MOVING toward
Old House Journal|November - December 2021
Changing energy markets and evolving technology make it possible to heat, cool, and ventilate homes of any age with (mostly) clean, all-electric power—and less of it. Heating home water, formerly an energy hog, is turning into an energy sipper, too.
MARY ELLEN POLSON

A self-described early adopter,

Kendall Christiansen previously had helped lead a movement to permit solar panels on the roofs in his historic Brooklyn row-house neighborhood. As his 35-year-old hot-water boiler neared the end of its life, it was a natural decision to convert to a more efficient heating and cooling system—one that was as close to fossil-free as possible.

Christiansen and his wife, Carol Shuchman, chose to replace the old hot-water boiler with a whole-house, air-source heat pump system. Commonly referred to as mini-splits and more accurately as inverter systems, air-source (or air-to-air) heat pumps run solely on electricity. Typically operating at lower temperatures than traditional forced-air or hot-water systems, they can be three to four times as efficient. Some work in temperatures as low as -20°F, too.

“They call them cold-climate heat pumps,” says Matt Crowley, the crew chief for Green Team Long Island, the installer for Christiansen’s 1910 limestone row house. He has seen a flood of residential and commercial customers moving to the all-electric heat pumps. “Basically, we try to get people off fossil fuels.”

THE PRO TIP

A 2018 study in California found that air-source heat pumps could reduce household greenhouse-gas emissions from heating by as much as 54 percent. So besides homeowner savings on fuel costs, the environment also benefits.

Once, we heated our homes with coal. Then came fuel oil, followed by natural gas. Now Americans are finding ways to heat and cool our homes without directly burning fossil fuels, sometimes without ties to any fossil fuels at all. We’re saving money as well.

A key feature of these HVAC systems is inverter technology that takes advantage of ambient air temperatures to heat and cool a house. They operate at cooler temperatures than a traditional forced-air furnace or hot-water boiler, so they use less energy. In addition, they are quieter and provide heating and cooling at a consistent level, without the stop-and-start cycles of older HVAC systems.

One-off mini-splits caught on initially because they could be used in locations that were completely ductless (think air handlers in restaurants in 100-year-old buildings). Later innovations allowed these heat pump-driven units to serve ducted buildings, particularly in new construction and renovation. Retrofitting a whole-house system into an existing dwelling such as the Christiansen row house, which has party walls and intact period millwork, and is completely ductless, was particularly challenging.

Inverter systems are powered by a compressor containing a condensing unit (the heat pump), typically installed outside the house. The Christiansen project required two such units. The heat pumps connect to distribution units strategically placed inside the house—usually just a few feet from the room(s) to be served.

finding space for units roughly the size of a large, old-fashioned suitcase was essential to making the system work. Luckily, the ceilings were 11 ½' high, and there were plenty of closets as well as small, high-ceilinged passageways between larger rooms.

The installers created platforms in the top 2' or so of these closets and passageways, essentially creating small attics for the distribution units. (Because of the high placement, there was no sacrifice of usable space: a good thing, since one of the distribution units went in the pantry closet.) As the distribution nodes went in, other team members made strategic cuts and pushed flexible ductwork through walls that connected to outlet and return vents. Vents were cut into place without disturbing period wall trim.

The installation took nearly two weeks, but for Christiansen and Shuchman, the benefits were many. Not only did they get a substantial tax rebate from the state of New York (rebates can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on location), but also the new setup supplies air conditioning as well as heating. For years, Christiansen had laboriously installed and removed five window air conditioners each season, plus two-floor units. “We both work from home so this should be a great improvement over those,” he says.

New Ducts IN AN OLD HOUSE

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