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Heat pumps: Many caveats, pitfalls to making this switch

Everett Shorey of Arlington wrote the following letter, which was published in the Aug. 28 Boston Globe and is republished with the author's permission.

The writer is a consultant who represents the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, the trade association of furnace, boiler, and heat pump manufacturers, on U.S. Department of Energy efficiency standards. He is also a commissioner of the Block Island Utility District, the electric utility on Block Island. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of either organization.

The Globe should be commended for taking on a complex, technical topic like heat pumps and their implications for climate change. But there are nuances to this topic that need to be taken into account.

Ultimately, burning fossil fuels in homes for heat needs to be replaced by electricity and heat pumps. However, this seems to assume that electricity is generated using renewable resources. Using more electricity in New England means burning more natural gas to create that electricity. We are years, if not decades, from switching to electricity that does not result in the consumption of natural gas.

There is no immediate imperative to switch to heat pumps. Pulling out a heating system prematurely has minimal effect on greenhouse gas emission and is virtually always a bad economic choice for consumers. Consumers should first invest in insulation and similar measures.

Home heating systems are a long-term investment. We should be promoting the use of heat pumps in all new homes and at any time someone decides to replace a heating system. The challenge is the 25 percent or so of homes in New England that have radiators and no duct work. There is, at the moment, no widely available heat pump system that can substitute for a boiler in a house that continues to use radiators. Retrofitting these homes to accommodate heat pumps results in the more than $21,000 in costs mentioned in Sabrina Shankman’s article, an amount that will rarely pay for itself in energy cost savings..

Reengineering a home heating system is a complex task, one where it is easy to make a mistake leading to frozen pipes or other serious consequences. The Globe would have been much better off discussing alternatives, hybrid systems, and other ways that homeowners can contribute to greenhouse gas reduction.

This letter was published Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021.

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