This Juneau homeowner’s energy savings afforded the ultimate way to beat the chill

Traci Heaton points a remote up at her wall-mounted heat pump. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Hundreds of Juneau homeowners will stay warm this winter using an improved technology. Heat pumps are nothing new. But upgrades over the past 30 years have made the systems a lot more reliable. Now local installers are racing to keep up with growing demand.

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Inside Traci Heaton’s home, next to a pair of snowshoes hanging on the wall, is a white rectangular box.

“At first I really didn’t like it,” Heaton said. “But now it just blends in with the house.”

Heaton had this wall-mounted air source heat pump installed about a year ago. She used to keep her house warm with a combination of electric baseboard heating, a wood pellet and oil stove. But these days, the $10,000 heat pumps are mostly doing the job. Though, she says there are times when the backups come in handy.

To pay for the heat pumps, Heaton tapped into a state program that awarded homeowners money for efficiency upgrades. That program was cut in 2016 because of Alaska’s budget deficit. Heaton said that’s too bad, because installing them has meant big savings.

“They have cut our heat bill down dramatically,” Heaton said.

Last winter, Heaton’s monthly bill fell by half. The savings can be very different from home to home. Still, there’s growing demand for heat pumps in Juneau and for companies that do the installations, this is a busy time of year.

Northern Refrigeration opened in 2013 and since then, owner John Howard said his business has installed around 300 heat pumps.  He said the fervor over heat pumps spread quickly. By his second year in business, he was doing three  or four estimates every week.

“It was crazy,” Howard said.

The capital city, like the rest of region, doesn’t have a natural gas distributor. So it’s common to burn heating fuel or rely on standard electric heating to stay warm.

Heat pumps first came on the market in the 1970’s and 80’s as an option for regions with a temperate climate. There are a lot of different types; everything from air source to the more expensive ground source or geothermal.

But Howard said the older generation of heat pumps gave the technology a bad rap.

“They’re extremely noisy, they’re big and they cost a lot of money to operate,” Howard said.

Howard said today, the units run a lot more efficiently. If you’ve eaten ice cream you probably already know how the science works. He explains it to his clients like this: When you bring a gallon of ice cream home, maybe it sat in your car too long and melted a bit.

“Well, you put it in the freezer and pull it out the next day and it’s hard again,” Howard said.

Howard said your freezer is actually pulling the heat out of the ice cream — making it cold. Similarly, heat pumps can pull warmth from the ground or air. That warm air might not be detectable to the human touch, but it’s there.

The heat pumps themselves run off of electricity. And as more people get them, Juneau’s local utility is monitoring the electric demand closely. The utility says it hasn’t noticed a large impact yet since the past few winters have been normal to mild. But it is keeping tabs, as fewer people fire up their stoves.

Traci Heaton, from before, says overall she’s happy with the technology.

“I thought I’d take out the baseboard heaters,” Heaton said. “But we have had to use them a couple of times.”

John Howard didn’t install Heaton’s unit. He said there can be some sizing issues with heat pumps but it is possible to find the right fit.

Even so, Heaton said using heat pumps saved her about $250 dollars a month. With the extra money, she was finally able to beat the chill. She took her family on winter trip to Mexico.

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