Cold Climate Air-Source Heat Pumps: An Innovative Technology to Stay Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer

April 14, 2017

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For many homeowners across the U.S., cold climate air-source heat pumps (ASHPs) can be a cost-effective option for improving home comfort while delivering energy and cost savings that make their homes more affordable to live in. ASHP systems can be installed in different types of housing across a range of climates. Some of the newer technologies are even capable of delivering heating in extremely cold regions, such as New England and the upper Midwest. Cold climate ASHPs can reduce household energy consumption by up to 40%, with homeowners currently utilizing electric resistance (e.g., baseboard heat) or fuel oil to heat their homes likely to see the most cost savings. The Building Technologies Office (BTO) conducts R&D to develop new, cutting-edge ASHPs while also working with market leaders to accelerate energy savings to Americans in northern climates. BTO works with contractors to develop systems-integration guidance and resources for contractors.     

Industry Partnerships and Support Resources

Recent work by the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) is a great place to start exploring these technologies. NEEP is one of six Regional Energy Efficiency Organizations partly funded by the Energy Department. NEEP has worked closely with the Department’s Home Improvement Catalyst program to research the field performance of ASHP systems and develop a regional strategy for installing ASHP systems in cold climates with input from stakeholders, including HVAC contractors and utility programs.

As ASHP technology innovations and advancements have grown, so have the application and installations of ASHP systems. But this progress has not come without some growing pains. NEEP has been privy to these challenges—including inefficiencies and the underperformance of ASHP systems in the real world—and proactively engaged manufacturers, installers, and program administrators to develop two new guidance documents in early 2017:  Guide to Installing Air-Source Heat Pumps in Cold Climates and Guide to Sizing and Selecting Air-Source Heat Pumps in Cold Climates. This guidance aims to educate the contractor community about the sizing, selection, and installation of ASHPs in cold climates to help maximize the achievement of energy and cost savings. The Energy Department sponsored the development of the guidance documents through a cooperative agreement with NEEP.

NEEP is also part of a regional market transformation initiative that launched in 2013 to accelerate the market adoption of ASHPs in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. This initiative developed a “roadmap” of coordinated regional activities to help overcome market barriers to ASHP adoption.  In 2016, the initiative prepared an update to this roadmap (the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Air Source Heat Pump Market Strategies Report 2016 Update) with new strategies to further accelerate the adoption of ASHPs in the region.

Research & Development

While research is ongoing to improve the technology, many models in the market today offer energy savings opportunities. BTO’s Emerging Technologies program and the Building America program are working on a cold climate heat pump development project. In the first phase of the project, a “standard” system was field tested at a home in Ohio (profiled here) and showed 40% energy savings while maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature. A “premium” system is now being field tested in Alaska. The project is testing the heating capacity and overall performance of two cold climate ASHP models utilizing tandem single-stage compressors. Results are promising, both in terms of capacity and performance. 

As Building America research and development projects are completed, like the one noted above, details and supporting resources are added to the Building America Publication and Product Library.

A Program Highlight: Making Homes in Maine More Affordable

Efficiency Maine, a Better Buildings Residential Network member, administers energy efficiency programs in Maine to lower the cost and environmental impacts of energy in the state by promoting cost-effective energy efficiency and alternative energy systems. One way Efficiency Maine pursues this objective is delivering rebates on the purchase of high-efficiency equipment, including heat pumps. This strategy is working.

Maine is seeing robust and steady growth in the use of heat pumps. While three years ago only a few dozen heat pumps were being installed annually, that number has grown to 300-500 installations per month. More than 20,000 heat pumps have been installed over the three-year period. Since last July, at the start of Maine’s current fiscal year, 3,700 incentives have been provided for heat pumps.

Nancy and Jim in Presque Isle, Maine, are a great example of this program’s success. This couple has lived in their home for over 15 years and had been spending about $3,000 a year for heat and hot water.  Nancy and Jim installed a ductless high efficiency heat pump and a heat pump water heater and are now seeing a combined savings of 75% as well as improvements in the comfort of the home. 

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In Summary

Over the past several years, multiple stakeholders have collectively helped reveal the potential for ASHPs to increase home comfort alongside energy and cost savings. These players are utilizing a combination of methods, including technology research, field testing, data analysis, education and training, and contractor engagement.   

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