Why more Utahns are turning to heat pumps. Should you?

Once found only in mild climates, newer versions perform even in mountain winters as a cleaner solution for staying warm.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Since the dawn of history, humans have been burning things to stay warm.

Going forward, how about if people just grab some heat outside and bring it in? Nothing gets burned, so nothing goes up a chimney to choke the air.

That’s the idea behind heat pumps, which are emerging as a cornerstone technology to electrically heat homes without adding to bad air. Once a rarity in houses, heat pumps are gaining market share in both new construction and as a replacement for traditional furnaces and air conditioning.

“It’s about half and half now,” Roger Graham, who owns and operates Coyote Canyon HVAC in Davis County, says about customer demand for heat pumps vs. traditional choices. “And I see the heat pumps growing more. I get more and more calls every day.”

Heat pumps are essentially air conditioners that can work in reverse. In summer, they compress refrigerant to pull heat from inside and transfer it outside like regular air conditioners. In winter, they pull heat from the outside and transfer it inside — even when it’s colder outside than inside. They are an all-season solution, replacing furnaces and air conditioners.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Roger Graham heats his Hooper home with an electrical heat pump system, on Friday, April 29, 2022. This compressor can work in both directions, heating or cooling the house.

Recent gains in efficiency have brought heat pumps to the point that they can warm an inside space while pulling heat from zero degrees Fahrenheit outside, or less. And because they are transferring heat rather than creating it, they consume less energy to warm a house.

Heat pumps have been around for years, but earlier models weren’t strong enough for cold climates. Technology has advanced, and now the best argument for heat pumps may be Scandinavia. Despite bitter cold winters, about 60% of Norwegian households are now heated with heat pumps. Sweden and Finland are at more than 40%.

Still, there are big chunks of buyers and installers who aren’t ready to give up gas.

“I try to talk people out of going all-electric,” says Jamie Schumacher of Gunthers, an American Fork heating, cooling and plumbing contractor.

Schumacher says about 40% of his installs are now heat pumps, but he sells “dual-fuel” pumps, which still burn gas on the coldest days. He says customers still get the energy savings and environmental benefits of heat pumps most of the year.

“I’m just the opposite. I try to talk them into going all-electric,”” says Graham, who notes he’s sold all-electric heat pump systems for big houses in Deer Valley and cabins in the Uinta Mountains.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The controller of the electrical heat pump system in Roger Graham's Hooper home on Friday, April 29, 2022. Unlike ducted furnaces, heat pumps move refrigerant in insulated pipes to create heat where it's needed.

Graham says the green aspect is part of the attraction, but his big selling point is room-by-room comfort. Having a central furnace and ductwork throughout is hard to get right. If people undersize the ducts or the furnace, they get cold spots. Heat pumps, by contrast, just move refrigerant around the house in insulated pipes.

In new construction, the cost of a heat pump may be more than a traditional furnace and air conditioner, but that can be offset by savings on gas pipes, ductwork and exhaust vents. Plus, the utilities offer rebates. Rocky Mountain Power provides rebates up to $1,600 on a heat pump. And if it’s a dual-fuel heat pump, Dominion Energy gives an $800 rebate.

Those rebates are also available when retrofitting old housing with heat pumps, but every installer warns that the house’s “envelope” — meaning insulation and sealing — must be brought up to modern standards to keep the heat pump from having to work too hard and cost too much.

Correction: Gunthers is located in American Fork. An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified where it is.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.