Heat Pump Efficiency Push and Evolving Standards
It’s not news to anyone that there is a push for Heat Pump efficiency in the government’s electrification movement.
New mandates and more stringent ratings, including SEER2, force the residential market to sell a “greener” more environmentally friendly solution. When I first came into the industry at the end of the 90s, the minimum efficiency that was allowed to be sold in the Midwest for straight cooling was 10 SEER. As of this year, the minimum is 14 SEER or 13.4 SEER2.
Local Experiences and Overcoming Misconceptions in Heat Pump Adoption
I own a residential HVAC company in the western suburbs of Chicago, and last year, the local electric utility company contacted my distributor and said one of your customers is listed on a 3rd party contractor locator site that specializes in installing heat pumps. They wanted to connect with me and find out how I became comfortable installing heat pumps when not many others locally are doing so. My answer to them was as follows:
“I am using the skills that I have acquired from the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) in residential system design. Many contractors have been fed and still believe the misconception that heat pumps don’t work in cold climates.”
Fast forward to this year when the utility company instituted several thousand dollar rebates on select heat pumps, and now they are currently flying off the shelves. The utility company ended up going through the rebate money much faster than they had originally planned, and in order to keep the program active, they had to drastically reduce the total rebate amount.
The Impact of Rebates and Federal Funding on Heat Pump Demand
This is not taking into account the Inflation Reduction Act that was signed into law. The federal government is slated to spend billions of dollars on energy efficiency, decarbonization, and green energy. It sounds almost too good to be true. Heat pumps for all and send the bill to Uncle Sam.
Why was it last year heat pumps were collecting dust in warehouses all around Chicago, and this year, they suddenly sell themselves? It is obviously the proverbial carrot that is being dangled in front of homeowners across the country. Everyone wants to take advantage of potentially getting something for nothing.
I recently received an email from the local utility rebate program stating that starting January 1st 2024, contractors will have to go through several training modules to become “heat pump” certified in order to offer rebates/tax credits. This is on top of the “Energy Efficiency Installer certification” that is currently required in Illinois. Their goal is to attempt to increase the installation quality of the heat pumps that are being sold. It wouldn’t surprise me if the government is closely monitoring the energy being consumed and comparing that to the taxpayer’s total investment in the program.
Certification Changes and The Importance of Installation Quality
They will quickly find that these high-end systems are not performing at the same efficiency that they are rated for. I understand this because I am constantly comparing what is installed in the average Midwest home vs. what the homes actually need. In my experience, it would be conservative to say that 9 out of 10 systems are oversized and lack the required airflow. It is common knowledge that if a system is running with insufficient airflow, it has a reduced efficiency and lack of capacity.
Sooner or later, companies will have to prove efficiency in order to qualify for these types of programs. Sounds far-fetched right? In reality, the technology already exists.
Tools like measureQuick® and ACCA’s QA program will provide third-party verification to prove to your customers and the powers that be that the system that you installed is actually running at the proper capacity and efficiency. measureQuick enhances the functionality of smart tools and will guide its users to commission a system to run at its peak performance. It has the ability to generate a PDF report that can be sent to the customer or saved as a historical reference noting how the system was operating on day 1. The report includes BTU output as well as operating SEER.
ACCA’s QA program takes it one step further and verifies that the best sizing practices were followed. It requires you to have performed a Manual J load calculation and also verifies that the system you install meets the Manual S sizing guidelines. If my predictions become a reality, there will be a massive amount of residential companies that will not be qualified to apply for energy rebates and tax credits. This could disrupt the industry and create a clear distinction between companies that are capable of proving efficiency vs. companies that are not.
Navigating Change: Embracing the Future of HVAC Education and Standards
Two of the biggest factors holding back the United States from our “green” future are a lack of education and our unwillingness to change. One thing that I have learned over the past 20+ years in HVAC and life in general is that “the only constant is change.” We are at a major crossroads in our trade, watching the introduction of A2L refrigerants, new efficiency mandates, and the impending future of electrification. We will soon have to deal with all of these struggles while also navigating a skilled labor shortage in the industry.
Previously accepted industry standards like charging to “beer can cold” and sizing HVAC equipment by standing at the curb while holding up a house-shaped paper cutout are methods that some will insist have worked and carried them deep into their careers. The question is, has it actually worked well, or has it worked just enough? Quite a few of us are stuck in our old ways, which I’m sure will force some into retirement and others out of business.
There will be contractors that thrive, while others will be left behind. We might not be able to individually control the future of residential HVAC, but each of us can make an effort to master our craft and take pride in what we do. Our trade needs to collectively prepare and embrace the education necessary to do so.
-Adam Mufich, A-Team Adam