The report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last week made it clear: In order to see sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required to stabilize the climate, we will need to see a massive overhaul in home heating systems.
For homeowners in New England, that will eventually mean replacing gas or oil tanks with a cold-climate heat pump that runs on the electric grid. In the next decade, Massachusetts will need to transition over 100,000 homes a year to meet the commonwealth’s 2030 climate goals.
So how do we get there? We asked experts how to best assemble a plan for getting a heat pump for your home.
Start planning now
Chances are, your home heating system is working properly, or at least limping along to the point where it doesn’t need to be immediately replaced. But if your system will be hitting the 18-year mark soon, it’s time to start thinking about what’s next, said Derek Koundakjian, a buildings and technology associate with Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, a Lexington-based nonprofit dedicated to accelerating energy efficiency. Start researching what’s best for your home now, so that you’re ready before your heat system fails and you scramble to replace it with a new version of what already exists.
Start saving now, too
One of the biggest hurdles to heat pump adoption in the region has historically been that the electrified systems are costly to install. Mass Save and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center have offered various rebate, incentive, and loan programs to help offset those costs, and the Biden administration has announced plans to create new Energy Star standards for heat pumps and invest in programs meant to boost adoption of the technology.
Having a plan in place means you can take advantage of those rebates when they become available. But absent those rebates, a heat pump will typically cost about $650 more than purchasing a gas furnace and electric central air unit over the 18-year lifetime of a unit, according to a recent report produced by the Arlington-based Applied Economics Clinic.
It’s also good to keep in mind what having a heat pump in your home will mean for your heating and cooling bills. In general, running heat pumps will typically cost far less than heating a home with oil, propane, or baseboard heating — the latter of which can cost up to four times as much as more efficient heating systems, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Heat pumps typically cost about the same or just slightly more than heating a home with gas.
Get your house in order
As you think about installing a new heating and cooling system, you should also be sure that you’ve maximized the efficiency of your home to bring down your energy load assessment, said Arah Schuur, NEEP’s executive director. “Weatherization, air sealing, everything that you can do — and much of which has subsidies and incentives in Massachusetts — brings down that load, and so you’ll need a smaller and therefore a less expensive system.”
It’s also possible that you may need to upgrade your electrical panel in order to accommodate more power being used throughout your home.
Find a contractor that gets it
Heat pumps got a bad reputation in the ‘80s and ‘90s for not being able to heat homes when the thermometer dipped into freezing temperatures. But the technology has vastly improved and is getting better year by year, said Kurt Roth, a senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and a building system analyst at the Fraunhofer USA Center for Manufacturing Innovation. “These new high performance cold climate heat pump devices are optimized for cooler temperatures,” he said.
That said, not every contractor is comfortable — or all that familiar — with installing them yet. That doesn’t mean you can’t find one who will do it. As NEEP says in its comprehensive buyers guide for heat pumps: “If your contractor says ‘heat pumps don’t really work in cold climates’ or ‘every heat pump needs a backup system,’ find someone else.”
Find a heat pump that works for your home
Every home is different, and assembling the perfect system might be tricky. Work with your contractor to determine whether you can use an existing duct system or install ductless units. You can start small and avoid replacing an entire system by updating one or two rooms at a time to help reduce the overall cost.
When it comes to the systems themselves, NEEP has assembled an extremely thorough product list that compares the performance of various units. It’s important to point out that many systems on NEEP’s referral list have different standards and specifications than those recommended by Mass Save, Schuur said, so it’d be smart to cross-reference them to achieve both your energy saving and emission reduction goals.
“NEEP spent a lot of time and works with a lot of programs to highlight the best units for cold climates, and we have a lot of ancillary resources for how you make sure that they can be specifically installed, operated, and paired with energy efficiency successfully,” Schuur said. She’s hoping her organization’s guidelines will eventually align with those systems currently offered by Mass Save.
“We’ve spent eight years working on high-quality cold climate heat pumps,” Schuur said, because when they’re installed and operating correctly, “we know they can work.”