the blower speed (my system does this automatically), but the key to avoiding comfort complaints with heat pumps is strategic placement of supply diffusers (or use directional grilles) to ensure supply air doesn’t blow directly on seating or standing areas, or beds. Also, consumer education is vital. You don’t want to install a heat pump in a home if the owner is dead set against it. But I find most people open to learning more about heat pumps. Unfortunately, people like your boss are hampering adoption.
I still occasionally specify furnaces in new construction in cold-climate states with high electric rates when the site has access to inexpensive natural gas. But as every mechanical designer knows, in order to get sufficient cooling airflow, you end up with a furnace that’s way too large for the load. As I noted in an earlier comment, heat loads scale much faster than cooling loads as we beef up R-values and tighten the enclosure, and furnace manufacturers haven’t adjusted their products accordingly.
“So we ban natural gas appliances and yet plug in to a grid that is coal/ng powered. Makes no sense to me”
Putting the cart before the horse
“So we ban natural gas appliances and yet plug in to a grid that is coal/ng powered. Makes no sense to me.”
You are right, except… I’m sure they want to ban “new” NG appliances, but the existing ones will still be around for 20 years. Requiring new equipment be electric is a good way to slowly phase out NG and phase in electric in a way that isn’t super disruptive. It also sets homes up to easily cover their heating loads with rooftop solar.
Also electricity has been improving faster than many realize. I was told by all the ME’s and builders in town that our electricity wasn’t “clean”, but in fact we rank #2 or 3 in the nation for clean power generation. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a long way to go. But many people just aren’t aware how generation is moving to cleaner sources since it’s actually cheaper to generate power from solar and wind farms now than fossil fuels. They’re saying their new solar farm they can generate at 2.2c/kwh.
I think the opposite is true, people underestimate how difficult the transition will be. Solar and wind are unreliable so they require backup generation. Most countries that are ahead of us pay significantly more for power. Grids require reliable power to work. Texas could improve its gas and nuclear powers ability to operate in extreme cold but they couldn’t force the wind to blow or the sun to shine. If people electrify their transportation, which offers more benefit than home heating electrification, we will need to generate more electricity over all. As for gas bans, what happens to the gas grid when only older homes and fewer of them have gas? Who pays to keep it up? Who Is going to invest in something that is banned? It’s going to happen faster than you think and cost more than you think, imo. Meanwhile technologies are changing from everything to paint to insulation that will help reduce consumption. Personally I have both a heat pump and a boiler, both are better than forced air imo. Over time I hope to convert the boiler to a hybrid but for the time being the heat pump on the third floor is enough to cool the whole house on all but the hottest days.
Here’s the thing.
We await your responses – these are all good questions – don’t expect others to answer them for you.
The best approach to getting answers to the questions you have just asked – is to do the research and answer them yourself.
Let us know what you have found out 😎
I agree that banning new NG hook-ups, while purported to be long sighted, is actually short sighted for exact the reason city by Andre — remaining gas customers in those communities will be charged higher and higher distribution charges as the customer base shrinks. A political time bomb.
OTOH, I’m far less concerned about electric grid reliability as generation shifts more toward solar and wind. Those changes are happening on the supply side (i.e., no one is banning new electrical hookups), so those who manage and finance supply side solutions will sort it out based on marketplace forces.
As coal generation subsides (mostly due to marketplace forces than political interference), fast spin-up natural gas generation plants provide grid stability and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. No one is proposing a ban on gas peaker plants. Battery technology and economics will eventually catch up and complete with gas. OTOH, I believe nuclear base load generation will (eventually) stage a comeback, relegating coal to the history books.
Natural gas, while a fossil fuel, is among the least impactful in terms CO2. But it needs a LOT more regulation in terms of methane release. That where attention needs to be focused, not on banning new gas hookups!
The problem with banning gas usage is that it’s actually a lot more efficient to generate heat at home than to import electricity into your house, rule of thumb is by a factor of three. The main advantage of natural gas is the natural part, it’s unrefinedaking its overall impact lower. The distribution network could be tightened up (and as far as I know that’s already happening and has been for several years, fortunately by volume leaks are fairly concentrated) but in the end, gas loses two thirds to heat when it’s converted to electricity, then there’s line losses. Gas at home otoh can be up to 97 percent efficient. I recognize climate plays a big role and also recognize that a passive house is fairly different from an old home which itself will drive changes without an outright ban.
Btw, I also agree nuclear will play a larger role. It is more reliable than renewables (generating the same amount of electricity year round) and can generate huge amounts of power. If we’re lucky, there will be a fusion breakthrough and all this talk will seem quaint.
Andre, I think you missed an important point. Heating with a gas furnace and with a heat pump uses roughly the same amount of energy. Yes, gas is three times as efficient as heating with electric resistance heat, but that’s not true for heat pumps. A coefficient of performance of 3 makes them roughly equal.
Ah yes – nuclear – the source of the most toxic materials mankind has ever produced. No one has ever figured out how to neutralize and / or process the volumes of nuclear waste being pumped out by the current generating stations and so we will need to protect and guard this stuff in safe locations for over 100,000 years (no human government has ever lasted 1,000 years).
The original post and it’s simple point have wandered far and wide – but that is great – this stuff does need to be talked about.
I think the goal of the ban is really to stop people from choosing to cook with gas because once they have a gas hookup then they have choices and choices isn’t the goal.
Yes. The goal of the ban is to phase out NatGas as a cooking appliance because it is extremely inefficient compared to something like induction. Unfortunately, induction is, 3x or more, expensive* and nowhere near are reliable as NatGas.
*Please no remarks about how someone is getting by with two stand alone induction plates. That’s not normal.
JC: Induction is only expensive because of marketing. It’s not in other countries. When they brought it to the US they decided to market it as a high end technology and thus the cost. If everyone had them they would not be expensive.
Plus there are newer studies about how unhealthy cooking is for IAQ and health. Part of that is the cooking of the food itself, but gas makes it even worse.
“Yes. The goal of the ban is to phase out NatGas as a cooking appliance because it is extremely inefficient compared to something like induction”
Once you account for losses in transmission and generation the savings become much smaller. The same way when accounting for demolition and construction of a house provides few real benefits even if the new house uses less energy, the energy consumed in replacing the old one will take a long time to make up.
Alison I did see that and where you qualified that this applies to where Temps are generally above 40 degrees since heat pumps do get less efficient as Temps drop (which is problematic in a cold snap). I still don’t support an outright ban, cooking with gas isn’t the problem. I’m also a huge proponent of redundancy. I watched a show on German heating and this one household had three types of heat, two of which were subsidized by various energy efficiency programs. They kept the old ones so they had a choice of wood pellets, gas, and I think oil (not positive what the third one was). The household then chose whatever heating made the most sense based on market prices. A dual fuel household would have that same advantage.
(Of course, only nuclear France ever achieved any modicum of energy independence, Germany is still quite dependent on Russian gas)
Andre, yes, Germany is an energy hog and a strange case (just opened a 1GW coal-fired plant, apparently replacing its remaining older sister plants),
yet their current 40% of power generation from renewables vs. our 14% (https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/report/electricity.php) is something to aspire to, not to mention their goal of 65% by 2030. Strange, because Germany also plans to put all coal-fired generation offline by 2038.
And that example you cited about a household with 3 CO2 generating sources of heat in one household maybe is an early warning on how Germany will cheat in 2030: yeah, we generate 65% of our electrical energy from renewables, but don’t ask us how we heat our homes! (OK, I am just having some fun on a balmy Sunday morning in GA in November, at 53F.)
Paul, Germany is way ahead in some ways. They pay far more for power and renewables have been driving up the cost of power, especially once you start to get to more than a third of generating capacity. Getting rid of coal and nuclear has made them more reliant on Russian gas (not something to aspire to). The world contains lessons if we are willing to listen.
David- are you saying heat pumps are not less efficient in cold weather?
As for nukes, I dont see the us being dependent on winds blowing if there is a breakthrough in fusion. You might as well start making out your checks to Xi. Nuclear has already seen many advances technically even if people’s views of it haven’t changed much since 1978. Imo.
They are less efficient in cold weather, but still pretty good until you get well below 0. https://ashp.neep.org/#!/product/51517 This site publishes COP’s at various temps. This is the Daikin unit I’m getting and you can see the COP at 5F is still 2.15-2.44, but it goes up to 3.73-4.5 at 47F.
> are you saying heat pumps are not less efficient in cold weather?
Not at all. The 3 (COP) that’s been mentioned in this discussion is a reasonable estimate of average or seasonal efficiency. The COP does indeed drop with temperature, as I clearly noted in my comment.
Note that these numbers don’t include strip heat, which by definition has an efficiency of 1.0. In case you (or others) are interested, here’s some heat pump math:
If we determine that the supplemental fraction in a given home is 15% and the heat pump’s seasonal efficiency is, say, 3.2, then the seasonal efficiency of the combined system would be the weighted average, or about 2.9 COP ( 0.15 x 1.0 + .85 x 3.2). You can refine this for a particular climate by weighting the COP at each temperature “BIN” by the number of hours (extracted from a location’s TMY data). However, the supplemental fraction can only be determined through monitoring. In my experience, homes built to today’s energy codes that are well sealed, located in a moderate climate (CZ3 & CZ4) will typically have a supplemental fraction of less that 10%, assuming the heat pump is sized to not exceed the cooling load by more than 25%. In dry climates where latent capacity in cooling mode is not a concern, you can further reduce the supplemental fraction by adding another half ton.
@Andre, I’m not sure what comment of Allison’s you’re referring to, but 3 COP is a reasonable proxy for a heat pump’s SEASONAL efficiency. A mid-efficiency 2-ton heat pump (single stage with ECM blower) typically has a SEER (cooling) rating of 16 and an average (seasonal) COP greater than 3, depending on climate. Here’s an example:
Amana ASZ160241L heat pump + ASPT29B14A air handler
47F – 4.0 COP
30F – 3.0 COP
5F – 2.0 COP
ref: page 18 in ASZ16 technical guide
David, here in philly installers have taken to recommending hybrid systems that switch around 40 degrees which makes sense based on the data you posted. Assuming real world performance is slightly worse and dividing cop by 3, the switchover would occur in the 30s. By the time it’s five degrees a regular boiler would be more efficient, especially a modcon boiler.
In NYC , Mass, and Vermont, a lot of heating is now hybrid with something like the flair puck pro combining DHPs and boilers for the best of both worlds.
In agreement with David that today any politician proposing killing NG appliances might as well retire that same day. We also know that buildings are just one part of the reductions in CO2 emissions we all (hopefully) seek. Besides buildings, there is transportation, and agriculture (methane), and every sector and every individual that directly or indirectly contributes by causing the reliance on how the other sectors behave. Methane emissions from gas and oil wells, for example, would be reduced with reduced demand for those fuels.
On NG CO2 emissions, I disagree that we can label it not significant and focus on just methane. https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=73&t=11
says that NG releases roughly half of CO2 when burned compared to the worst type of coal (anthracite), and 71% of diesel.
On comfort and furnaces (high supply air temp), this dance has been performed for decades, if not centuries in buildings. Thermal comfort of a person sitting on a chair in the middle of the room in heating season largely depends on the radiant factor, unless the drafts perceived by the sitting person are “true” drafts (in which case the house is beyond leaky).
A “solution” to those convective drafts has been the “nice and cozy” high supply air temp generated by furnaces. Don’t have a reliable source for this, but my guess is that majority of builders and HVAC installers are still participating in this dance, i.e. build the house as well as possible/cheap/fast/fill-in-your-goal and fix its shortcomings with supply air/water temperature.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I like HP’s as primary heat in my cold (MA&NH) homes, but they are backed up with oil and propane respectively if the need arises. One thing not mentioned is commissioning of said HP’s. As a 35 year HVAC guy, I will be the first to say that the skill level of the average HVAC tech is shockingly poor and probably not going to get a lot better unless more people enter the trades and quality training backs them up. Electrification is about to hit MA this winter and the utility push to offer huge rebates (up to $10K!) to replace fuel appliances and install HP’s has insulation contractors rushing to jump on the HP gravy train. More novice HP installers… what could go wrong? The weakness of relying upon a HP with 0 back up heat (electric strip, gas, oil) is the high possibility that the HP is not going to reach the rated capacities and efficiency because it is not charged or installed properly. Maintenance, refrigerant leaks, and the fact that any major repair needed in severe weather is very difficult to perform since 1/2 of the system is located outdoors and EXTREMALLY complicated (tech will likely need to call factory tech support). Will a HP heat well below 0 degrees…you bet it will in the lab, but the real world is a very different place. BTW, wind/solar is much more expensive per kwh WITHOUT subsidies, your electric rates will continue to climb and the poor will take the hit as usual. Lastly, research how much child/slave labor goes into sourcing raw materials for solar panel and battery manufacture, Tesla’s will look less cool I bet. The world is much more complicated, so let’s not destroy the earth (and our standard of living) in a haphazard quest to save it.
Rich, regarding electric rates and renewables, these yesteryear “opinions” need some updating. Today, the levelized cost of energy ( look it up) is lowest for solar, followed by wind, followed by NG, geothermal, and coal, in that order. The most expensive is peaker gas.
Regarding forced labor in PV production, main culprit was responsible for 1.8% in recent solar imports (2 1/2 years worth of: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/business/economy/china-forced-labor-solar.html) and is being dealt with (https://www.cbp.gov/trade/programs-administration/forced-labor/hoshine-silicon-industry-co-ltd-withhold-release-order-frequently-asked-questions). Will there be more bad apples? Sure.
I’m all for electrification. I do think we have some massive investments to make in the actual grid. Both the age and capacity are going to be very expensive and complicated problems. Especially as we shift both transportation and climate control to full electric.
I like clean energy, but there’s no such animal at this time. All have some environmental costs.
Solar panels have sort of an expiration date and they can be destroyed by hail and other natural events. There’s a ton of them that will be heading for landfills. Not to mention the manufacturing and mining of raw materials.
Wind requires LOTS of regular mechanical maintenance including parts replacement and petroleum grease. They pose a large direct environmental impact due to their footprint and they kill migratory birds.
Real fusion power is a pipedream in its’ current state. Once the experimental phase is seen through AND if it really works, only then can we set a real timeline. If I had to guess, at minimum it’s probably another 50+ years out before it even has a chance to be part of the electric generation mix.
Fission, however, is not dead yet, and it shouldn’t be. The newest generation of reactors (Gen IV) in development can even run on the old fuel that is sitting in bunkers. The efficiency and safety are incredibly high compared to “your uncle’s” Gen II style reactors. It’s only a matter of time before the field develops designs that are considered inherently safe, where even operator “accidents” are not dangerous to people or the environment.
MIT has had a reactor operated by students for more than 60 years without incident. If you’ve sworn off nuclear as too dangerous or hazardous it might be time to give it another look.
I just wanted to add that nuclear has been kind of stuck in this cycle of rebuilding and maintaining old reactors because the NRC has a moratorium on new reactor construction. The public’s distrust, given the disasters we’ve seen, is warranted. However, this cycle of patching old tech has to end at some point. Especially given the promise of more efficient and inherently safer designs are getting very close to being a reality. This combined with the ability to recycle old fuel means, to me, it has to be on the table.
We have a long road to get to fully electric. A lot of different energy sources will get us there. No matter what technologies we choose, one thing is certain, our aging grid needs a LOT of improvement. We’ve seen too many failures due to lack of maintenance and capacity. That trend will only get worse as demand rises and we push it harder.
“The NRC has a moratorium on new reactor construction.” A false statement. There are two nuclear plants currently under construction in Georgia (Vogtle), for $25+ Billion. The Watts Bar nuclear plant began delivering electricity in 2016. And a new nuclear plant has recently been proposed for construction, with backing from billionaires, who seem to be anticipating building it at a cost that is a mere fraction of the cost for the Vogtle plants, but that will likely balloon in the same way that every other nuclear power plant cost has ballooned.
Very well worded explanation for comparing heat pumps to gas furnaces. Your words will make a great addition to what I usually say when asked; “Which is better, a heat pump or a gas furnace?” My usual snarky response is; “Yes.”
Actually, when gas is already available, I usually recommend a mix of heat pump and gas furnace technologies. I’m a big fan of being able to choose an energy source for heating.
Does anyone know of a good software or spreadsheet that can compare the operation costs of a furnace and AC system to a variable speed heat pump system either ductless or ducted?
I’m a late comer to these posts and possibly no one will read this but I felt compelled. I spent 40 years in oil and gas and recetly retired.
I’m located in Montana and now retired, I remodeled a 1990’s 1700 sqft metal building into a home. Fully closed cell insulted from floor throughout the roof, replaced all windows and doors, installed infloor heating in an additional 4” concrete pour, liquid heated by 3 liquid solar panels coupled to an 80 gal electric tank backed up by an Arctic heat pump and fail safe electrical backup of on demand heating unit. All of this is supported by a 36 panel 12.5kw rooftop PV solar net metering design. No natural gas, no propane, no oil, no wood and no wind. Been through our first three week period of -10 degree and no issues. Biggest challenge is balancing indoor heat with radiant floor. Slow response time to cool has been the biggest challenge when passive solar heats through the windows and the outside of the building.
Biggest secrets :
1. net metering -No battery mess required and never out of power, unless the grid goes down and then only if it goes down at night or on cloudy days. Neither has happened
2. Liquid solar thermal panels – On clear days, these panels can boil water at -40 degrees and especially provide all heat requirements when the Arctic heat pump is least efficient. It can still operates down to -15 degrees.
3. Insulation and sealment of your structure are much less expensive then trying to overbuild your energy providing structure.
No AC in this house and really none required but the only thing I wish I would have done is played with geothermal to provide forced air circulation hot and cold.
40 years in oil and gas and I can tell you there is no silver bullet for fossil fuels. Their BTU‘s are difficult to argue with but you can get their if you just set your expectations where they need to be with the technology and constraints we have today.
I did this structure as as test of technology for my personal home where I will replicate this with geothermal added and will max out my PV solar at the grid maximum allowable of 25KW. I will eventually use all the power as we move to electric cars.
The last test I will do is to take my learnings here to a remote, large, completely off-grid home. I’m working with a geothermal furnace and heat pump manufacturer to lower the electrical operational requirements of those units, which is high, because I will be dealing with batteries at that point. Making and storing heat is the secret to success here. You cannot allow yourself or your home to freeze. Other daily electrical needs can be met if you set your expectations.
The best place I have seen where residental home owners try to be net zero with new construction is in the Netherlands. They build and design from the beginning with this in mind and that prevents much of the compromise they have to face.
Our new construction building codes could fix much of the problem there which would prevent everyone from having to reinvent the wheel on new builds. It could start with subdivision covenants that require certain standards and I believe this next generation will attract to a housing environment where they know everything possible was done to protect our earth.
Go forth my son, your sins of 40 years of oil and gas have been forgiven!
Amen to new codes steering us in the right direction. This is the only way.
Agreed with building envelope improvements providing the biggest bang for the buck, with some limits (diminishing returns on certain window technologies, for example).
You mentioned Netherlands, it looks like since since 1/1/2021 new buildings are required by code to be net zero or near net zero. This would never happen voluntarily.
“diminishing returns on certain window technologies, for example”
Yes, every building material/technique has diminishing returns at some point I just hope people realize that when building new or replacing windows, excellent “European” windows which are far superior are lower cost than most American windows.
Cindi, absolutely, many casement or awning type windows are superior to the double hung. Given the market, and the vigorous anti-new energy code lobby by many, prominently the NAHB and state builder associations, it’s a balancing game. The tools are there, and to play this game right now, you can achieve results (at least in the same ball park) by using quality air-source heat pumps and U-0.23 SGHC-0.18 windows (in cooling-dominated climates), vs expensive ground-source heat pumps and “exotic” U-0.15 SHGC-0.15 windows. A large builder could have this kind of perspective. “Could have” is the keyword here, because it’s not happening. Following the code minimums is happening.
External blinds for the overheating problem
Well done Scott. You are the type of person that will do the most for helping us all figure this out. Think – experiment – think some more – try again – make it better as you go.
Your key concept as I read it is to set reasonable expectations and work to meet them.
I have visited a few Netherland homes and the pride they have in their use of technology and achieving net zero is amazing. Honestly, there were times when it felt a little like we were trying to launch the space shuttle not just keep warm and make toast. But it is all very possible and it only takes some entrepreneurial thinking to expand this at exponential rates in the US. People want to do the right thing and what is easy but, as I have seen in this forum, there is little consensus as to what is right. Again, “there is no silver bullet” but…we as a group of concerned citizens and inhabitants of this planet can certainly make someone with deep pockets and an open mind see there is a plethora opportunity to get this right with what we know today. Today, it is a patchwork system at best and I’m the one that has to put it all together and the best way may not be my way. Incenting people through tax breaks to do this is a first step but inefficient at best if we expect 100’s of thousands of laypersons, like myself, to go out on a limb to figure it out and get it right.
Investors follow the money and there is pot of gold here that is good for the goose and the gander.
Let’s give them the best solutions today with today’s technology and regulations and make it easy for “we the people”. Build it and they will come.
I spent 9 years in Canada and lived outside a community called Drake Landing Solar community. (https://www.dlsc.ca/ ) Link to their web page but I’m not sure how up to date all of their stats are.
Very interesting concept and really only takes a land developer with a vison to accomplish bigger and better with new learnings, new technology and through iterations of change.
Seems like the world is preoccupied with power struggles but not the real power struggles we need to harness to survive.
Thank you for your blogs, I read a number of them as part of my months long research into all things heating and cooling before deciding what to replace our aging HVAC with. We just went through our first winter with heat pumps, having replaced our natural gas furnaces. I thought it might be helpful to others so I published the results of our usage and cost comparisons, before and after. I also shared all the raw data. See website link. I hope this of interest and useful to some people thinking about making the same switch!
Oops, link didn’t come through. Here it is: https://theheatpumpguy.com/f/winter-heating-cost-with-a-heat-pump-compared-to-gas-furnace
Funny that you think 40F is cold 🙂 Next year I will be able to report on my heat pumps in climate zone 6 which goes to -10F.
-10F ? You call that cold?
It is a source of amusement here in Canada when people ask us how to convert -40C to Fahrenheit.
the biggest problem with heat pumps is when they are running low on charge and customers bill jumps up $400-$500 a month and they can’t keep their home warm. Or when you have a compressor burnout and run on electric heat for awhile and then end up dropping $3k -$4k for a high efficiency condensing unit. Gas heat is reliable. simpler, dependable (it doesnt take a crap efficiency wise cause the weather’s cold or because its got a refrigerant leak somewhere. most importantly it takes a couple amps to power your gas heater with a small generator in an emergency, see how that works with a heat pump
We can make the claim that any type of heating system is bad if we are going to judge any heating system by when they don’t work properly. There are plenty of things that can go wrong with today’s gas furnaces that use a refrigeration system for cooling. If gas isn’t available, heat pumps are one of the better solutions for heating a home. If gas is available, a dual fuel hybrid gas and heat pump system covers all bases for effectiveness and lower energy costs. If a heat pump is running low on charge, there is a leak that needs to be addressed. We can use “what if” scenarios to claim any type of system is problematic. We must judge systems on how well they do when they are operating properly. With just a gas furnace, if any of a number of things goes wrong, you are left with no heat. When using a heat pump with any source of auxiliary heat, if the heat pump has an issue, you still have a heat source.
Comments are closed.