Climate Dispatch: Try heat pump instead of A/C unit (Opinion) |

Climate Dispatch: Try heat pump instead of A/C unit (Opinion)

This summer, Truckee experienced hazardous levels of smoke for the third year in a row. With summer temperatures projected to rise and window ventilation rendered useless and even dangerous during smoke season, you may be considering installing an air conditioner. Indeed, keeping cool and preserving air quality are now matters of health and safety like never before. 

But before you invest in a new air conditioner, consider investigating a heat pump. A heat pump acts as both a heating and cooling system, meaning that the same unit can replace an old furnace and provide AC. Heat pumps are highly efficient and provide stable temperatures, a significantly lower carbon footprint, and improved indoor air quality. More and more people are making the switch – even in cold climates. 

How does a heat pump work? Instead of using energy to create heat, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another. In heating mode, the heat pump absorbs heat energy from outside air (even in very cold temperatures) and transfers it inside. When in cooling mode, a heat pump and an air conditioner are functionally identical, absorbing heat from inside and releasing it outside. This technology makes a heat pump three to four times more efficient than a gas furnace and about twice as efficient as an electric resistance heating system. This translates to greenhouse gas savings and, in some cases, energy bill savings.  

Heat pumps also filter indoor air in many configurations, capturing airborne contaminants like smoke, viruses, dust, fibers, bacteria, fungi and mold spores and leaving your home air clean. This is especially critical during wildfire season, when hazardous levels of smoke threaten to contaminate our indoor refuges. 

You may have heard that heat pumps don’t work in cold climates. This is an outdated reputation. Today’s cold climate heat pumps (if sized correctly) can deliver heat efficiently down to –22°F, temperatures that we simply do not see in the Tahoe/Truckee region. While it’s true that a heat pump’s efficiency will decline somewhat as it approaches its design temperature, today’s heat pumps can still deliver 100% efficiency at 0°F.

Particularly in Truckee, electricity is implicated in significantly fewer emissions than natural gas. The Truckee Donner Public Utility District, which serves the majority of Truckee, currently provides electricity that is over 60% renewable, with plans to reach 70% by the end of the year. Even with a much lower renewable percentage, (say, Liberty or NV Energy’s 30%), efficient electric systems like heat pumps are responsible for fewer emissions than gas systems. These savings are even greater when considering methane leakage associated with natural gas extraction and transmission. As our utilities continue to move toward sourcing 100% renewable electricity, these emissions savings will only continue to grow.

Commonly, residents worry about the resilience of electric HVAC systems due to power outages. This is an incredibly important concern. However, most gas-powered furnaces or boilers will not work in a power outage either (mine sure doesn’t!), as they rely on electricity to perform critical functions. In fact, any gas boiler or furnace that meets current code efficiency requirements cannot operate without power. Thus, no matter your heat source, it is recommended to have backup for power outages whether it be a battery, woodstove, natural gas stove or a diesel generator. There are already all-electric homes in the Tahoe Basin where homeowners have successfully navigated these challenges. 

There is no denying that HVAC upgrades are expensive, and making this investment is not possible for everyone. However, the TDPUD currently provides up to $4,000 in rebates for heat pumps, and the Inflation Reduction Act recently passed an additional suite of generous rebates and tax incentives for heat pumps that will be funneled through the State. State, federal, and local incentives will continue to emerge as energy reduction efforts proliferate, making the technology more and more accessible. 

The most cost-effective time to switch to a heat pump is when you need to replace your old heating system and want to install AC. But make sure to plan ahead, as supply chain delays and contractor schedules can make for long wait times. 

When it comes to climate change, the most effective individual actions are the ones that scale. According to Truckee’s 2016 Community Greenhouse Gas Inventory, building energy emissions are responsible for 59% of our total community emissions, with residential buildings responsible for the bulk of that. Thus, decarbonizing our building stock is the most effective avenue for Truckee to reduce its GHG emissions, and each person has an opportunity to contribute.

If you want to stay cool and healthy through wildfire season, enhance your home comfort and fight climate change, a heat pump could be the thing for you. 

Sara Sherburne works on greenhouse gas reduction programs for the Town of Truckee. In her free time, she is an avid skier, mountain biker, farmers market attendee and aspiring gardener.

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