Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Great Technology is Only 1/2 of the Equation

Our local newspaper, the Valley News, recently ran an article about heat pumps titled, "Innovation, or Just Hot Air?". The article references a Vermont Public Service Department report, which found that in 77 studied heat pump installations, "the average annual energy cost savings was approximately $200.00 per heat pump, significantly less than had been assumed before the study."

Rapidly increasing sales of heat pumps have impacted wood and wood pellet boiler sales, so it would be easy for Tarm Biomass to pick a fight based on the Vermont study. Yeah, yeah. Not this time. It was clear to us long before the study was published that heat pumps are being over-sold. We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop for a couple years.

Rarely has there been an appliance that is so easy to sell as cold climate heat pumps. Heat pumps are like a magic box that heats and cools. Large savings are advertised. It's, "Hey, you can cut your heating bill in the winter and in the summer you'll have air conditioning that is almost like a central air conditioner." Installation is also relatively simple. We even have heard that heat pumps are renewable energy sources. Of course that isn't any more accurate than concluding that your refrigerator is a renewable energy source. That false attribute is so easy to twist into a sales presentation. Heat pumps are power consumers.

The problem with heat pumps isn't the technology itself. Heat pumps are brilliant technology. No, the problem is a multi-faceted human problem. Homeowners are hungry for inexpensive ways to save money and conserve energy, to do the right thing. The words "heat pump" just sound miraculous. The folks who are selling and installing heat pumps aren't doing so with energy conservation as the primary goal; or, if they are, they are failing. Energy incentive program managers are not carefully reviewing proposed installations to know that incentives are working toward their conservation goals. The well known truth is that heat pumps don't provide efficiency and conservation benefits in every application.

This problem with sales and installation in the energy world is not unique to heat pumps. We see it in the renewable wood heating world. We see it in the fossil fuel heating world. it is a BIG problem. Propane and natural gas boilers are sold with the promise of 90+% efficient operation, but that is impossible with most heating systems. Unless those boilers condense exhaust, efficiency remains in the low 80s. Oil boilers are almost always over-sized with many producing twice the necessary output, which leads to less efficient operation. Wood boilers are installed with pipes that are too small to send adequate heat to the heating manifold and they smolder instead of burning cleanly. We know a PV installer who tried to get someone to install 40 panels on a roof facing due west at 4/12 pitch. The power output reduction due to the orientation of the panels was around 25% right off the bat. The company that man worked for was huge at the time and later declared bankruptcy. The promise of clean, green, renewable energy can be a sham if it isn't backed by people with integrity who know their trade.

At Tarm Biomass we are committed to improving the reputation of wood burning. We don't advocate selling wood heat for every application. We spend a huge amount of time on educational materials and training. The boilers we sell self-monitor and are among the cleanest wood burning devices on the planet. As Bob Walker from Vital Communities so smartly said in reference to cold climate heat pumps and pellet boilers in his letter to the Valley News Forum, "These systems can help save money, increase home comfort, and reduce climate change impacts. Central to that is making sure you choose the most appropriate system and that it is professionally installed. "

Cheers, Bob!

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Which would you choose?