HVAC installers, homeowners say heat pumps no panacea for Vermont’s coldest days

Published: Apr. 26, 2023 at 6:04 PM EDT
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EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Are Vermont policymakers’ dependence on heat pumps in the state’s climate plans full of hot air? The devices are at the center of the recently passed Affordable Heat Act, a push to decarbonize the way Vermonters heat their homes. But critics continue to question their affordability as well as their ability to stand up to the demands of Vermont winters.

“They work really well,” said Kathy Wiese, who has been running two electric heat pumps at her East Montpelier home since 2017. She says they work great cooling on warm and humid days as well as heating most of the winter. The only limitations she says are during cold snaps. “You can run your engine at the redline, but it’s harming your engine. You’re asking it to do more than you really can.”

Wiese blew a compressor on the heat pump the first winter post instillation because of frigid sub-zero temperatures. Since then, when the temperatures get close to zero, she runs a backup. “Then we use propane,” she said.

According to the WCAX Weather team, Burlington drops to zero on average about 13 times a year over the last decade. Those who install and service heat pumps agree that homeowners need a backup during those cold snaps, even though the systems can be rated to perform to temperatures as low as -15 degrees.

“You use it much like what people use them for -- secondary heat -- that’s, in my opinion, what they are designed to do,” said Sean Tatro with Larry & Sons Heating Service in Milton.

He says installation for the average home runs about $5,000. The state, federal government and local utilities, have incentives to offset some of that cost. Though Tatro says some customers who switched to heat pumps and cut the cord on fossil fuels, call him to re-install their fossil fuel systems to turn on when temperatures plummet. “They are great for summer and fall, they are great down to about 20 degrees, but then they dip real fast after that,” Tatro said. He says keeping a backup heat source when the temperatures slide is recommended, and that home weatherization is also the key to using them efficiently.

“Doing air sealing or weatherstripping or adjusting issues with leaky windows,” said Peter Walke with Efficiency Vermont. He says weatherization should be the first priority but that the technology is evolving allowing the heat pumps to handle lower temperatures. He adds that many Vermonters already use dual heating systems. “That’s the same sort of thing we think people should consider going forward, to make sure they have the appropriate level of heating.”

For Wiese, that dual method has served her well since the first compressor failure a few winters ago. And while she doesn’t want to burn propane... “You can’t not have something,” she said.

Years of work on climate policy came to a head last week as House lawmakers passed Affordable Heat Act. The bill creates a clean heat standard -- a marketplace for clean heat credits -- with the aim of weaning Vermont off of fossil fuels by making them more expensive and opening more ways to switch to cleaner forms of energy.

Tatro is concerned the passage of the law would mean local fuel dealers he works with will get run out of the state and those that can’t bring on heat pumps as supplemental heat will be hit the hardest.

The bill is expected to face a veto from the governor.

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