Most people aren’t thinking about home heating in mid-June. But Andy Romanoff, executive director of Alaska Heat Smart, thinks more people should.
“You don’t want to wait until it gets cold and you think, ‘Oh, it’s cold, I should get a heat pump,’” Romanoff said. “Then you end up getting one in the spring because you had to wait all winter to get through the line.”
Swapping out oil-based heating systems for heat pumps is one of the best ways for homeowners to shrink their carbon footprints. And climate experts say nationwide demand for electric heat pumps is higher than ever. But in communities like Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, heat pump installers are struggling to keep up.
Homeowners swap fossil fuels for clean electricity
New financing opportunities and a growing community buzz have led more homeowners across Southeast Alaska to consider heat pumps.
Phil Joy is one of them. He started thinking about it when he moved to Juneau from Fairbanks in 2021. Then, in 2022, the Biden Administration introduced major rebates and tax incentives for homeowners purchasing heat pumps. That gave Joy the push he needed.
“When they passed the Inflation Reduction Act, I was like ‘Oh, maybe I can make this work financially,” Joy said.
National climate policy favors heat pumps because they’re an efficient electric alternative to heating systems that rely on fossil fuels. The fact that they run on electricity means they can be hooked up to renewable energy — which means they cut greenhouse gas emissions in places that have cheap hydropower like Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka.
For Joy, ditching his oil furnace felt like a good way to take action.
“You know, I’m concerned about climate change,” Joy said. “And this was a way (to take action), especially with our electricity being almost 100% renewable.”
But it took Joy nearly six months to get a heat pump installed. And that wait time is typical.
An unsustainable pace
Sonny Ashby, owner of Alaska Plumbing and Heating, says that even with those long wait times, many installers are working at an unsustainable pace.
“Because they’re still doing all their normal demands. And then you add a whole new industry,” he said. “And that’s essentially what the heat pumps are.”
Heat pump installers are rarely dedicated to heat pumps alone. Most are plumbers, sheet metal specialists or refrigeration technicians, too. Having well-rounded employees makes a lot of sense for shops in small communities.
Gary Smith owns Schmolck Mechanical Contractors, with branches in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. He said his employees have to juggle a wide variety of jobs from week to week.
“If the heat pump installation market is just trickling, you can’t justify having a guy doing nothing but that,” Smith said.
But now the market has stopped trickling, and both Ashby and Smith said heat pumps are a much bigger share of their workloads.
“There’s a lot of people putting in a heat pump, replacing a perfectly good heating system, just because they want that energy savings,” Smith said.
Nonprofits grow demand, installers wait for a tipping point
Ashby attributes much of that shift to promotion by nonprofits.
Nonprofits like Juneau-based Alaska Heat Smart and the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority have made a major push for heat pumps in Southeast Alaska, educating homeowners and helping them to secure funding.
“They want to see a much faster growth than what’s already organically happening,” Ashby said.
In Juneau, about a quarter of all households are already heated by renewable electricity, according to the 2018 Juneau Renewable Energy Strategy. But some local climate activists say Southeast Alaska needs to work to cut greenhouse gas emissions even faster, which would mean picking up the pace for heat pump installation.
Romanoff with Alaska Heat Smart has a list of close to 100 people hoping to get heat pumps. Getting through that list could take more than a year — and it’s just a fraction of the eligible households.
“We’re just not sure how to speed things up,” he said.
The obvious solution might be hiring more installers, but both Ashby and Smith said they’ve had trouble finding people. A workforce shortage for people in the skilled trades is a nationwide problem.
Introducing more local education and training programs for heat pump installers could help.
“But it’s a long-term solution to the problem, which is right here, right now,” Romanoff said.
Meanwhile, installers say they could pick up the pace by having one trained technician who is solely dedicated to heat pump installation.
“Our kind of plan moving forward is we need to get maybe a person in each town that installs heat pumps,” Smith said. “Their van is set up with heat pumps and we have the heat pump stocked.”
But before they make that transition, Smith and others say they’re waiting for a moment when demand for heat pumps reaches some sort of tipping point.
In the meantime, Romanoff says all he can do is ask people to be patient. He says managing expectations about long waits has become a big part of his job.