Energy Adviser: Heat pump maintenance controls costs

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Does your home’s outdoor heat pump unit sit under a big tree behind the garage? When was the last time you checked the air filter in the furnace?

How old is your heat pump? Five years, 10 years, pushing 20?

Unless it’s newly installed, it is probably time to have your heat pump system serviced by a professional.

Experts recommend an annual checkup. Most homeowners, however, wait until there’s a breakdown before calling for help, said Tom Dollemore, a consultant with Area Heating & Cooling in Vancouver.

Dollemore is one of 35 certified heat pump contractors registered with Clark Public Utilities. These professionals are trained to use the Performance Tested Comfort Systems guidelines when installing and repairing heat pumps.

“Regular maintenance is the key to a long healthy life for a heat pump,” Dollemore said. “But there’s little that is user-serviceable on the system except regularly changing the filter on the return air duct in the indoor unit (furnace) and keeping the outdoor unit clear of debris,” he said.

Heat pumps use reverse-cycle air conditioner technology to transfer heat energy in the air rather than “make” heat. The energy savings can be 50 to 70 percent over a typical forced-air electric or oil heat furnace.

Good maintenance will not only extend the life of a heat pump (which typically cost $5,000 and up) but also keep your electric power costs down, especially in winter when a malfunctioning system can switch to more expensive auxiliary heat.

A heat pump service call typically includes several routine steps and will cost about $170 to $190 depending on the work done and the distance traveled by the technician.

How devices work

“Few homeowners really understand how heat pumps work, but the technology is pretty simple,” Dollemore said. “A heat pump uses a refrigeration process to move heat into the house in winter and heat out of the house in summer.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps work especially well in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest, where the average wintertime temperature is above freezing and humidity levels are high.

“Heat pumps are air-flow specific,” explains Dollemore. “Air flows across coils to exchange heated or cooled air. If the filters or coils pick up debris the system doesn’t work efficiently,” he said.

Servicing a heat pump system should include checking the outdoor compressor, cleaning the indoor evaporator and condenser coil, verifying refrigerant levels and checking the defrost cycle, and again comparing the temperature difference between air going in and coming out. The technician should also do a maintenance check of the indoor system.

Homeowners should check around the outdoor unit to be sure it’s clear of leaves, boxes, old wood or other things that could block the flow of air.

Clark Public Utilities offers incentives for the installation of a heat pump in an electrically heated home, including up to a $750 rebate on qualified installations of Energy Star heat pumps installed to Performance Tested Comfort Systems standards. The utility also offers financing for heat pump installation.

The Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities energy counselors, who provide conservation and energy use information to utility customers. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, in care of Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA, 98668. Past topics are available at http://www.clarkpublicutilities.com