Energy Adviser: Ductless heat pumps gaining momentum

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Baseboard heaters and their cousins — ceiling cable heaters and in-wall heaters — are expensive and wasteful ways to warm a home. If you have these kinds of heaters, you're reminded of this with each month's electricity bill.

But it may be out of reach for you to install a traditional heat pump or furnace, along with all the ductwork needed to circulate the heated air.

Fortunately, that's not the only option. Consider instead a ductless heat pump. As the name implies, this kind of system doesn't require ducts.

Ductless heat pumps were developed in Japan in the 1970s, and are frequently seen throughout Asia and Europe. They have become more common around here since the Northwest Ductless Heat Pump Project got under way in 2008. Run by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA), the project has worked with local utilities to offer incentives that have led to the installation of 16,000 units in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The project has saved 49 million kilowatt hours, enough to power 4,400 homes a year.

And there's even more energy ready to be saved.

"This technology has the potential to save 200 average megawatts each year," said Alexis Allan of NEEA in Portland. That's enough to power 150,000 homes.

Allan points to Clark Public Utilities as a forerunner in the program. Since the utility began its ductless heat pump rebate program four years ago, 2,100 Clark County homeowners have installed the energy-efficient technology.

"Clark County is really leading the charge," Allan said. "It's phenomenal to see the market transform when it comes to ductless technology."

Even though ductless heat pumps are becoming more popular, chances are you may still be fuzzy on the details. Here's the lowdown.

What are ductless heat pumps?

They are highly efficient zonal systems that offer both heating and cooling. They consist of an outdoor compressor unit about the size of a suitcase connected to an indoor air-handling unit, also known as a "head." A three-inch hole is all that's needed for the insulated refrigerant lines to pass through the wall of a house and join the indoor and outdoor units.

Indoor heads are about 6 to 8 inches deep and are mounted on a wall or the ceiling. They are equipped with quiet fans that blow the warm or cool air into the home. A wireless remote controls the system.

But can a ductless heat pump heat the whole house?

One indoor unit is enough to heat a house with an open floor plan that's 1,100 square feet or smaller. Multiple units are required for larger homes. And you'll want to keep your baseboard heaters -- just in case we get severe weather and you need a backup heat source, or your home has hard-to-reach spots.

How do ductless heat pumps work?

The systems use the same compressor technology as a regular heat pump by pulling ambient heat from the outside atmosphere in winter. In summer, the pumps pull heat from inside air to cool it.

How much energy and money does a ductless heat pump save?

Ductless systems typically save homeowners 25 to 50 percent on heating bills, according to the Northwest Ductless Heat Pump Project. Replacing outdated or inefficient heating systems with a ductless heat pump can save an estimated $280 a year.

But how much does a ductless heat pump cost?

The average cost of an installed ductless heat pump system with one indoor heating/cooling zone ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, according to the Northwest Ductless Heat Pump Project. Clark Public Utilities offers a $1,500 rebate to homeowners who install ductless systems, as well as financing on approved credit.

Where can I find more information?

Check out http://goingductless.com online or www.clarkpublicutilities.com.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.