Why Choose a Heat Pump vs. a Traditional Furnace (Podcast)

Why Choose a Heat Pump vs. a Traditional Furnace

Brett Rogenski, General Manager of N.E.T.R., Inc., talks about the reasons for choosing a heat pump to heat your home over a traditional furnace.

John: Hi, I’m John Maher, and I’m here today with Brett Rogenski, General Manager of N.E.T.R., Inc., a heating and cooling company in Massachusetts with a focus on Mitsubishi ductless heating and cooling products. Today our topic is why choose a heat pump versus a traditional furnace. Welcome, Brett.

Brett: Thanks for having me, John. I appreciate it. 

Advantages of Heat Pumps over Furnaces

John: Sure. So Brett, as we’re comparing heat pumps or ductless systems, what are some of the primary advantages of choosing a heat pump over a traditional furnace for home heating? 

Consistent Comfort

Brett: Great question. I could list about 50 of them, and I won’t do that to you, but the biggest one that I can list is comfort, consistent comfort. So heat pumps work with an inverter and the way their scroll compressor works, they don’t have great variability in their temperature. So it’s like setting up the cruise control on your car, when you tell it to do 75, it gets to 75. When it starts going a little faster, it kind of touches the brake, throttles back the engine. When it needs to speed up, it does. So it doesn’t wait until it’s doing 70, it gets there. That’s what you have with heat pumps. Heat pumps actually allow you to really closely control the temperature that you want, and some other settings, so that you have nice comfort as opposed to, “Hey, I’m hot. Hey, I’m cold.” Back and forth, back and forth. So I think that that’s one of the great advantages of heat pumps and ductless over traditional furnaces. 

Zoning with Ductless

John: And then there’s also the aspect of being able to really zone your house, I think a little bit more so than you would with a traditional furnace, where you might just have a couple of zones upstairs and downstairs and that’s it. But with a ductless system, you could have an indoor unit in every room of your house and have every room set at a different temperature, right?

Brett: That’s absolutely right. So ductless systems, you’re right. A traditional system typically has, using the example of a colonial that we have a lot of in New England, the upstairs is one zone, the downstairs is another zone, whatever it’s set to, that’s what that whole area, its temperature is. With ductless, you typically put a head, a heating and cooling device, in each space you’d like to control. So if you have three bedrooms upstairs and then maybe a kitchen/dining area and then a living room area downstairs, each one of those can get its own head, and each one of those can have its own independent comfort settings.

So if mom and dad like the bedroom at 72, they can set that to 72. It’ll maintain that. If your son wants it arctic, he likes 65, he can set his room to 65 and your daughter can make hers whatever, 78, whatever makes her happy. So each of those is independent and able to be controlled by the user.

The other thing that you can do is you can shut each of those off when they’re not in use. So instead of cooling an entire floor, when someone’s only in one of those bedrooms, you can shut off the other units and simply provide heating and cooling to that one space that’s being occupied, so it helps with your efficiency.

Heating and Cooling in One

John: Now, heat pumps are also known for their dual functionality where they provide both heat and cooling capabilities. Can you explain a little bit more about how that versatility benefits homeowners?

Brett: Sure, absolutely. If you think about a traditional heating and cooling system, you’re talking about two completely separate systems. On occasion, they may share duct work together, but you have two separate mechanical systems. You have a heating solution, which is a furnace, a boiler, or something like that. And then you have a cooling solution, which is, let’s think of a central air conditioning system, condenser outside and stuff. Each of those needs to be maintained separately. They each have their own infrastructure, they each need to be cleaned, etc.

When you work with a heat pump, a heat pump does both by means of a thing called a reversing valve. So when you’re using it for cooling, the indoor units are collecting the heat that’s in a room, transferring it to the refrigerant lines, and then taking it and dumping it outside with the condenser. And then when that reversing valve switches, so let’s say in the fall, we start going into a warming mode, that switches, it just turns the whole process around and the outdoor condenser starts collecting the heat that’s in the ambient air outside, warming up that refrigerant, sending it into those indoor units and releasing that heat into the house.

So you only have one system to maintain. It’s doing all your heating, all your cooling, one set of infrastructure. And they’re also, quite frankly, a bit simpler than traditional air conditioning and heating systems, meaning that you’re not dealing with open flames, burning oil, burning gas, etc., to heat your home. It’s all electric. So that’s a much simpler system to maintain overall. 

Sustainability and Environmental Benefits of Ductless

John: Are there any long-term sustainability and environmental benefits of using a heat pump system versus a traditional furnace?

Brett: Sure, absolutely. And we’re starting to see more and more of that. If you read the news, you’re seeing that there’s legislation, some of which is in place, some of which is being considered, not just in Massachusetts, but in many places in the United States about eliminating or reducing natural gas use, fuel oil use, several of those things. So it’s better for the environment in that we’re decarbonizing. This is a completely electric system. So whether you’re in a heating mode or a cooling mode, you’re using electricity at a very high efficiency to heat or cool your home as opposed to using, for instance, natural gas being burned in a furnace, which is releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

There’s also a lot of concern now about side effects relative to natural gas. So obviously we don’t exhaust natural gas into our house. We’d all be dead. But even in low levels, they’re now finding that there are contaminants that are released into the house, for the example from a gas stove, and the same applies to a gas furnace or boiler that they think may be detrimental to people’s health. So you’re starting to see certain communities actually consider legislation where you won’t even be able to have a gas stove, and it’s because of health reasons. None of those concerns exist with ductless. Again, it’s an all-electric system. There is zero combustion. 

Cold Climate Heat Pumps

John: Right. Okay. So one concern that’s often raised by homeowners who are considering putting a heat pump in their house is its performance in colder climates, like you said, we’re here in Massachusetts and we get some cold days over the winter. Can you talk a little bit about the advancements in heat pump technology and how they’ve really addressed those concerns recently?

Brett: Sure, absolutely. And that’s kind of a common misnomer because years ago when heat pumps first started appearing in the northeast and in colder climates, that was a legitimate concern, that they weren’t super effective down into the low temperatures, down below freezing, etc. That’s changed now, they’ve changed the technology.

Now, if you are working with a cold climate heat pump – so, every manufacturer offers certain heat pumps that are good to a cool temperature and others that are cold climate certified. So for instance, Mitsubishi offers their hyper heat systems. Those are good to negative 13 degrees Fahrenheit. So that means that they’ve been tested and certified, that they can meet a heating load to negative 13 Fahrenheit, as opposed to, in years past, that might’ve been down into the single digits [where] they could be effective.

And they do that through a multitude of advancements in technology, but the biggest one being, they’ve found a way to essentially scavenge extra heat off of the compressor that’s in there and add that in there. That’s how they can keep adding heat down to those super low temperatures. So interesting fact for you, in Boston, typically we think of ourselves as hardy New Englanders up here, and we go, “wow, I don’t know if negative 13 will do it”. On the average year, over the last five years, we’ve had typically fewer than eight days where it hit below zero and less than 40 hours a year where it actually hits below zero.

John: And that’s just below zero, not even at negative 13.

Brett: Exactly. And I will tell you, we had a real cold snap earlier this year. It’s 2023, and I believe it was what, January of 2023. We had some of the coldest days we’ve had in years. We fielded not one call about a hyper heat pump not performing correctly. Certainly some people had systems that break, we get that every day and that sort of thing, but we didn’t have any that weren’t keeping up with heating load and not functioning the way they were.

John: And that negative 13 is not just like, well, at negative 10 degrees, it’s barely functioning. It’s that you’re getting the full heat out of it at that temperature.

Brett: At negative 13, you’re getting full load of heat out of that. Exactly.

John: Amazing.

Brett: It really is amazing. And again, it’s very different than maybe some of the misnomers that are left over from 10 and 20 years ago. 

Initial Investment & Ongoing Maintenance Savings

John: So, when you’re evaluating the overall cost of ownership, how do heat pumps compare to traditional furnaces in terms of the initial investment and then ongoing maintenance and energy efficiency and savings?

Brett: So, every situation’s a little bit unique, and that’s why we offer free consultations because we’re here to tell you what all your choices are. What I would tell you is overall total cost of ownership over the life of a system, heat pumps are almost always your least expensive option over conventional systems. Again, remember, a heat pump is two systems in one. It’s your cooling system and it’s your heating system, all in one. Frequently people make the error where they look at it as, “oh, this is a replacement for my heating system”. No, it’s not. It’s both. You don’t have a cooling system right now, maybe. So yes, you’re replacing your heating system and you’re getting a heating and cooling system. So simply replacing your furnace would be less expensive, yes. But you’re not getting all those other benefits and the efficiency.

So what we found is that total cost of ownership is lower with heat pumps, and part of that comes from the energy efficiency savings over time compared to other traditional loads. The other thing is electrical prices, they’re certainly variable, but they’re not as variable as petroleum-based products. So gas, oil, all those things. So from a budgeting point of view, you’re not going to get as surprised with an electric based system like a heat pump in terms of your costs on a monthly basis.

John: Whereas you might say, “oh wow, this year my heating bill is twice as much as it was last year”, because all of a sudden the cost of oil is way up.

Brett: Yeah. We all know that there’s a lot of variability there and a lot of it’s based on global implications and that sort of thing. Yeah, it eliminates that. So again, when you look at that now, the other thing that makes that a lot sweeter, in Massachusetts particularly, is that we have a really robust program in Mass Save.

So Mass Save offers rebates up to $10,000 on air-source mini splits, and that’s in addition to the efficiency savings that you’re going to get. The other thing that Mass Save offers is something called heat loans. So you can get, if you qualify, an 84 month, 0% interest loan when you replace your fossil fuel system with a mini-split system, with an air source heat pump. So in addition to the math just working from the get-go over the long run, now you talk about rebates up to $10,000, you talk about the IRA, which is a federal tax credit program being available to you, usually that most people can qualify for up to $2,000 there and then take the rest and finance at 0% interest for 84 months, it makes it really attractive.

John: And how does that compare to, are there rebates that are still available for traditional furnaces, or how do the heat pump rebates compare?

Brett: Sure. So traditional furnaces have very few rebates available to them now because Mass Save is really deep down, it’s a decarbonization program, so there are certain things that can qualify because their efficiency has improved so much. But yeah, there’s very few options out there except for going down a decarbonization option. So if you’re looking to take advantage of those rebates, tax credits and zero interest loans, you really want to look at air source heat pumps.

John: All right, well that’s really great information, Brett. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Brett: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

John: And for more information, you can visit the website at netrinc.com or call 781-933-NETR. That’s 781-933-6387.