Time for a Change | The Road to Purchasing a New Heat Pump
A friend of mine who knows what I do for a living ask me for some advice. I was between projects with some extra time on my hands so I decided to help her buy a new heat pump system for her home. To her, it was a major decision because of the cost involved in purchasing the new heat pump plus her decision on which type to purchase would also have an impact on her monthly utility budget. She was correct in her thoughts on this matter.
Purchasing new heating and cooling equipment for your home is one of the most important purchases you can make for your home and its important to get it right. Otherwise, making poor choices or getting a bad contractor, can lead to problems with comfort and cost more in utility bills for years to come. She is a teacher at an elementary school and I am project manager working in the commercial sector of construction dealing with HVAC and electrical systems.
Her old heat pump was old and tired. She had called to have the heat pump repaired several times using an HVAC contractor that specialized in heat pump troubleshooting. Despite the patch jobs the old heat pump was costing her not only in repairs but in the cost to run the heat pump. Since the old heat pump was installed, leaps and bounds in new technology had made its way through the industry and even the lowest rated heat pump would be better than the old one she currently was using for heating and cooling.
The Budget and ROI First
The first thing we did was sit down and decide what the budget was going to be for this new major home purchase. Then we figured out what her current monthly bills are for electricity. This is important because we would use this to figure out a balance point for a return on her investment through purchasing a new system that was more efficient than her old system. Using that as a baseline we set a percentage based on data from surveys provided by the Department of Energy.
According to the Department of Energy, approximately 50% of a homes energy use is for heating and cooling equipment. Adding all her electric bills together we figured her average monthly electric bill was $275.00 rounded up from the cents for an easier calculation. The winter electric bills were higher than the summer electric bills but everything averaged over the course of the year.
Doing the Homework
Moving on to the next step we began researching brands and reliability based on consumer reviews. This entailed going online and looking at reviews. Its almost a horrid thing because there are many negative heat pump reviews which makes one wonder how bad this industry is for the consumer. It is my contention that there are many bad reviews for all the major brands because people get seriously emotional when their main heating or cooling system does not work or has a problem. When its 90° F. outside and inside your home and the repairman says its going to be 3 days before they get the part many people are going to have an emotional response and likely give a negative review. Otherwise, many people don’t think about their heating and cooling system except to adjust the thermostat from to time.
After going through the research for brands she made a choice on three different brands she wanted. The next part of doing the homework was finding a good, reliable and reputable contractor to give her estimates. During her research she found an HVAC Consumers Buyers Guide and used that along with my advice to help her through this process. She used a website that gave her technical heat pump reviews which helped sort through the tons of negative consumers reviews.
The Contracting Process
Getting the right contractor is very important to this process and I stressed this to her. The contractor is going to be performing major surgery on your home. There are many technical factors and details that need to be considered and done right. If not then it will affect reliability, longevity of the equipment, and the efficiency of the system overall. What can be a smooth pleasant experience can turn into a nightmare if not done correctly by a competent contractor.
She called three different contractors that offered three different brands that she had chosen when looking at the reviews. I sat in only as an observer during these meetings with the contractors and listened to the sales pitches. Two of the three contractors offered to do a load calculation while the other contractor simple said they would use the same size she had now. A red flag to me for a couple of reasons. First, it seemed like the contractor only wanted a quick sale and secondly how does anyone know if the system was sized properly in the first place. Sizing HVAC systems is not cut and dry. There are many factors that need to be considered. A few include:
- Average temperature degree day for your region
- type of materials used on the construction of your home
- which direction the house faces
- square feet
- how much shading is around the house
- how many people occupy the house normally
- insulation values
- how many windows and doors
- many other factors for heat loss and heat gain calculations
These are called load calculations and many contractors use software for this process however is based on a published book called the Manual J. Additionally, the duct work also needs to be looked at for proper sizing of the new system. Does the duct work need to be changed or repaired? Does the duct work have the proper amount of insulation on it? And most importantly, does it have air tight integrity? Two of the contractors either hinted at all this or discussed it with her. They then proceeded to look at the system, take measurements, and one even crawled under the house to look at her existing duct work and some electrical things he would need to consider when making a new installation.
After the contractors left she and I had much to do. Going through all the literature and checking out the contractors with professional organizations, the BBB, and researching them to make sure they were legitamate, competent, and reliable. I told her the most important part of this entire process was not the brand but the contractor. You can have the greatest, most highest rated brand in the world but if it is not installed correctly it will be a lemon. She took me seriously and found one of the contractors had a few unresolved complaints against them through the BBB and another had contracting problems with the state licensing board. She definitely did her research and made her choice.
The Big Choice
After jumping through all those hoops it was time to pick the heat pump that would best fit her budget and factor in ROI based on the level of efficiency of the system she wanted. She asked for three different estimates for installation of three different levels of efficiency for the brand she chose. With heat pumps, or any type of heating and cooling systems, you have various levels of efficiency for the products offered. You have the base line grade which is the very minimum efficiency level and manufacturer or dealer can offer based on the law, you have mid-grade efficiency levels, and then you premium levels of efficiency. The higher the efficiency rating the more complex the system and the higher the installation cost.
Looking at what she currently has and looking at the efficiency levels of the newer systems she had to pick from she came up with a number. She wanted to save at least $75 per month on her electric bill and the system she chose, based on efficiency level, would do that for her.
Six Months Later (not the movie)
It is now six months since she had her new system installed. I revisited her and we got everything together to figure out how things were going with her new system. She was very happy with the comfort level of her new heat pump system and not surprisingly, her average electric bill was now close to $170 per month. She also took some advice from another friend and also did some extra home improvement for insulating some things to increase overall efficiency of her home and savings for heating and cooling. She only had one issue with the contractor and it was resolved immediately telling her that the contractor was very responsible and wanted her business. Its a total success for her and her monthly budget. Of course its going to take about 6 years but the savings on her electric bill will end up paying for the new system.
Richard Ashworth works in the HVAC industry as a project manager commissioning data centers, hospitals, and large government and commercial facilities. When he is not working hard on a project he is playing hard at his favorite sport or traveling. He can be reached through his website at High Performance HVAC Heating & Cooling.