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Air Source Heat Pumps: A Viable Heating and Cooling Option for Vermonters

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by Emily Kaminsky
Air source heat pumps are one of the most efficient and effective home heating and cooling technologies on the market. Based on the same simple heat exchange system that has cooled refrigerators and freezers for years, air source heat pump technology has improved to the point that the pumps can now effectively and efficiently heat and cool homes.
Companies like SunCommon in Waterbury Center and Green Mountain Power (GMP) are piloting air source heat pump installation and financing programs (or in the case of GMP, rental) with the goal of bringing the technology to the wider public soon. While the technology isn’t new and the systems are widely available through most HVAC installers, air source heat pumps haven’t caught on with the average homeowner yet. Who wouldn’t want a quiet, ductless heating and cooling unit in their living space that uses no fossil fuels and has the potential to reduce oil propane heating bills by up to one-third?
“Cost has certainly been one factor,” says Jessica Edgerly Walsh, organizing manager at SunCommon, which is rolling out its program to communities where the firm operates this October just in time for the heating season. Both SunCommon and GMP have figured out how to make air source heat pumps a financially viable solution for the average Vermonter by offering financing or by renting units to households. And, when bundled with SunCommon’s solar power program, air source heat pumps are even more financially feasible.
With cost taken care of, Edgerly Walsh explains that the barriers are just a matter of educating people. “It’s new, first of all,” she says. “Vermonters just need to see the technology and understand it well enough to seize the opportunity before their furnace croaks.” Part of the issue is explaining exactly what a heat pump is and does. The term can mean different things to different people. “Most people are talking now about heat pump technology that heats using air to air,” says Edgerly Walsh. “But there are also ground-source heat pumps that take the heat from underground water and convert it to heat the air in the home. And, a slightly less developed technology that is nearing perfection is hot water heat pumps which use water.”
Transitioning home heating systems to include air source heat pumps is a process that SunCommon has been perfecting through a pilot program with 30 households in 10 different communities across the state. “Before we do any installation, we do a home assessment which helps us figure out how much power the homeowner needs to heat their home, what temperature they prefer, and whether they want it cool in the summer,” she explains. SunCommon can customize the system to heat and/or cool part of the house or the entire house. “You want to leave your central heating source intact as a backup,” she explains. A well-designed ductless system can heat a house down to outside temperatures of -18 degrees. Below that, the homeowner’s central heating system kicks in. SunCommon’s pilot households reported only counting a handful of times that their furnaces kicked in last winter, proving that these systems can truly heat an entire home.
Air source heat pump systems provide warm and cool air directly to the living space instead of through heat ducts. A large system is usually installed on the first floor while one or more smaller systems are installed on the second floor depending upon the configuration of the house and other factors. The second part of the system, which looks like a box fan, is installed on the outside utility wall of the house at least two feet above the ground.
SunCommon commonly refers to its program as solar heat because they are encouraging people to power their air source heat pumps with renewable solar energy. “We want to move as many households as possible towards these systems to help achieve the State of Vermont’s renewable energy goal.” The 2011 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan sets out a pathway for Vermont to obtain 90 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2050.
Air source heat pumps work regardless of the energy source. They generate significant savings even if a household can’t go with solar energy. SunCommon and other providers can install heat pumps and hook them up to the household’s utility power to operate them.

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