Energy adviser: Ductless heat pumps find niche

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Is your home hotter in the summer and colder in the winter than you'd like? Joan Wilson's was. She lives in an older ranch home with a southwest exposure. The sun and ceiling heat, once popular in homes, made some rooms too hot or too cold.

"My southwest exposure made my family room heat up so much that it was sometimes difficult to stay in it," said Wilson. "I wanted to do something, but didn't know what, because I have a fixed income and didn't know if I could stay within my limited budget." Then she heard about ductless heat pumps.

Since their introduction here by Clark Public Utilities in 2008, ductless heat pumps have proven a boon to homeowners such as Wilson. They retrofit easily in older homes with ceiling, baseboard or wall heat and offer highly efficient zonal systems to enhance home comfort.

Ductless heat pump's momentum is growing. Clark Public Utilities' sponsorship of a ductless heat pump rebate program has meant the installation of 430 units so far this year and 3,079 installations countywide since 2008. According to the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, nearly 20,000 units have been installed in the Northwest. These save enough energy to power 6,500 homes each year.

The heat pumps use a suitcase-sized outdoor compressor connected to an indoor air-handler, or "head." A three-inch hole cut in the wall lets refrigerant lines into the head to connect the indoor and outdoor units.

Indoor heads are about 6 to 8 inches deep and mounted on a wall or the ceiling. Their quiet fans blow warm or cool air into or out of the home. A wireless remote controls the system. The inside head hasn't detracted from the look of her family room, Wilson said.

Like systems with ducts, DHPs pull in ambient heat from the outdoors in winter. In summer, they push out hot indoor air to cool your home. With no ducts, these systems avoid any heat lost in homes with ducts. They can cut energy use and related electrical bills by 25 to 50 percent over ceiling, baseboard or wall heaters. Wilson said she now saves $50 off her previous year's utility bill every month.

Installation cost

Installation cost for a ductless heat pump depends upon the size of your home. One indoor unit is enough to heat an open floor plan home up to 1,100 square feet. Larger homes need multiple units. A utility-approved heating and ventilation expert and an electrician had Wilson's new system up and running in one day, she said.

The average cost of an installed ductless system with one indoor heating-cooling zone ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, according to the Northwest Ductless Heat Pump Project. For a dual outdoor system with multiple heads, costs can rise to $7,500. Homeowners may qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $300 on certain models. Clark Public Utilities offers a $1,000 rebate to homeowners who install ductless systems, as well as financing on approved credit. After the rebate, Wilson's ductless heat pump fit her budget tidily.

Wilson said she still relies on ceiling heat for her three bedrooms. Like her, you'll want to keep your original heat source as backup if your home has cold spots or for the extra heat you might need during cold spells.

Consumers seeking more information about ductless heat pumps can go to www.goingductless.com, a website geared to homeowners.


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