Region’s HVAC systems go electric

Carissa Unite, manager at Oblong Books in Millerton, with one of the store’s electric ductless mini-split units for dispersing warm or cool air, depending on the season, using air-source heat pump technology.

Janna Siller

Region’s HVAC systems go electric

DUTCHESS COUNTY, N.Y., and LITCHFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — “Installations are increasing every day,” said Charlie Lillis, who co-owns L&L Mechanical in Goshen, Connecticut, with his wife, Lisa. Two years ago, the Lillises added heat pumps to the propane- and heating oil-based systems they install and service. Today, heat pumps comprise about 80% of the installations they do.

Many homeowners and businesses in the region are switching their heating and cooling systems to electric air-source heat pump technology.

They are distinct from ground-source heat pumps, which are more expensive, and from the more historically common HVAC systems used in the region like boilers, furnaces and air conditioners.

Local contractor Jason Lemon is having a similar experience: “I use them all the time. I just put two in the newly renovated Terni’s building in Millerton, and used them in what used to be the Falls Village Gift Shop.”

Heat pumps are single electric appliances that can heat, cool and dehumidify. They absorb heat energy from the air and transfer it from one place to another, pulling heat out of a building in summer and into it in the winter, even when outdoor temperatures are at their coldest.

Heat pumps can rely on ducts to disperse heated and cooled air, or wall-mounted units called mini-splits. They are more efficient than boilers and furnaces, and they do not require propane or heating oil. Some property owners use them as supplemental HVAC units while others replace their fossil fuel-based systems with heat pumps entirely.

“We have an older forced air system in the building,” said Meg Sher, director of the David M. Hunt Library in Falls Village, Connecticut, “but mini-splits do the main job of heating the library’s big main room.”

Carissa Unite, store manager at Oblong Books in Millerton, said that eight wall-hanging mini-splits were installed there last year, some on each of the store’s three floors. The new system is very popular among the booksellers who spend their days in the historic building.

“The middle-grade section used to be an oven in the summer,” said Oblong Junior’s children’s bookseller Therese Stanford. “Now that we have the mini-split down here, the store stays evenly cool throughout the summer, and warm in winter. Customers stay longer.”

Rebates and federal tax incentives make the cost of installing heat pumps competitive with boiler, furnace and air conditioner installations. Lillis found that with last year’s rebates, it was cheaper to install a heat pump system than a traditional air conditioner. This year’s rates are a little lower and Lillis is finding the cost to be about even for both.

“Customers in many cases can be eligible for rebates of up to $4,000. It depends on the size and type of system that is installed,” said Ricardo Jordan, energy efficiency manager for Eversource, the electricity delivery company operating in northwest Connecticut.

Jordan recommends that customers interested in exploring heat pumps go to the EnergizeCT website, a collaboration between the state and utility companies to increase electrification statewide:

“Residents can schedule a no-cost consultation with a heat pump specialist through EnergizeCT to learn about rebates and incentives, to ask technical questions and to find qualified contractors. Our Home Energy Solutions Program can provide homeowners with an in-home assessment of energy savings options for their space and can bring in a certified heat pump installer to conduct an assessment. There is additional support for those who are income-eligible.”

As for his sense of whether customers are seeing savings on their energy bills, Lillis said: “They’re definitely saving money. People call saying, ‘I’m not paying for oil anymore and my electric bill didn’t go up too much.’”

When asked about the cons of a heat pump system, Lillis had trouble thinking of any. “With a heat pump, the temperatures coming out of the vent are a lot lower than oil or gas systems, so it will take longer to heat up an already cold house,” Lillis said. “It’s best to leave the system set at a consistent temperature.”

While heat pump systems are known for being quiet, the compressor outside needs to be thoughtfully placed, as it can make noise like a traditional air conditioning compressor.

“Tens of thousands of heat pumps have been installed in Connecticut,” said Jordan. “Customers are telling us that they want this in their homes, they want to go off fossil fuels. Because of that demand, we have developed programs to help people navigate the process. There is a network of trained, qualified contractors listed on our website who know how to work with our programs.”

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