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.
For Don Jarvis, replacing his furnace with a heat pump was an act of conscience.
“Every time my furnace kicked on, I felt guilty,” said the retired Brigham Young University language professor, who holds a volunteer position as sustainability adviser to Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi. “I was polluting.”
Last November, Jarvis replaced a furnace in his nearly 50-year-old Provo house with a heat pump, which heats indoor spaces by transferring heat rather than burning a fuel.
“Just a few days after we put the heat pump in, the night time temperature was 4 degrees fahrenheit, and everything was just fine,” Jarvis beamed.
Driven by climate-conscious customers and a host of financial incentives, heat pumps are having their moment.
“We used to sell two or three a year,” said Travis Clark, installation and sales manager for Pond’s Plumbing in North Salt Lake. “I probably sold 100 last year.”
For the first time last year, Americans bought more heat pumps than traditional furnaces, according to the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute.
That is following a trend in Europe, where heat pump sales were blossoming even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made traditional furnace fuels more expensive. Scandinavian countries have led the way. More than half of Norwegian households have heat pumps, a testament to their ability to warm buildings in even the coldest climates.
In Utah, heat pump buyers can look to utility companies to help with the upfront costs of heat pumps. Rocky Mountain Power offers up to $1,800 toward a heat pump purchase.
“You can see the market begin to accelerate in 2020,” said Clay Monroe, director of customer solutions for Rocky Mountain Power.
Utah’s largest electrical utility has been offering heat pump rebates since 2018, when only 152 customers took advantage. That grew to 512 in 2020, 2,087 in 2021 and 4,229 last year.
In an agreement codified by the Utah Legislature, Rocky Mountain and Dominion Energy, Utah’s principal natural gas provider, started offering dual incentives for “dual fuel” heat pumps, which rely on electricity for climate control for most of the year but can kick on in a small gas furnace on the coldest days. Dominion offers up to $1,200 to customers who upgrade to dual fuel, and that can be combined with the Rocky Mountain incentive.
“In the first year of offering this incentive measure, Dominion Energy forecasted participation just above 600 units,” said Jorgan Hofeling, communications strategic adviser for Dominion. “By the end of the 2021 program year, and despite all of the supply chain issues related to COVID, actual participation exceeded 1,100 units. … In 2022, participation rose to over 1,500 unit
There are also a small number of municipal power systems outside Rocky Mountain’s service area that offer rebates. Jarvis received $1,000 from a Provo heat pump program. Kaysville and Price also have rebate programs that pay up to $400 toward a heat pump.
The utility rebates aren’t the only discount. The Inflation Reduction Act passed last year by Congress grants a tax credit covering 30% of the cost of installing a heat pump, up to $2,000, beginning in 2023. Tax filers can claim the credit when they file next year or in subsequent years.
Combined, the incentives essentially remove the higher upfront costs of heat pumps vs. traditional furnaces. In some cases, the heat pumps are now cheaper than furnaces, and that savings continues because they are cheaper to operate.
With the rebates and tax credit discounting the price by as much as $5,000, dual-fuel installations are by far the most popular, Clark said.
For Jarvis, heat pumps are one of the few levers that individuals can pull to address climate change and pollution. “There are very few things that ordinary citizens can do that will have more effect than replacing your gas-fired appliances with electric.”
Earlier this year Utah’s largest homebuilder, Ivory Homes, committed to installing dual-fuel heat pumps in more than half of the 800 single-family homes it is building this year. The rebates and tax credits were a key motivator, Ivory officials said. They hope other Utah builders will follow suit.
That has brought cautions from heating and cooling experts who say proper installation is both essential and difficult to receive the full benefits. Proper sizing and installation are tricky without any HVAC experience.
“I think it’s a very serious challenge. I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Jarvis about installing your own heat pump.
Clark agrees. “We have to do a lot of training and have to be certified to handle refrigerants. It’s harmful to the environment if it leaks, and if you introduce moisture during installation, you shorten the life of your system.”
To help educate Utahns on the new technology, The Salt Lake Tribune and Rocky Mountain Power are hosting a one-hour “Heat pump camp” on April 19 at Utah Valley University, the Labor and Honor room (Room 511) in the Clarke Building. The 4 p.m. live event will include experts from HVAC installers and a representative from Rocky Mountain Power who can explain heat pumps and answer questions. Those interested in attending can RSVP at https://tinyurl.com/usfhkr8r. The event will also be streamed at sltrib.com.
Correction: The maximum federal tax credit available for heat pump purchasers is $2,000. An earlier version of the story had an incorrect figure.
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.