Heat pumps are incomprehensible to many people. How can a thing that looks like an air conditioner keep people warm in the winter? The state of Maine wants to install 100,000 heat pumps in the next 3 years and is off to a good start. 27,000 of them were installed by Maine residents last year. Presently, about 60% of all homes in Maine are heated by oil furnaces — one of the highest percentages in America. All those furnaces mean lots of carbon emissions.
Maine may not have the harshest winters in the United States, but it certainly comes close. Old time Mainers like to say their weather is “10 months of winter and 2 months of damn poor sleddin’.” Outside of cities like Portland, its residents tend to be skeptical of new ways of doing things, and that reticence extends to heat pumps.
To address those concerns, Efficiency Maine conducted an experiment last winter to see if heat pumps would keep homes in Maine comfortable even when temperatures outside dipped to -20º F. Lots of people who have heat pumps today also have an oil furnace as well, on the theory that a heat pump can’t make heat when the temperature drops below zero.
Eficiency Maine knows it has to explode that myth if state residents are going to switch to heat pumps as their sole source of heat. Last heating season, it replaced oil furnaces in 19 homes — 10 mobile homes and 9 conventional wood frame homes — with heat pumps. The results from homeowners were overwhelmingly positive. The homeowners praised the evenness of the heat and said their heat pumps kept them toasty warm even when it was bitter cold outside, according to a report by Energy News.
“We’re reaffirming our expectation that they work in cold climates and will keep you comfortable through the entire winter,” said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. “We want to see the heat pumps being used to their full capacity.”
Heat Pumps Pass The Test
Efficiency Maine also conducted case studies that assessed the performance of 10 homes that were already using a heat pump as their primary heat source. They were of various sizes and ages, and used a variety of heat pump technologies. They also had a range of backup system types, including oil, wood, electric, propane, and kerosene. The participating homes were metered from February to June of 2021, so researchers could understand how much energy was used, how well the systems performed, and how indoor temperatures fared when temperatures dropped outdoors.
Over the study period, 7 of the 10 homes did not need to use their backup heating. As outdoor air temperatures rose and fell throughout each day, the indoor air temperatures stayed within a narrow range, avoiding the temperature spikes and plunges so often associated with fossil fuel furnaces. All participants reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with the performance of their heat pump systems during the study period.
George Hardy and his wife Catherine of Dexter, Maine, were among the satisfied customers. “Here, it got 21 below last winter,” he said. “I was a little worried about the heat pumps, but they held out. They kept us warm.” The Hardys already had one heat pump in their home, which was built in the 1890s, when they joined the pilot program. They received a second heat pump, which replaced their previous oil-fired forced hot air system.
They said they have not one negative thing to say about their experience. From November through April — the most heating-intensive months of the year — they paid a total of $1,000 for electricity. By way of comparison, heating a home with an oil furnace for a full year would have cost more than $3,000 even at last winter’s much lower heating oil prices.
Their heat is even and reliable, and they now get to enjoy air conditioning during warmer months as well. “I don’t hesitate to leave it on in the summer because I know it’s going to cost us hardly anything,” Catherine Hardy said.
Sharp-eyed readers will note the electricity use was measured over a 6-month period while the fuel oil costs were estimated over 12 months. So there is a little slippage when it comes to comparing both heating sources head to head. But keep in mind the Hardy’s utility bill includes all their electricity usage, not just the amount used to run their two heat pumps. The data suggests using the new technology can save homeowners a lot of money when it comes to heating their homes.
Melanie Merz, executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Maine, told Energy News that while interest in heat pumps and other alternative heating arrangements has certainly increased recently, she doesn’t believe the market is ready for wide scale adoption of heat pumps quite yet. Consumers are still uncertain about adopting such a new technology and are worried about heat pumps’ ability to perform in Maine’s harsh winters, she said.
She added that builders are generally concerned about making their homes attractive to buyers, and the higher up-front cost of heat pumps can be a deterrent, despite evidence that heat pumps save money in the long term. “We all conceptually know that there is an eventual return on investment, but are we willing to sacrifice going with tried-and-true products?” Merz asked. “I don’t think we’ve reached any sort of tipping point in the market.”
While it seems likely Maine will achieve the goal of installing 100,000 new heat pumps in the next three years, whole house adoption will need to become much more common to make a real dent in the state’s home heating emissions. Achieving that goal will mean educating consumers and convincing more contractors to encourage customers to go with heat pumps, Stoddard said.
He added that there is evidence some movement in the new home marketplace is already underway. About two of every 10 new homes built in Maine now are all-electric, but more must be done to convince buyers and builders alike that heat pumps are both environmentally and financially wise, he said. “It’s human nature for them to stick with what they know has worked in the past. It’s sort of a culture shift,” he said.
Those of us who are familiar with the EV revolution are well familiar with how hard it is to change attitudes. Many of us never flew in an airplane — until we did. We never used a microwave oven — until we did. We never used a cell phone — until we did. Many of us watched TV on cable before streaming services became available.
The chances are, new home buyers in Maine will demand heat pumps long before builders realize a shift has taken place in people’s attitudes. Who wants to buy a new home and be locked into paying higher than necessary heating bills for the next 20 years? Does anyone insist contractors leave out the insulation to save a few bucks or use old single-pane double hung windows with sash weights? Of course not.
The changeover won’t happen right away, but once the word gets out that heat pumps work in the winter in Maine and save homeowners significant money on their heating bills, it will happen much faster than Melanie Merz and the home builders of Maine might think possible.
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