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How a Heat Pump Can Supplement Your Oil or Propane System

In the last blog post, we discussed the unique opportunity for energy savings with a central air conditioning upgrade to a heat pump.  This is compelling at the moment because of the disparity in fuel prices per usable energy unit of output: this is generally referred to as BTUs (British Thermal Units).  

As we have discussed before, it is not as simple as comparing the price per gallon with typical heating fuels because they are expressed in different units, so it is not possible to compare apples to apples when looking at the advertised price without doing some serious math.

We presented a revealing graph showing the difference in cost per million BTUs of energy delivered.  Currently, there is a premium on fuel oil and propane compared with natural gas and electric heat—surprisingly—if you are using that electric heat to power a heat pump. As fuel prices fluctuate, a decision to make an upgrade should never be based on the volatility in commodity prices over the short term.  

However, at this point, the longer term trends indicate conversion or supplementation may be sensible for many homeowners in this region. Individual circumstances make a big difference. The size of your family, lifestyle needs, maintenance, and the size, type and even the condition of your current home are factors. In short, there are many factors that are important in the decision-making process.

If you have or are considering, central air conditioning, this is an ideal time to consider a heat pump as an alternative.  A heat pump is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than use electricity to directly heat your home, like a conventional light bulb or a hair dryer, the electricity is used to power a motor which moves heat rather than directly converting electricity to heat.

Heat pump technology is not new, and, although more sophisticated than conventional air conditioning, it is not especially high tech or complicated in theory. A heat pump is a central air conditioning unit with reversing components built in so it can function backward in the winter time. When “reversed,” it moves the heat in the opposite direction from the summer.  

An air conditioner moves warm air out of your house. If we flip the components we can move warm air into your house in the wintertime. It seems counter-intuitive that you can move warm air “in” when it’s cold outside, but we do that with our household refrigerators every day.  We move warm air “out” of the cold refrigerator. I am oversimplifying it a bit, but the reality is that this technology is underutilized because of a lack of understanding.  

An air-to-air heat pump is a specific type that is an upgrade from a conventional central air system but not a huge leap in expense.  A geothermal heat pump is quite a bit more efficient than an air-to-air heat pump, but it is in an entirely different investment category. Geothermal heat pumps can cost two or three times more than a conventional heat pump system.

There is a myth that heat pumps do not work well in this region, and it is quite ridiculous. There are thousands in this area and they have been here for decades providing efficient and dependable heating and cooling. When fuel oil was a dollar a gallon or less, one could argue whether they made sense as an alternative, but it is hard to argue the economics any more. They do require someone who knows how to apply, install, and service them properly, but this is true of almost any modern piece of energy-saving mechanical equipment.  

With fossil fuel prices where they are, it makes a lot of sense to have an alternative. The air-to-air heat pump can serve that purpose while providing central air conditioning in the summer as well. Comfort, convenience, energy savings and peace of mind make this an easy and smart choice.

Next Week…  Geothermal!