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The most annoying barrier to getting your home off fossil fuels

So you want a heat pump. But can you find anyone to install it?

Aaron Sinclair, of Dave’s World Heating and Cooling, installs a heat pump at a customer’s home in Standish, Maine, in 2018.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Brian Stewart knew he wanted all the gas out of his home. He figured his townhouse in the Portland, Oregon, area was one of his biggest personal contributions to climate change — its water heater, furnace, fireplace, and stovetop all ran on fossil fuels. Switching to electric appliances would be more energy-efficient, and would slash his footprint by plugging into a grid that’s increasingly powered by renewables.

Some of the home changes he knew he could do himself, but to replace the gas furnace and a gas-powered water heater for electric heat pumps he had to call in contractors. Each one he spoke to tried to talk him out of swapping the furnace and heater. They were skeptical that an electric replacement would be as reliable, and insisted he’d need a backup gas furnace just in case.

“You could be super excited about [electrifying your home], but if the contractor you talk to says, ‘In my house, I wouldn’t do that,’ it’s hard to have the confidence to say, ‘I don’t believe you,’” Stewart said.

But Stewart stood by his research and kept making calls. Eventually, he found a contractor who was enthusiastic about replacing the gas with electric heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). He hasn’t had to pay a gas bill since then, estimating the full project saved him $1,000 a year in natural gas and gasoline bills.

Most people aren’t, like Stewart, climate-minded consumers eager to go renewable. Many home replacements and repairs are unplanned emergencies, like the furnace that breaks in the middle of a winter freeze. Typically, a homeowner might call whoever installed or maintains the gas furnace. And that contractor might not be able to help them go electric — or suggest that they should in the first place.

A federal push is coming to electrify more homes. The residential sector contributes to about a fifth of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions, and many of those homes (about half) still run on fossil fuels for heat and power. If they switch to electricity, they’re slashing those emissions by plugging into an increasingly renewable energy grid.

The cost of changing existing infrastructure, especially inside the home, is a difficult thing to surmount. Democrats this summer approved billions of dollars in federal funding as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to bring down that cost, by including incentives for all of the electric appliances and accessories needed, like heat pumps, insulation, wiring, circuit breakers, and induction cooktops.

The economics are finally all aligning to propel electrification forward. The biggest hurdle yet is the people problem. The IRA’s investments won’t be successful unless the people who will be closest to carrying out its ambitions — the electricians, plumbers, and other kinds of HVAC specialists — are on board with the clean energy transition, too.

Too many contractors are giving out the wrong information about heat pumps

Brian Stewart’s experience with contractors drove him to start a volunteer-based group, Electrify Now, to help others in the Portland area navigate electrifying their homes. He’s heard stories from people across the country who’ve encountered resistance when trying to switch off of gas. And one of the most pervasive myths people seem to hear is that a heat pump won’t work in cold climates.

Heat pumps actually work like a two-way air conditioner, using electricity and a chemical refrigerant to transfer heat into and out of a building. Since heat pumps are up to 4.5 times more efficient than gas, environmentalists have rallied around them as the better alternative to combusting a fuel inside the home. The myth that the equipment won’t work in cold places persists because as recently as about 20 years ago, it was true for most technology. It’s one reason heating oil is much more common in New York and gas furnaces throughout the North. Today, with better refrigerants and compressor technology, these systems work just fine in subzero temperatures (indeed, heat pumps are already thriving in Maine and chilly northern Europe).

This has led to contractors’ understandable, if dated, bias against electric heat pumps. Their advice is simply based on what they’ve always done. They see an old or broken gas or oil furnace and swap it with another, even if the electric replacement could wind up saving the person far more money. In most cases, contractors are just unfamiliar with heat pumps, since only 10 percent of households used them as their main source of heating as of 2015, according to the Energy Department.

Ideally, when a furnace or water heater needs replacing, a contractor and the consumer should consider all the options, including an electric system. They would need to figure out exactly the type of heat pump that may work (there are ductless and mini-splits, for example, or bigger units might be needed to run AC). But an important step that Sealed, a company that finds and vets contractors to electrify people’s homes, says contractors sometimes miss is evaluating the space for insulation and energy efficiency. A heat pump won’t work well if it’s in a space with drafty windows, for instance. Installed incorrectly, the heat pump won’t work well, which then confirms the contractor’s bias that the technology is inferior when they get a late-night call.

The problem of learning curves holds true for more than just heat pumps. EVs have faced a similar uphill climb with the middlemen closest to selling the technology to consumers. Sierra Club in 2019 sent undercover volunteers to 900 car dealerships and discovered the vast majority weren’t selling any EVs and that some “dealerships were not even trained or had proper knowledge of EVs they were selling.”

These kinds of hurdles can make even the most motivated climate-minded consumers doubt what they should do. For instance, Adam Beitman, head of electricity communications at the think tank RMI, has tried to replace his water heater with an electric heat pump model in Washington, DC. Multiple contractors told him a new system wouldn’t fit. His own research suggested that wasn’t true, and the hunch was confirmed by one experienced installer.

But when Beitman found a water heat pump through Home Depot, his consultation with an installer sounded straight from a gas industry ad. “I don’t know about climate and all that,” he remembers the contractor saying. “I’m old-school. I like gas. Been doing it 30 years. I think you should reconsider.”

Training for contractors can close the learning gap

There are contractors out there who are excited about heat pumps. Larry Nissman is one of them. As an environmental director for Phoenix Mechanical, he serves the Westchester County area in New York, where oil-burning furnaces used to be far more common than electricity to heat the home, especially in older buildings. In the past five years, Nissman says, the company started getting a lot more requests for electric HVAC systems, another name for heat pumps.

“I use one in my own home, and I probably saved $900 this winter compared to what I would have spent to use oil,” he said. “I use my house as an example to illustrate to people what you might expect.”

Nissman also uses his home as an example because he’s frustrated that utilities and heat pump manufacturers aren’t giving him actual case studies to use with customers. If they did, he said, it would help fight skepticism and ignorance around heat pumps and let him tell homeowners exactly how much they could save.

This isn’t some revolutionary idea. “You get some training from the manufacturers,” he said. “They’ll introduce, for example, a new piece of equipment, a new heat pump, and they’ll come into our office and tell us about it. And then we go out in the field and actually install one at someone’s house and work through the learning curve, mostly with wiring and controls. And then as you do more and more of them, you become more comfortable.”

Soon, contractors will have more incentive to seriously consider electric alternatives. The IRA is spending billions over its 10-year life span to bring down the cost of both EVs and heat pump adoption. In 2023, according to the electrification-focused nonprofit Rewiring America, homeowners will become eligible for a range of cash rebates and tax credits to improve energy efficiency and go electric, including up to $2,000 for heat pumps for water and heating and cooling, $1,600 available for air sealing and insulation, and additional incentives for middle-class and lower-income households, such as $4,000 for electric panels and $2,500 for new electric wiring.

The law also includes $200 million for states to set up new training programs for contractors, on top of $20 million available through the bipartisan infrastructure law. These can be designed by states however they choose, but where experts said the training is most sorely needed is in understanding of the basic benefits of a heat pump, how much it can save consumers, and the climate benefits. There’s an added incentive for contractors to get up to date on their HVAC technology because the law also offers a rebate for every electric HVAC system they install in middle- and lower-income households.

Being a better-educated customer will help

There’s a lot that has to go into fully electrifying the home: While sometimes just swapping out an appliance is enough, in other cases, the electrical panel may need to be able to handle more load, the wiring may need to be changed, and insulation improved. This kind of project is bound to require multiple contractors.

Hopefully, the day is coming when finding an expert to install electric HVAC systems isn’t so hit-or-miss. Ten years down the line, Ari Matusiak of Rewiring America hopes the burden won’t be on consumers to vet contractors, but on policymakers to ensure electric systems win out on their merits alone.

“I think when we look back at the [Inflation Reduction Act], we’ll say that the United States went from being a fossil fuel market to being an efficient electric market,” he said. Households, he hopes, will become the biggest beneficiary of the transition.

In the meantime, though, I surveyed experts about what their advice would be to find a contractor who is enthusiastic about electric technology.

One of the most important questions for a person to ask is how many times the contractor has installed electric heat pumps. If the answer is only a few, or they try to talk you out of it, it’s a sign they don’t have the experience you’re looking for. It’s also important to make sure you’re getting a consultation on how to improve energy efficiency in the home through insulation; Sealed recommends having that done at least once every 10 years.

Also be wary of being upsold on technology you don’t necessarily need. Older homes may need new wiring and an electrical panel capable of handling more wattage, but if you already have some electric appliances, like a hybrid gas stove and electric oven, you may not need it, Stewart explained. He suggests asking for a specific test called a load calculation, which will tell the contractor if you really need to spend thousands of dollars on a new breaker box.

The moral argument for going through all these headaches for an electric household is that it lessens your contribution to environmental pollution and climate change. But there’s also a purely selfish reason for it: It saves you in the long term, while making a more comfortable environment inside the home.

In fact, Sealed CEO Lauren Salz is confident that moral arguments aren’t needed. Contractors don’t need to be climate warriors; they just need to be informed on the merits of the heat pump.

“People are getting heat pumps because they think it’s great to have a combined heating and cooling system,” she said. “They like that they’re super quiet. And a lot of homeowners are also concerned about just the health of having oil and gas in their home.” Above all, she said, people are getting heat pumps because they want a “higher quality of life.”