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Unlikely gatekeepers in the fight against climate change: HVAC contractors

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Eve Zuckoff
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A new heat pump gets installed in Dennis.

Rebates of $10,000 encourage homeowners to embrace climate-friendly heating systems. Will contractors block or bolster the switch to heat pumps?

Homeowners looking to replace their heating systems can now receive up to $10,000 to switch from boilers and furnaces to air source heat pumps. The rebates are part of the state’s ambitious plan to lower carbon emissions and address climate change.

But for the state’s plan to work, it needs more than the support of homeowners and environmental activists. It needs your local heating and cooling contractor.

That fact is top of mind at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, where the next generation of contractors is learning the trade.

“All right, gentlemen, where are we at, what are we doing? … Contemplating the mysteries of life? Does it involve a broom or anything?” HVAC teacher Sean Doyle recently asked a group of students huddled in conversation.

For much of the day, Doyle walks around a workshop near the school cafeteria that’s full of students handling refrigerants, installing pipes, and learning the ABCs of heating and cooling.

“So this is not your typical education right here. This is our classroom,” he said. “And if you look around, you're going to see kids playing with electricity, playing with fire, playing with sharp edges. This is what they come here to do at technical high school.”

Within their first two months in Doyle’s shop, freshmen learn the basics of heat pump installation. They learn that the technology works by pulling heat from outside a home, and bringing it inside. Modern heat pumps can do this even when it’s negative 13 degrees Fahrenheit outside. And in the summer, they reverse the process and essentially become air conditioners.

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Eve Zuckoff
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At Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, Sean Doyle teaches nearly 40 students out of his classroom workshop.

“[The curriculum begins here] because I understood the value of heat pump technology and I knew how prevalent it was going to be on Cape Cod for my graduates,” Doyle said. “That is the future of our industry, that heat pump technology.”

Today, 27 percent of Massachusetts’ total carbon emissions come from heating and water heating in homes and other buildings, according to data from the state. To drastically cut those emissions, state officials want 1 million homes to rely on electric heat pumps, rather than boilers and furnaces, by 2030.

While powerful financial incentives from Mass Save, the state’s energy-efficiency program, are expected to attract homeowners, it’s up to contractors to heed the call. Some say they’re ready.

“I would say nine out of 10 – if not more– of our jobs are heat pump jobs and we're doing several hundred jobs a year,” said Jared Grier, owner of an HVAC company in Marstons Mills that’s betting hard on the future. It’s called Cape Cod Heat Pumps.

Home heating systems are expensive for most homeowners, but rebates can create a competitive advantage for heat pumps.

Like many contractors, Grier said it’s nearly impossible to estimate the average cost of installing a heat pump system because it involves so many variables, including the size of the home, how insulated it is, and how many units are needed. But the overall cost to install – and operate – a heat pump can be a selling point when compared to other heating systems.

“When you compare against propane, overall, if you look at your seasonal cost of operation, my costs are going to be lower with a heat pump,” Grier said. “Oil, you know, I’m pretty cost-comparable to your heating costs, as well, there.”

Beyond cost comparisons, some installers say they are pivoting to heat pumps because they’re afraid of what could happen if they don’t.

“You have to embrace it or you get left behind. We can't afford as a business to be left behind,” said Gary Thompson, sales and installation manager at Murphy’s Services of Yarmouth, which does air conditioning, heating and plumbing. “The boilers and the furnaces – the fossil fuel heating systems – are the dinosaurs. They're going away.”

Advancing heat pump technology has transformed his sales over the last five years, he said, but many veteran installers remain resistant.

“The contractors – be it time, economics, training – they haven't embraced it,” he said. “You know, kind of the old adage in this industry: ‘I’ll try anything new as long as my father and grandfather used it first.’”

Those traditionalists are playing a role in slowing the adoption of modern heat pump technology – and with it, the pursuit of net zero emissions. Barnstable homeowner Caroline Coggeshall experienced that firsthand in 2020 when she and her husband began renovating their home.

“We gutted the house,” Coggeshall said. “So it was all new plumbing. It was a perfect time to switch over to a different kind of heat.”

The goal was to get off fossil fuels. She told her husband: no more gas, we’re going all-electric. But they had a hard time getting that message across to three or four different heating and cooling contractors on the Cape.

“One of them literally was like, ‘Well, why do you want to do that? You know, gas is cheaper,’” she recalled. “And I'm like, ‘You're not my guy.’”

Ultimately, they found a company that was able to help them install heat pumps that could be the sole source of heating for their home — and it works great. But she said the experience bothered her.

“If we'd gone into those conversations being like, ‘Well, should we do heat pumps, or should we stick with gas?’ then the outcome might have been really different,” Coggeshall said.

Coggeshall and her husband got the outcome they hoped for, but they may be the exceptions.

As more homeowners confront costs – and now climate change – when replacing their heating systems, the fact remains: contractors often have the last word.

This is Part One of a two-part series on the hopes and hurdles of heat pump adoption. In part two, CAI’s Eve Zuckoff explores why some contractors are reluctant to embrace the technology. Find Part Two here.