We’ve all heard the warnings: winter is here and skyrocketing heating costs are set to skyrocket energy bills. This is because much of the country and the state depends on fossil fuels for heating.
According to the Department of Energy, almost half of American homes use natural gas heating. In Indiana, that goes up to six in 10 homes with natural gas for heat, while only a third have electric heat.
And an increase in heating costs, as well as cooling, is no small feat. Recent data suggests that heating and cooling accounts for up to half of a home’s energy consumption throughout the year.
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It’s no surprise, then, that homeowners are looking for ways to reduce their energy use, save on their bills, and even reduce the emissions associated with heating and cooling.
In that vein, we heard from a few readers who wanted to know if heat pumps could be a solution. That’s why, for this Scrub Hub, we’re looking at the question: How do heat pumps work and are they a good option in Indiana?
To answer this question, we spoke with an expert on the subject and reviewed some of the different tax credit information.
Short answer: Move heat, not generate it
In much of Indiana, air conditioners and furnaces are a common combination for heating and cooling the home. Heat pumps, on the other hand, are not as common and not as well understood.
Davide Ziviani, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, said they were pretty straightforward. Heat pumps are basically an air conditioning unit that can also work in reverse, he said.
Heat pumps do not work by generating their own heat, rather they move heat.
“And the fact that a heat pump can work both ways, heating and cooling, that’s why it’s appealing,” said Ziviani, who is also director of the Center for High-Performance Buildings. “Especially in climates where you want both.”
There are two types of heat pumps: air pumps and ground source heat pumps. The difference is where they get the heat energy from to heat or cool the interior. As the name suggests, air pumps draw in ambient air outside the home while underground-sourced ones drill below the Earth’s frost layer to access underground geothermal energy.
During the summer, heat pumps take hot air from inside the house and send it outside. Then, during the winter, it extracts heat from the air or ground outside and brings it inside. As counterintuitive as it may seem, there is always “free heat” energy in the air, even in cold weather. Air pumps collect this, compress it and bring it inside.
Unlike many of their gas-powered counterparts, heat pumps run on electricity.
While the penetration of heat pumps in Indiana and the United States has been quite slow, they are used “everywhere” in Europe and Asia, Ziviani said. Heat pumps are considered a mature technology, he added, but they have continued to improve and become more efficient over the past few decades.
Long answer: “Heat pumps make sense‘
We know how heat pumps work, but now the biggest question is whether they can work in Indiana. I know this is the long answer section, but the short answer is: Yes, it can work.
Indiana has a mixed climate – it can have very hot, humid summers, cold, windy winters, and then lots of mid-to-shoulder seasons. When heat pumps were first created, Ziviani said, they couldn’t handle such a wide range of temperatures. However, many technological improvements have helped make them much more efficient and able to operate in a variety of temperatures.
Yet when the outside air drops below freezing and into the single digits, heat pumps don’t perform as well. This is especially true for air pumps, as they have to work harder to extract the small amount of heat from the surrounding air. It’s a bit easier for ground-source heat pumps, because underground temperatures and heat are a bit more stable.
In Indiana, we have three months – December, January and February – where the average low is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, according to weather data.
That’s why Ziviani recommends having a backup or supplemental source for heating, such as a small furnace on colder days. But don’t let the cold winter temperatures scare you off. There are a few states in the Northeast, including Maine, Massachusetts, and New York, that are just as cold and more embracing of heat pumps.
Overall, Ziviani said heat pumps make sense for Indiana — it’s proven, he added. The university has a research house which they have upgraded with insulation, new reel frames as well as a heat pump.
Ziviani and his colleagues measured energy use over three years, including through a polar vortex, and found significant energy savings and, ultimately, bill and cost savings.
Heat pumps will always be more efficient than a gas or heat furnace, Ziviani said. Their efficiency is measured by examining the amount of heat or cold produced with a certain amount of energy.
With a furnace, they will only be 90% to 95% efficient at best. That might sound really good, Ziviani said, but heat pumps get so much more. They are up to 300% to 400% effective in comparison.
“So if you’re using a kilowatt-hour and you’re getting three or four times the heat, you don’t need that much energy,” Ziviani said. “So it will still produce emissions and energy savings.”
If homeowners don’t need as much energy to heat or cool their homes, that translates to lower electricity bills. But that’s not the only kind of savings they can make, Ziviani added.
At the very individual level, there is less gas burned in the house. A growing body of research suggests that gas appliances can pose a serious health risk. Since heat pumps run on electricity, their environmental benefits depend on how electricity is generated in the area.
If a large portion of the utility’s energy supply comes from renewables, the heat pump is definitely greener. If the electricity comes from fossil fuels, there are always indirect emissions associated with the operating power of the heat pump.
But Ziviani reminds that less energy means less emissions.
The Purdue expert acknowledges that there are questions and concerns about the costs of buying and installing a heat pump. But the cost of an air-source heat pump – depending on the brand, size, and efficiency level of the unit – is similar to that of a gas furnace. There may be some additional costs for home adjustments and renovations during installation.
“But it’s doable, not outrageous,” Ziviani said. “And it’s always a question of whether an owner wants to spend money up front to save money in the long run.”
Geothermal heat pumps can be a bit more expensive considering the underground works. Ziviani said these pumps are best planned during construction when designing the house and the duct system.
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Heat pumps are a hot topic, Ziviani said, given some of the tax credits and rebates to help encourage their installation and help defray costs. The Inflation Reduction Act contains many provisions to encourage improvements in energy efficiency.
Under the federal tax credit program, homeowners who install heat pumps after the new year will be eligible for 30% of the total cost of what they paid for their heat pump, including the cost of labor. work, up to $2,000. To learn more about credit and rebate options, Consumer Reports has great information.
If you are interested in a heat pump, many HVAC companies can install heat pumps. As always, it’s best to work with a professional to determine the right size and type for your heating and cooling needs.
If you have any other questions about heat pumps, other energy efficiency options or any other topic, let us know!
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Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar environmental journalists: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
The IndyStar Environmental Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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