Nailing It Down: Singing the praises of ductless heat pumps

We really can’t say enough about this effective, inexpensive option to heating your home.

Nailing It Down

By Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty

Is your heating system meeting your needs? Is it clean, inexpensive and effective?

Last week we compared a variety of different heating systems and noted the pros and cons of each. Those we discussed included baseboard heaters, heat pump/air handler with ductwork, gas, pellet stove and wood stove.

Today we are concentrating on our favorite choice: the ductless heat pump. We really can’t say enough about this effective, inexpensive option to heating your home.

Ductless heat pump program

After you get done reading today’s column, consider whether you might be interested in installing a ductless heat pump. It’s a good choice for many different living situations. And it might be a terrific choice for you, especially if you happen to be eligible for a program that installs free ductless heat pumps.

We will discuss the details of the free program in next week’s column — including giving the income qualifications. For now, read up on why we especially like this form of heating and cooling your home.

Cheap alternative for heat

In this climate, a regular outside heat pump and inside air handler furnace with ducts is an efficient way to heat a house. The technology of any heat pump basically recovers heat from the outside air and transfers it via a closed-loop refrigerant gas to the inside air handler — furnace inside your house. The air handler blows circulating air through the air handler’s radiator coil that was heated by the gas and delivers warm air throughout the house in your ducts and floor vents.

In the summer, it will do the reverse — drying out the indoor air and pulling the heat out of the air from inside the house and blowing it off outside at the exterior heat pump. The returning air feels cool, providing you with a nice air conditioned space.

Ductless heat pumps are just as they sound, not needing any ductwork to convey the heated or cooled air.

Their benefits are many. Here are just a few:

• They do not pollute.

• They are relatively easy and inexpensive to install, and sometimes come with a rebate from the PUD.

• They provide filtered air — better for folks with allergies and health concerns.

• They require no ductwork in or under your house, saving you money on installation.

• They are inexpensive to operate — paying for themselves in just a few years and lasting 20 years.

• They are easy to maintain.

We think the drawbacks are few, but we do need to mention them:

• The heating units are visible, so the locations of both the exterior and interior units might initially be a practical or aesthetic concern.

• If the electrical power goes out, you lose your heat — unless you have a compatible generator or another backup source.

• A house that’s chopped up with lots of little rooms will not benefit from this type of system as much as one with a more open concept.

It’ll heat what it can “see”

To be most efficient, you will want the inside ductless heat pump unit located where it can “see” the most living areas possible — living room, dining room and kitchen — where the space is more open and where you spend most of your time.

If it can “see” down a hallway, it may also heat it and the rooms connected to it when doors are left open. Still, you may want to have some kind of backup heat in those rooms.

Figuring ways to recirculate the air back to the unit is worth it. One little trick to help heated air get to where you want it is to open a window a crack in the room, which relieves pressure and draws in heated air. Some homes benefit from multiple indoor units or more than one setup. Your contractor will know which is best for what you want to achieve.

The ductless air heating units are about 3 feet wide and a foot tall and protrude from the wall about a foot. The air flow can be pointed just the way it is needed in your house.

While you may not have conceived of having a nice-looking heating unit on your wall, after about a week of clean, consistent, cheap heat, you won’t even notice it’s there.

To maintain a ductless heat pump, you just need to open the unit and rinse the reusable filters in the sink, dry them and put them back in the unit. If treated correctly, the filters shouldn’t wear out.

Consider for the future

Maybe your oil or gas furnace, cadet wall heaters, electric baseboard or pellet stove, or ducted heat pump is nearing retirement age. If that’s the case, before you replace it with the same, try researching a ductless heat pump.

In our experience, most homes need just one unit. The cost runs about $4,000 for a 1-ton unit installed (more for bigger units or complicated installations).

Most heating contractors on the Harbor can install a ductless heat pump. We suggest that you get three bids before choosing which contractor to go with — as you would on any major home improvement project.

Backups suggested

A ductless heat pump will provide most of what you need to keep your home a comfortable temperature 90% of the time.

However, if we get a deep, long-lasting cold snap, there simply won’t be enough heat in the air for it to extract, so some sort of backup heat is suggested. Keeping your old system as a backup could make up the difference for short-term needs.

You may want to have something like a furnace-rated propane or gas fireplace or pellet stove for those very, very cold days instead. Regular fireplaces are the last resort — and you should never try to heat your home with a barbecue or other non-vented appliance.

Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is executive director. This is a nonprofit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing for all residents of Grays Harbor County. For questions about home repair, renting, remodeling or buying, call 360-533-7828 or visit 710 E. Market St. in Aberdeen. Our office is fully ADA-compliant.