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A divide among contractors: some embrace climate-friendly heat pumps, others resist

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Eve Zuckoff
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Bits and bobs are added to the "furnace graveyard" behind Robies Heating & Cooling in Hyannis before being recycled.

This is the last of a two-part series on the hopes and hurdles of heat pump adoption. The first part can be found here.

Venture behind the headquarters of Robies Heating & Cooling in Hyannis, and you’ll find something like the Island of Misfit Toys. Except, it's for mechanical parts.

“We'll call it the furnace graveyard,” said Steve Robichaud, the third-generation president of Robies. Remnants of furnaces and boilers past are stacked and scattered along with other bits of equipment. “Condensers, fan motors, circulators,” he listed.

Each time a furnace or boiler dies, there’s usually something that will replace it for the next 15 to 25 years. If that isn’t a heat pump, climate advocates see it as a missed opportunity to lower greenhouse gas emissions long into the future.

Amid all the voices calling for a move away from fossil fuels, Robichaud says he knows exactly where contractors like him could fit in.

“There are activists standing on their soapbox versus us,” he said. “We’re on the front lines, and I believe that HVAC contractors do have a lot more power to influence change.”

The state of Massachusetts has a goal of 1 million homes relying on heat pumps by 2030 to help meet its climate goals. But progress has been slow. Approximately 8,000 homes had heat pump installations financed through the state’s energy efficiency program, Mass Save, between 2020 and 2021. That includes both partial and whole home installation.

A largely overlooked factor keeping the numbers so low is that many contractors, who will be essential to reaching state goals, are hesitant to fully embrace heat pumps. Some are downright against them.

“I feel that my trade is becoming split right down the middle. You're either with the heat pumps or you're without,” said James Diede, who runs DRT Heating and Air Conditioning in Cataumet. “And, I don't know, I just feel like it’s way too soon for this heat pump world.”

One of his biggest problems with heat pumps revolves around tech support. Diede’s been working in the HVAC industry with his father since he was a boy. He and his team are used to working with copper pipes, not the computers, complex control boards and sensors that modern heat pumps rely on. So when a system needs repairs, he has to call a manufacturer, like Mitsubishi or Fujitsu, to troubleshoot.

“My average wait on hold to get ahold of tech support is an hour and a half nowadays,” he said. “And then what usually happens [is that after] two hours into the phone call with tech support they give you a part number.”

And these days –  with supply chain issues –  the many components that go into a heat pump can be difficult to come by.  

“The parts aren't available. And they're so expensive, you can't afford to stock your truck with these parts,” he said. “They're telling us 4, 12, 16 weeks sometimes to get these parts from overseas.”

To be sure, plenty of contractors say heat pumps can be worth the effort because they're able to cool homes well in the summer. The technology works by taking warm air from inside a home and bringing it outside (the process is reversed to heat a space). They can replace an air conditioning system.

But the single most important problem, contractors say, is that, without proper weatherization – which, often times, requires better insulation and updates to windows – heat pumps alone simply can’t keep old Cape Cod homes warm enough in winter.

“Here in New England, here on the Cape, where in February you could get 10 degrees with 40-mile, 50-mile-per-hour winds, a heat pump’s not going to do it,” Robichaud said.

In many cases, he advises customers to install a heat pump with a backup furnace. But that common recommendation has sparked fierce debate.

“You'll hear … ‘You need some form of backup heat.’ And that's really not the case here in New England, even in some of the colder parts of New England. Maine is actually one of the leaders on heat pump installations,” said Ben Butterworth, manager of climate and energy analysis at Acadia Center. The energy research hub works on a number of policies to decarbonize the economy across the region.

Heat pump technology has come a long way since it first came on the market decades ago, he said, and "maintaining a backup fossil fuel system ... obviously won't get us to our decarbonization target as fast."

“[Heat pumps] have become more efficient, they've become more efficient at cold temperatures, and they've become capable of serving as the only source of heating,” he concluded.

To Butterworth, it’s a matter of contractors finding their way through this period of rapid change that’s geared toward making heat pumps the go-to source of heating and cooling. But until more homeowners start asking for the heating system state environmental officials hope will spark their energy efficient revolution, Steve Robichaud said one thing is certain.

“Ultimately, the salesman holds all the power in this entire process," he said. "I mean, I hate to say it, but it's the truth.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.