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Do new federal heat pump standards change the equation?

Heat pumps must now meet more rigorous efficiency requirements, but propane heating still offers comfort and cost benefits in many scenarios.

By Jeffrey Lee

Staff writer

On Jan. 1, 2015, new federal efficiency standards for air-source heat pumps went into effect in the United States. Builders and contractors with a taste for legal drama may recall that the standards were a result of a settlement reached last year after a lengthy legal battle between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and several HVAC industry groups.

While the settlement left open the question of how regional furnace efficiency standards will be implemented, it did provide clarity on the standards for heat pumps. As the table below shows, split system heat pump units manufactured after 1/1/2015 must now have rated efficiency levels of at least 14 SEER for cooling and 8.2 HSPF for heating.


 


The new heat pump standards mean heat pumps will be more efficient, but also higher in cost. So whether pros are used to specifying heat pumps or propane furnaces on their projects, the revised rules offer an opportunity to reevaluate standard operating procedure. But first, you'll want to make sure you have all the facts. A new fact sheet, Comparing Propane Heating with New, Higher Standard Heat Pumps, analyzes the most relevant factors in the space heating decision so pros can make an informed choice.

Annual Energy Costs

The energy performance for a propane furnace (with an electric A/C system for cooling) compared to a heat pump system will vary depending on the efficiency levels, a home's insulation levels, outdoor conditions, and energy prices. New homes will have different outcomes from existing homes, due to changes in how homes are insulated and air-sealed. This is shown in the analysis results below.


 


As these modeling results show, high-efficiency propane heating with a central A/C system for cooling can offer energy savings even compared with the new higher-efficiency heat pumps. Use our Energy Cost and Carbon Calculator or download the app to run a simulation with customized energy prices and efficiency levels.

Equipment Costs

Increasing the efficiency of heating equipment generally increases the price, and the higher-efficiency heat pumps are no exception. Heat pumps' minimum efficiency levels have increased by 6 to 7 percent, which manufacturers achieve by using a larger coil and more-efficient motors and compressors, adding to a system's material cost.

Analysis shows the total costs for the new, more efficient heat pump system are about 20 percent higher than the 92 AFUE propane furnace with a 13 SEER central A/C system. This includes the cost to purchase and install the system, and is based on cost data from RS Means, U.S. Department of Energy rulemaking analysis, and the HVAC market.

Heating Comfort

For many homeowners, the deciding factor when choosing a heating system isn't energy use or installation cost, but comfort.

A recently completed study from Newport Partners, LLC, the Residential Space Heating Comparative Analysis, confirmed what many contractors and builders already knew anecdotally:  Propane furnaces are typically warmer than electric heat pumps. While comfort is subjective and is also affected by variables such as a home's insulation, windows, and drafts, the ability of propane furnaces to provide a reliable supply of hot air is a major advantage.

Environmental Impact

Despite their increased efficiency, heat pumps may not be the best choice for homeowners looking to reduce their environmental impact. The electricity used to operate these systems is often generated by power plants using coal, resulting in significant CO2 emissions.

CO2 emissions from heating and cooling for both electric heat pumps and propane furnace/air conditioning systems were calculated using "emission factors" from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The propane furnace/air conditioning system saves an average of about 4,600 pounds of CO2 emissions per year. Over a 15-year life cycle, these emission savings become very significant — equal to burning more than 3,500 gallons of gasoline, or 16 tons of coal.

Choosing Between Propane and Heat Pumps

Construction pros making a recommendation between propane heating and heat pumps need to get all the facts on efficiency levels, pricing (first cost as well as operating cost), and comfort in cold weather to make the best choice for each individual project. But the flexibility of propane is another important factor to keep in mind. Homeowners who use propane for space heating will have access to other premium gas amenities such as tankless water heaters, gas stoves and dryers, and fireplaces.

The heat pump standards fact sheet, cost estimates from distributors, and the online and mobile Energy Cost Calculator are valuable tools to learn more about the most relevant factors in the heating decision, so you can recommend and specify a system that provides long-term value and comfort.

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