Our Northwest Economy
11:20 am
Tue May 25, 2010

"Ductless Heat Pumps" Could Replace Baseboard Heaters

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – If you use electric heat, your utility may be willing to pay you to upgrade to a more efficient system. They're targeting the roughly one million Northwest households that use electric baseboard heaters to stay cozy and warm. The hot new thing in home heating is called the “ductless heat pump.” Never heard of that before? Neither had we. So we sent correspondent Tom Banse to find out what a ductless heat pump is.

Last fall, Emily Watrous and her husband bought their first house. They fell for a one story 1960's era rambler on a cul-de-sac in suburban Lynnwood, Washington. Home ownership is great...except for those winter heating bills.

Emily Watrous: “We have these old funky baseboard heaters that crack and sizzle and pop all night.”

The new house costs way more to heat than the condo where the couple lived before.

Emily Watrous: “I would not let my husband turn the heat on. I was like,‘Don't turn on the heat. Get a blanket, get a coat. Don't turn it on here.'”

Eventually, Emily called her local utility, Snohomish County PUD, for advice. They recommended she replace her baseboard heaters with something she'd never heard of before, a ductless heat pump. What got her attention was a promised savings of 25 to 50 percent on the cost to heat.

Emily Watrous: “So I was sold on it. Then I had to call my husband and tell him I think we found what we need for our house. And I said, ‘Plus it's an air conditioner in the summer.' He said, ‘Ok, totally, we'll do it.'”

The installation of a ductless heat pump cost the Watrous' more than $4,000. She estimates a payback period of less than ten years. As the name suggests, there's no ductwork involved. That saves money on installation. Plus ducts are being painted these days as inefficient.

The new gizmo has two main parts. The indoor fan unit is going up now on the living room wall. It looks like a narrow air conditioner. Tubes go through the wall to the outside to connect it to a box-sized compressor next to the garage.

Kevin Breiwick of Blue Flame Heating and Air Conditioning oversees the installation. He says ductless heat pumps have become the standard for heating and cooling in Asia and Europe. The system is only now catching on in the U.S. residential market.

Kevin Breiwick: “This house is perfect because you're heated by baseboard. It's not a large house. You have a centrally located fan unit. You're able to heat the living room, dining room, kitchen and push air down the hall as well. So you're not getting a heating unit typically in every room. But in a lot of situations like with this house, you're not having to.”

Now all of the large utilities in the Northwest are pushing the little-known product. They're working through a consortium called the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. Project manager Alexis Allen says the goal is nothing short of market transformation.

Alexis Allen: “We want to put one ductless heat pump in your main living area of your home and displace the majority of your electric heat use.”

This kind of resembles how someone might use a wood stove. Utilities are offering rebates up to $1,500 per customer. On top of that some homeowners may also qualify for state or federal energy tax credits. Even so, Allen expects a transformation in home heating will take years.

Alexis Allen: “There are definitely market barriers that we have addressed. We're having to build consumer awareness in partnership with our utilities throughout the region. We're having to make sure that we have a whole supply chain that is aware of these technologies and aware of the programs available in the Northwest region.”

Ductless heat pumps may not be the thing for everyone. The size and the look of the indoor fan unit is a turnoff for some consumers. For large homes, or for homes with existing ductwork, installers says a different solution may work better. Still...

Alexis Allen: “We think that we have roughly about a million homes that this technology is applicable for in the Northwest. If we can capture that, that's about 440 average megawatts of savings. So that's a substantial energy savings for our region.”

Nearly equal to one medium-sized coal plant if enough people make the switch.