Keeping your cool -- with a heat pump

Tracy Overstreet

If the recent rains destroyed your furnace, you may want to think about replacing it with a furnace and heat pump -- a unit that can keep you cool this summer but also save big bucks on heating in the winter.

Heat pump technology has increased to the point that the Grand Island, Neb., Habitat for Humanity construction committee went exclusively to heat pumps installation in Habitat Homes a number of years ago.

"It's just for the fact that they are more efficient," said Amos Anson, construction manager for Habitat.

Anson said heat pumps are efficient when it comes to energy used and cost of operations.

 "With the heat pump, they use a lot less electricity and use a lot more of the natural air … it costs a lot more money to heat those coils up in a regular furnace than it does to take the natural heat out of the air and it can take the natural heat out of the air down to like 32 degrees," Anson said.

"A heat pump is really nothing more than an air conditioner -- with something special inside it -- it's called a reversing valve," said Chad Podolak, program manager for demand response at Nebraska Public Power District.

That reversing valve can redirect the refrigerant in the pump so in the summertime cool air is directed inside while the hot air created is released outside. In the wintertime, the heat created by the refrigerant is directed inside the house and can meet about 70 percent of the home's heating needs, he said.

Heat pumps cost a bit more initially -- but will quickly pay for themselves during the heating season, Podolak said.

"The majority of the new homes today are putting in heat pumps," he said. "If you go with a gas heating system, you'll probably spend about $300 to $500 more for a heat pump, but you'll get that back in a year or two for sure," Podolak said.

He estimated a new furnace and air conditioner will cost about $4,000. A new furnace and heat pump will cost abut $4,300 to $4,500. But because the heat pump is more energy efficient -- measured in the "coefficient of performance" operation expenses are lower for the heat pump.

Most gas furnaces are 80 to 95 percent efficient, while air-source heat pumps in Nebraska weather run about 200 percent efficient or greater, Podolak said.

An average 1,500-square-foot ranch home spends about $1,216 a year to heat with an 80 percent efficient natural gas furnace. That compares to $354 for a water source heat pump, $649 a year with an electric heat pump or $773 a year for a heat pump added on to the natural gas furnace.

But Monte Hehnke, co-owner of Jerry's Sheet Metal, said while heat pumps are low cost to run, they operate best in 50 degree to 20 degree temperatures. Homes still need another heat source for when temps drop below 20 degrees. High efficiency furnaces make a good complement.

For cooling, heat pumps are comparable.

"A heat pump is no different than an air conditioner -- it's the same compressor and everything," Hehnke said.

Heat pumps also come in water source and geothermal models, which often are best suited to rural applications where there's more land available for the underground piping necessary for those models, Podolak and Hehnke said.

When it comes to cooling, getting an efficient model is the key. Efficiency is indicated in a Seer rating  -- the seasonal energy efficiency ratio -- Hehnke said.

Seer is an indication how efficient a cooling unit is. The minimum level a manufacturer can make today is 13 Seer, Podolak said. A 13 Seer costs about $186 to run a year, according to NPPD cost comparison charts.

About two to three years ago the minimum Seer was 10, which cost about $220 a year to operate.

The higher Seer rating the more efficient -- the less energy it takes to deliver the same amount of cooling. Twenty-year-old air conditioners are likely 7 Seer and cost about $346 a year to run.

Hehnke said other key factors to keeping cooling costs down are to service air conditioners or heat pumps annually, clean filters, and clean outdoor coils.

"The main thing is keeping the outdoor coils clean, but don't do that as a homeowner, you've got to do it the right way and do it from the inside out," Hehnke said.

Maintaining freon levels is also important, and there's a change coming. R22 -- a freon popular for decades -- is being eliminated in 2010. Greener products are on the market, but cost more and may prompt folks with older, less-efficient air conditioning units, to consider an upgrade to a unit that requires less refrigerant.

Hehnke said the important thing is to ask questions about efficiency, consider fuel sources and fuel costs.

Podolak also advised to check into special loans for high efficiency heating and cooling units.

Use the heating and cooling calculator to estimate the cost of operating a furnace, air conditioner and heat pump. Find the calculator at nppd.com. Click on "services" then "my home" and "residential" to find the cost calculators.

The Grand Island Independent