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CUB Q&A: What’s a heat pump, and how is it a key to our clean energy future?

With the ever-changing landscape of utilities and energy in Illinois, one topic that has recently gained traction is the use of heat pump systems. In addition to their potential to save consumers money, heat pumps are frequently cited as a way to promote more equitable changes in energy policy, and decarbonize buildings around the state.

But what are heat pump systems? Are they a viable alternative to traditional heating and cooling appliances? In this WatchBlog article, we will answer some of the most common questions associated with heat pumps.

Q: What is a heat pump system?

A: Simply put, heat pump systems are another method for heating (as well as cooling) your home in a more energy efficient and cost-effective manner. Much like a refrigerator, heat pump systems utilize electricity to move heat from cool spaces to warm spaces, and vice versa. Because heat pump systems merely move heat, rather than generate it, they are a more economically sound way of warming your home.

Q: Are there different types of systems?

A: Heat pump systems can transfer heat between your home and either the outside air temperature or the temperature of the earth below the ground.  The most common systems, air-to-air pumps, which transfer heat between the inside of your home and the outside air. Utilized in many places around the southern United States, air-to-air systems are increasingly common in all regions of the country due to the development of technology that allows them to operate in subfreezing temperatures. These systems are very easy to install, and can work in new homes as well as existing homes regardless of whether the homes have existing forced air systems.

Geothermal heat pumps are higher-efficiency systems that transfer both hot and cold air between your home and the ground, or a nearby water source. These systems tend to have a higher cost to install. But since the subterranean layer of the Earth’s crust remains at a relatively constant temperature, geothermal heat pumps are ultimately the most effective way to heat and cool your home, and can reduce energy use by between 30% – 60%.

Q: So who can use a heat pump system?

A: Fortunately, the technology behind heat pump systems is continuously advancing, making it more affordable for everyday consumers. While geothermal systems may cost more upfront, the systems pay for themselves as the consumer continues to use less and less energy to heat their home.

Modern infrastructure, particularly the development of all-electric homes and buildings, means that heat pump systems are increasingly common around the U.S. While many people may equate this type of construction with major cities, a recent Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) study revealed that rural rural Midwesterners could save up to $14,000 over 15 years by switching from propane furnaces to electric heat pumps.

A more recent version of that RMI study found that newly constructed all-Electric homes are cheaper to build and operate across the country, including the Midwest.

Q: Why are heat pump systems important?

A: Heat pumps can help eliminate carbon pollution that causes climate change.  Heat pumps use electricity rather than burning gas on-site at your home or business.  As the grid changes and uses more wind and solar and less coal and gas, the pollution associated with heat pumps will continue to decrease as well. They are also so efficient that they already have a total pollution profile that is better than gas furnaces or boilers.

In addition to protecting  the environment, heat pump systems are more cost-effective for the majority of consumers around the state. Heat pumps can help save a significant amount of money over the long-term, and these systems are emerging as a reliable alternative to utility-owned natural gas companies, which have raised costs significantly in recent years. For example, Nicor Gas has asked for record rate hikes and Peoples Gas customers in Chicago have for years suffered under rapidly escalating natural gas bills caused by an expensive pipe-replacement program mismanaged by the utility.

Q: How do I get more information? 

A: As this article from Vox explains, we have all of the infrastructure we need to achieve a decarbonized America by the year 2035, if we are willing to put in the work. If you are interested in obtaining your own heat pump system, an excellent place to start is the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) “Heat Pump Systems” page. The DOE website provides valuable information regarding the ins and outs of the various heat pump systems currently available. In addition, Consumer Reports outlines a number of considerations worth mulling over before buying a heat pump system. Before purchasing any system, be sure to understand the pros and cons of each type of heat pump, and always approach your purchase with a firm understanding of what will work best for your specific living situation.