Building Electrification Gains Momentum with Heat Pump Adoption

Heat pumps are gaining in popularity in the United States, but the pace of installation still lags.

By Dave Lubach, Executive Editor  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: Electric HVAC Systems Play Key Role in Decarbonization PlaybookPt. 2: This Page

In the electrification push, heat pumps have emerged as “the enabling technology of widespread building electrification,” according to GreenTech Media as quoted in the Greenbuild whitepaper.  

“Heat pumps use both refrigerant and electricity to transfer heat from the outdoor air (air-source heat pumps) or the ground (geothermal heat pumps) to the inside of a building, even in colder climates, and provide both heating and cooling functions,” the whitepaper reads. 

More popular in the European market, heat pumps are gaining in popularity in the United States, but the pace of installation still lags. At the current pace, the International Energy Agency indicates the world is well below the goals of aligning with 2050 net zero emissions targets. During the “Getting to Zero” conference in May, one presenter said at the current pace, it will take 60 years to retrofit all existing buildings to achieve decarbonization goals.  

“I think it’s humanity’s biggest crisis that is unfolding before us,” says Deivasigamani of the climate change threat. “It’s happening in a little bit of slow motion, but we are at the very beginning of the electrification process. … We’re seeing a lot of promise in terms of the deployment of batteries and solar energy, as well as smart grids and power plants. There is going to be enormous change between now and 2050, and all these areas are going to have to seamlessly work together.” 

HVAC manufacturers are responding to the increased demand in the U.S. for more heat pump installations in institutional and commercial facilities. 

“The sales guys in the field have been begging, wondering why they can’t get those European products here because they have all this heating stuff already figured out,” says Dan Gentry, applications engineer for Trane Commercial. “The hot thing right now really is air source heat pumps, and they come in a lot of different varieties.” 

Only recently have improvements in heat pump technology helped make them a more widespread option for facility managers.  

“Typically, they’ve been in warmer climates, so a heat pump had a reputation,” says Psihoules. “They worked really well to about 35 degrees and then after that you needed to kick in some kind of electrical resistance back up heat, which is the most expensive kind of heat there is. So, they worked great in Southern climates but not so much in the Northern climates, but the change in heat pump technology over the last 10 years has been to include cold climate use.” 

Transition challenges 

As facility managers realize, saying and doing can have two different meanings. While new buildings can be electrified at the construction stage and built to current codes, managers know it can be a massive undertaking to retrofit stock of current buildings. 

As with many other aspects of being a facility manager, the cost of retrofitting buildings serves as a primary hurdle. 

“Electrification requires an upfront cost investment and can be a complex operation requiring careful planning,” the Greenbuild whitepaper reported, citing a study from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Fortunately, technology advancements and growing implementation of electrification across the existing buildings sector is making it easier for projects to apply best practices and incorporate electrification strategies with fewer roadblocks.” 

While state and federal incentives are more readily available to help facilities defray the costs of converting existing buildings, the task is still a formidable one.  

“Most heating systems were designed to operate at 180-degree hot water,” Gentry says. “There are heat pump technologies that can make those temperatures today, but they are very few and far between. If a customer comes in and says, ‘I want to replace my boiler with a heat pump and my heating design system was designed for 180-degree hot water,’ we have to explain to him that that technology just doesn’t exist today.” 

Transforming an existing building also involves plenty of reconstruction, tearing down of walls and installing new equipment. It also requires convincing managers and building owners that something that does not seem broken needs to be upgraded. 

“(Some buildings) have systems that have been around for a very long time that worked very well,” Frye says. “So, adoption of a new system is a difficult challenge. From an installation and support standpoint, there really aren’t a lot of hurdles to implementing solutions. However, you have to go into the design process with this in mind. 

“It’s not just a plug and play solution, and that’s from a building construction standpoint where you have a little more flexibility because parts of the building need to be removed from larger systems or as specialty use patterns arise in a building, you can use these types of solutions.” 

Looking ahead 

While heat pumps may be emerging as a popular solution to decarbonization efforts, the electrification stage for buildings remains in its early stages of the process. 

“I’m a believer, but not a fanatical believer,” says Psihoules of decarbonization efforts. “Do I think gas is going away in the next five years? No, I definitely don’t. The infrastructure is too large. But moving in the right direction (toward electrification) is really the way to go.” 

A recent conversation that Gentry had with customers reminded him how much more managers need to learn about the electrification movement in buildings. 

“It feels like we’re at the starting line,” he says. “I have conversations like this every day, like ‘How do we do this? What is a heat pump? … You could look at marketing materials from over 40 years ago where we talked about heat recovery and not wasting heat. There are legal reasons or political reasons (for electrification of buildings) and whatever else, but it’s touching a lot more people for reasons other than it’s nice to save a little energy.”  

Dave Lubach is the executive editor for the facility market. He has almost a decade of experiences writing about facility management and maintenance issues. 

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  posted on 12/13/2023   Article Use Policy

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