The Future may be Heat Pumps

Arlington, TX – You may think that heat pumps are a relatively new technology, however, this is not the case. The first heat pump was developed 200 years ago in between the years 1855 – 1857 by Peter von Rittinger. However, Robert C. Webber is credited with having developed the first ground source heat pump sometime during the late 1940s.

Heat pumps went the better part of a century going unnoticed. That was until the oil crisis in the 1970s. At which point, heat pumps started to become a popular choice for heating and cooling homes. After the crisis subsided, they sort of slipped back into the background and it wasn’t again until global warming started to become a mainstream topic that they began to shine in the spotlight again.

Heat pumps have one major drawback. This drawback is the very reason that this technology seems to slip in and out of popularity throughout the past century. Heat pumps shine in warmer climates. Most of the time, they will be all you need in the winter if you live in the Southern United States. However, this is not the case if you live up north.

How Heat Pumps Work

Despite its name, a heat pump can produce not only heating but cooling also. Without going into the engineering details about how it all works we will simply state that this.

When an air-sourced heat pump is in cooling mode it separates heat from the outdoor air and pulls in cool air into the home. While in the heating mode it works under the same principle. However, it works in reverse. Instead, it separates the cool air from the heat and draws in hot air. As you may ascertain, this can have major drawbacks in environments where the temperatures get extremely cold.

Electrification Movement

Recent events across the country and as the nation moves toward electrification have placed the heat pump into a position where it could become the most popular heating choice. In many parts of the country, there are incentives in place for homeowners that opt to use electrical heat pumps over fossil fuel-powered heating options.

Some cities across the nation, including over 30 cities in California alone have outright banned new natural gas hook-ups. The removal of options on the market places heat pumps front and center. However, as stated above heat pumps shine in warm climates, such as parts of California. But, what about the rest of the Americans who don’t live in moderately warm climates? If the rest of the country follows suit and bans fossil fuels how will the rest of America be able to stay warm? And how do heat pumps play into this if they are best suited for warm climates?

The Winter Storm of 2020

Even in warm climates, a heat pump may not be enough. Moderate winters are not always a guarantee. We know this all too well here in Texas. Just about two years ago in February 2020 across Dallas temperatures plummeted into the single digits for most of the month. At its lowest, if I remember correctly, it was -3 degrees in February 2020.

To make matters worse, since Heat pumps aren’t designed to keep homes warm at temperatures this low, this taxed the electrical grid and causes brownouts throughout the state. However, for the most part, it is true, a heat pump is more than enough to keep our homes cozy and warm here in the south. It is just those days like back in February of 2020 that keep most homeowners looking for something else as a backup. Therefore, even in warmer climates, we see a good portion of homeowners still prefers natural gas over electrical heat pumps.

Newer Technologies over the Horizon

With everything seemingly becoming electric these days is the topic. Whether it be from heating to cars. We obviously will need to expand our electrical grids to compensate for the increase in electrical usage. Resolving this problem will require not only expansion of the electrical grid but better technologies, incentives, and maintenance also.

Wait? Improved HVAC Maintenance?

Lack of maintenance leads to dirty air filters and clogged coils. This in turn makes a heat pump use more electricity to effectively move the refrigerant and air. Energy Central states that the United States has an energy efficiency of 42 percent. In other words, we waste 58 percent of all energy we produce.

I am not sure how that is all bundled together to come up with that figure. However, as an HVAC technician, one of the leading problems we discover in most homes is a lack of maintenance and adequate insulation.

Better HVAC Technologies

Some of those future technologies that are needed that we talked about earlier. They are already here. Trane, for example, has heat pumps with an inverter-driven compressor system and variable rate fan. These heat pumps offer a very low amp draw at start-up. This will give electrical providers the time needed to adjust output and prevent brownouts as we saw in February 2020.

However, in areas that do not have an electrical grid that could support the rise in electrification, some homes may benefit from hybrid heat pumps. These heating systems combine a heat pump with a fossil-fuel-powered heat source as a backup. Even with the country moving towards full electrification there will be many states that I reckon will still use natural gas in the immediate future.

Incentives for Heat Pumps?

This has been done before and I am sure it will be done again in the immediate future. Take for example, back in the late 1980s, utility companies in Louisiana offered incentives to consumers if they installed heat pumps. This incentive program led to the creation of the Louisiana Heat Pump Association, which is now known as the HVACR Association of Louisiana.

Therefore, with the nation moving towards a greener future, heat pumps will play an important role in this.

Do Heat Pumps Not Work in Colder Climates?

Earlier we stated that heat pumps really shine in warmer climates and do not do so well in colder climates such as up in the northern part of the United States. To clarify, yes heat pumps will still work in the northern USA and during very cold weather. However, their efficiency seriously declines the lower the temperature is.

Heat pumps work best when temperatures are at least 40 degrees and above outside. There are a few heat pumps that are guaranteed to work at temperatures of 20 degrees and above before losing efficiency. However, if we are talking subzero temperatures then that is a different answer.

Most standard heat pumps will be able to pull heat from outside air if the temperature is -4 Fahrenheit or above.

Will You Freeze to Death if the Outside Temperature goes Sub-Zero?

No, you will not. All heat pumps include an emergency heat solution. When the air outside gets too cold to effectively draw in warm air the system will automatically go into the emergency heat mode to generate heat. However, while in this mode it will consume a significantly greater amount of electricity.

Moving Forward – Heat Pumps Future

We live in wondrous times. What keeps me optimistic is that time and time again, no matter what challenge mankind has faced, we overcome. I am no climatologist or environmentalist. I do not have the answers for whether our world will become a barren desert or an ice cube due to global warming and our effect on our environment. What, I do know is that it is a very popular talking point and concern in our time.

I feel optimistic that we will come together and resolve it like we have so many other challenges in our past. Every day newer greener, cleaner technologies are tested. As an HVAC technician, I’ve seen the HVAC industry radically change in the past thirty-plus years. I believe that air-sourced heat pumps will continue to improve and all our worries when it comes to electrification, greener technologies, and the like are put to ease as newer technologies not only continue becoming available but become much more affordable as well.

The Importance of Maintenance

If you are concerned about your carbon footprint and how you can save on your electrical costs you can start with your home’s heating and cooling system. If you do not receive annual HVAC maintenance, then now is the time. Get in touch with us today and schedule HVAC maintenance for your system. While you are at it, ask us about our manual maintenance plans and how we can not only reduce your carbon footprint but also save you money too. Give us a call today to learn more.

Randy Murphy

Randy Murphy has been building his knowledge of the air conditioning and heating business for several years now. He first started applying his knowledge while working for his father’s HVAC company. Later, in 1987, Randy started his own business: Metro Express Service. He has been a top 10 Trane & Amana dealer for over eight years. When it comes to heating and cooling, Randy knows the business better than anyone.
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