When do people install heat pumps?

This quick survey was intended to explore the timing of people’s decision to install heat pumps. It seems to confirm anecdotal evidence that most people install heat pumps either to go green or for air-conditioning benefits; it is rare for a heat pump conversion to be driven by a need to replace a heating system. In this survey, only 2% said they installed heat pumps to replace a failed heating system and only 13% said they installed to replace a system that was near end of life.

The survey was conducted by emailing a subset of my office mailing list: 1364 people who had recently clicked on stories about heat pumps. The survey was open for 24 hours from Thursday, June 29 to Friday, June 30 — obviously not a great window to get a high response rate. 170 people responded.

Survey responses by planning vs. installed heat pumps (N=170)

Respondent CountRespondent %
I am planning a first-time heat pump installation.5633%
I have installed at least one heat pump.11467%

The primary finding of the survey was that conversion is rarely a result of heating system failure. This makes intuitive sense because system failures usually require an immediate response and heat pump conversions tend to involve a more elaborate planning process.

Survey responses to “I installed or am planning to install a heat pump primarily because of . . .” (N=170).

Respondent CountRespondent %
. . . desire for increased air conditioning7444%
. . . heating system near end of life2213%
. . . heating system failure32%
. . . desire to go green as soon as possible5935%
. . . other/combo127%

The survey questions were not perfect. Conceivably some people who faced heating system failure thought of themselves as choosing heat pumps for one of the other reasons, but the very small (2%) rate of “heating system failure” as a reason is persuasive. Download anonymous raw survey data here.

Additional comments appreciated!

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  1. I live in Watertown but am contemplating the heat pump for our house in Truro.

    1. Depending on the type of heating system you have make sure you have some sort of fossil fuel heat – this can work in combination with a heat pump. Heat pumps are great in New England for the spring , summer and fall – However winter months are expensive due to the cost of electricity – a switch over temperature for heating should be set to 35-45 degrees outside temperature. Now oddly if you have steam heat – find a heating company that specializes in steam – Most likely it was converted from coal to oil and later replaced with a boiler – but if you get a steam specialist it can be very efficient to heat with steam but the secret is that the building temperature needs to be kept constant

      1. Sorry my quote from last week was 23K PER UNIT, so $46K for whole house. Again no need to add ducts/ split systems etc in our case.

    2. I have true split zone heat/AC due to installation requirements of my house ten-plus years ago.
      Quote for replacement with heat pumps = 23K. I already have ducts so don’t need added expense of split systems etc. All would need to be replaced when new refrigerants become mandatory in X years.

  2. We have an air-to-water heat pump system in a house with original radiant heat throughout.

  3. Done in connection with a major house reconstruction, converting our single-family home into a two-family.

  4. We had our heat pump (two indoor units, one outdoor) installed in Fall 2022, and mainly for the AC. However, it also ended up taking most of the heating load (>%70?) off of our natural gas boiler. We did the MassSave energy audit–and were able to re-insulate our attic for almost nothing–so the house holds heat/cold very well.

  5. Heat pumps in the Northeast are maginal at best, expecially in the city like Boston. They have trouble keeping up when it’s really cold and use a ton of electricty in this situation . Not good. Gas in Boston is very inexpensive and in my opinion much better to provide heating and hot water. In VT, the situation is even worse. You need a supplemental gas fired heater on top of the electric due to the cold.

  6. We will most likely wait for next-gen heatpumps to become available. The benefits of installing one right now are not compelling. We also feel that the MassSave contractors are jacking up prices because of the rebates that are available, which doesn’t seem right.

    1. I believe you are correct about the jacking up of prices. I have a friend in the industry who says a heat pump install down south without the rebates is less than what we pay in New England with the rebate.

  7. Last year, we installed 4 LG ductless minisplit heat pumps with 16 interior units (one in each room of our single-family home). They are providing the majority of heat – only turned on the gas heat on the very coldest days last winter; and all the A/C. I don’t know if we are saving money. It seems to be about what have we spent in the past, just more on electricity and less on gas. But the house has never been this comfortable.

  8. We installed a heat pump to help heat/cool one section of the house that was more exposed to the elements. We have solar panels and hoped we could generate the electricity needed to keep that area comfortable. We’ve been frustrated with technical failings of the heat pump, though. For two years in a row, it has leaked out all of its refrigerant. That means we paid thousands of dollars trying to be green but ended up actually hurting the environment. Maddening.

      1. Greetings to Senator Brownsberger and/or his amanuenses.
        Not being alone in point of public-good pursuits means much; thank you.

  9. Belmont Light customers who replace heating oil furnaces with heat pumps are not entitled to any MassSave rebates (which are available only to Belmont Light customers who heat with natural gas). Belmont Light has its own smaller rebate program for customers who replace heating oil systems with air heat pumps. However, Ben Therveig at Belmont Light has authorized similar rebates for customers who replace heating oil systems with ground water heat pumps, even though ground water heat pumps are not mentioned on the Belmont Light rebate web page.

  10. Like some others, will be installing heat pumps in home I am renovating on the cape. Home currently is passive solar with propane as back up. Rarely turn back up on in winter. The sun coming through 16 skylights on the south side of house and perfect insulation keeps the home very comfortable in the winter. Heat pumps will be used primarily for A/C and dehumidifying in summer

  11. Hoping our gas furnace will hang in there until air heat pumps are able to heat NE homes without the need for a back-up system on colder days.

  12. We installed a heat pump several years ago, principally to replace our too-noisy window AC, we were pleased to learn it can also heat which we now use instead of (or in addition too) gas/hot water. because it has zones – and reduces greenhouse gases (depending on what the electric company does, of course).

  13. My heat pump was installed last year and fully replaced oil, worked great even on the -10 day.

  14. I installed an air-to-air central heat hump for AC, which provides summer cooling as well as heating in transition seasons, but it doesn’t have capacity for winter heating, plus I prefer radiator heat. I still can’t find a suitable air-to-water heat pump to replace/supplement my oil boiler (which I run on B50 biofuel) for my radiators. Although you can get efficient (e.g., COP>3) high-temperature-output air-to-water heat pumps in other countries (Ireland, Germany, Korea etc.) they do not seem to be available in the US for some reason. Once they are, then we can keep our radiators and still use heat pumps!

  15. We live in Belmont and plan to install heat pumps this year in our house in Eastham, also to cut down noise and we are getting too
    old to put air conditioners in and out.
    In Belmont we are having solar panels installed this month. We heat and cool only the room(s) we are using at any one
    time, that would require too many heat pumps in a large house, solar makes more sense.

  16. Heat pumps installed in early fall and have been great at keeping the house warm, hardly used the gas forced hot water system; but did turn it on overnight when we had -10 degree cold, just to be sure pipes would not freeze in the basement.
    It is now SO nice not to be dealing with 3 window AC units. The house is quite cool.

  17. We installed a split system (basically still a heat pump) mostly to provide air conditioning, but have found it is more efficient (cheaper) than a gas boiler down to temps around 20 degrees. We have a hydronic system with high efficiency gas boiler for colder temperatures. My hope is to convert to geothermal in the future.

  18. We are contemplating heat pumps for our two-family to replace two gas based steam systems. The steam has given us no issues with one system at about 15 years old and the other at about 11. The new systems would also provide more efficient air conditioning when needed. We probably will delay since the systems we have run at 80% efficiency and work well. At this point it is difficult to determine if keeping the system or switching is the best in the short-term for the environment.

  19. We are waiting until heat pumps become more affordable and efficient before we move forward with the installation to our 100+ yr old Brighton 2 family with a 15 year old gas furnace for a steam radiator system. We expect to wait at least 5 years at this time. We look forward to a system that will replace our 8 window air conditioning units that we lug out of closets an up and down stairs.

  20. I think a word was omitted in the analysis of hat pumps installed as a result to heating system failure. One comment I’d make is that in new england and in an older house heat pumps are not as effective as traditional heating systems. Unless the owner is willing to super-insulate(Passivhaus level) the heat pump may not be sufficient.

    1. Thank you. Fixed the typo.

      Definitely agree that more insulation makes heat pump installation more likely to be successful. I don’t think it needs to be at the Passivhaus level, but this is a really important question: What is the right level of insulation to be targeting? There is zero consensus on the answer to this question.

  21. This is actually very interesting because I would’ve thought switching to heat pumps because of system failures would’ve made more sense just because it’s good timing for it. However, now that I’ve thought about it, it makes sense— our HVAC system has been down a couple months and between price comparisons for contractors, and finally deciding to go down the heat pump route, it’s been tedious. I can confirm that the Mass save stuff is not the most straightforward process and I’m actually waiting on a call back so I can understand a little better what I’m actually eligible for and what the next best steps are.

    Anyways, at least we have fans, for now!

  22. In the survey, I checked going green as the primary motivation for our air-source heat pump installation last January (minisplits: 1 condenser, 6 interior heads, 2 on each floor). But added AC was a close second, and an aging gas furnace was also a factor. We didn’t want to wait for an emergency, since, as you say, it takes (potentially a lot) more time to design and install a custom new heat pump system than to swap in a new gas furnace, especially since we heard from every HVAC contractor who saw them that our existing air ducts were not suitable for central AC. (We couldn’t afford a gut renovation.)

    We did leave the gas furnace in place but set it to 58F, so it would run only if the heat pumps weren’t keeping up and the water pipes might be threatened. It ran only during the one sub-zero night last winter. Our solar panels don’t cover 100% of our electricity use in the coldest months (with heating now added to car charging and electric heat-pump water heating). But when we do use net power from the grid, we buy Massachusetts wind power credits.

    If we’d known about the coming change in refrigerant requirements, we would have waited a couple more years. But we’re enjoying the easy switch to (very quiet) cooling this summer. Our >160-yr-old Watertown house is now much more comfortable in hot weather.

  23. It might’ve been useful to add the line for those who do not plan to install one and, maybe, the reason for it.
    Those opinions should be dynamic as well. Some people might have changed their mind.

  24. We have 10-year old heat pumps that we meticulously maintain. We have had a couple of leaks and we got them repaired quickly. We have solar panels, which has erased our electricity bills for 8 months of the year. I think we would consider reinstalling new heat pumps when the technology becomes available.

    With the vintage units that we have, we turn on our steam/gas boiler for Dec–Jan–Feb–some of March because the heat pumps do not keep us warm when it gets really cold. Our house is well-insulated with attic insulation, although Mass Save has told us to increase that insulation by 9 inches. We have not done that yet.

    I love this discussion. We are in the midst of a major energy transition, given climate change and these possibilities give us all some control over our personal carbon footprints. That accountability is only possible because some of us can afford it. This needs to be subsidized to enable everyone to choose this as a comfortable way to free us from fossil fuels.

  25. I definitely would have checked multiple factors had that been an option. Moved to install the heat pump system for several reasons; old gas burner system; AC window units not very efficient or effective; desire to be more energy efficient given climate projections.

  26. Has anyone had any experience with heat pumps causing air to become too dry in winter months? I am planning to install one, but am concerned it will make the already dry indoor air even drier.

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