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As odd as it may seem, I want to start this column off with an apology. Truly, I didn’t want to talk about heat pumps again, but here we are (see Figure 1). Despite the world always changing, it may have seemed like we could always trust that fuel-burning boilers would be with us forever. With so many obstacles getting in the way of getting gas to a building, things are changing a bit quicker than what we’re used to.
With that said, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we can’t keep going with the status quo. I’m sorry that, as heating professionals, we’re at the mercy of the markets and popular opinion.
What I find so amusing about the current situation is that many act as if this has never happened before. I live in a house built in the late 1970s, and I worked in many homes from that era. When they were built, the fuel crisis pushed them into heating options that would have never been considered otherwise.
Many homes in my area from that time incorporated some means of electric heating, whether it be straight electric resistance or even (gasp) a heat pump. The confusing part of this story is that during my time as a service technician, I was never in any of those homes to work on their electric heating system. I was there to work on the fuel-burning equipment that succeeded them. Isn’t it funny how things change?
Heating with Electricity is Nothing New
My home was no different. It incorporated electric resistance heat. Instead of the typical eyesore electric baseboard option, the original owner classed it up a bit with electric radiant panels installed in the ceiling. I’d like to think that they worked great in their day with their silent operation and the fact that they were out of sight.
Sadly, those radiant panels had been abandoned long before I owned the home in favor of a LP gas system. Their life, without a doubt, was cut short due to the rising cost per kWh. I’m sure even Clark Griswold would’ve been impressed with how fast they could make the meter spin.
I wish I could hear the industry chatter in the 1970s. I imagine conversations eerily similar to those I frequently hear these days. Those were different times, and the reasons behind the changes in energy were very different from what we’re experiencing.
What we’re encountering today isn’t just because of a war or sanctions. It’s also about what’s best for our environment, and these changes will bring opportunity.
This inevitable transition to electrification, heat pumps and alternative energy will likely be a bit rough as technology and installation practices catch up with our best intentions. It’s also likely that some ideas won’t cut it. Some ideas may lead to colossal headaches, but these are still opportunities — to learn from mistakes and do better next time.
This is where a well-rounded contractor open to change and committed to education has the chance to be a hero. The best-case scenario is that you position yourself to help your customers choose the best options for their applications and provide a professionally installed heating system that will meet or exceed expectations.
At the very least, it will allow you to put your cape on and pick up the pieces behind those contractors who probably shouldn’t be embracing new tech just yet.
The Kitchen Sink
Along those lines, there are plenty of stories out there about the early years of high-efficiency gas boilers. This was another transition that was a little bumpy. Every contractor from that time has plenty of stories of the chop-and-swap boiler replacement-turned-nightmare.
Since then, every high-efficiency boiler manufacturer has taken steps to make using its products easier and more efficient. Most have advanced their equipment to incorporate zone controls, outdoor reset, and warm-weather shutdown; some have even included hydraulic separation with their boilers.
In some cases, boiler manufacturers went so far as to ensure trouble-free products, almost to the detriment of the installation. I was told at one point that if I didn’t use the included hydraulic separator, my customer’s warranty would be void. I was planning on piping the boiler to a buffer tank, which was not only going to provide hydraulic separation but also cure any short-cycle issues.
After conversing in circles, I ended up installing the included hydraulic separator and piping to the buffer tank. Because of this, another circulator had to be used between the hydraulic separator and buffer tank, but avoiding the added electrical costs wasn’t worth possibly losing the warranty (see Figure 2).
I see this approach coming along for the ride with air-to-water heat pumps, and I think it’s great that we’re learning from past mistakes. From circulators and controls to air vents and buffer tanks, if it can be included or even built into the unit to ensure an easy transition from the way things were to what you’re currently working with, it’s worth taking a look at.
We only need to use common sense to understand that some applications may not need the kitchen sink.
It reminds me of the many air-conditioning units I’ve converted to scrap over the years that included pre-charged refrigerant line sets. They were easy to spot as any excess length was typically coiled up and hanging from the floor joists near the evaporator coil.
Pre-charged line sets meant that contractors could skip the nitrogen, vacuum and precise charging of the refrigerant system, thus making their jobs easier. I’ve even seen this particular measure make a comeback in many of the DIY ductless systems as of late.
Get On Board
Maybe you’re not fully convinced yet to move away from gas or oil. Maybe early adoption of technology has bitten you in the past. In either case, I would encourage you to attend training to be informed.
A number of online communities from across the pond are already neck deep in air-to-water heat pumps that we could all learn from as well.
For those committed to embracing change and offering their customers options, greatness lies ahead. On the other hand, there will likely be (if not already) incentives in your area to go all-electric. Behind those incentives is an army of contractors willing to chop, swap and cash in on the movement.
Be prepared to put on your cape!