Petersburg residents and small business owners who want to install an air-source heat pump could soon get some help from their local government. Borough staffers are recommending a new rebate program. As Matt Lichtenstein reports, the technology has grown more popular in Petersburg and elsewhere in Southeast.
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Air source heat pumps don’t create heat. Rather, they use electricity to move warm air from the outdoors to the indoors even when it’s really cold outside. Fleet Refrigeration and Heating owner Wally McDonald has installed 25 to 30 air-source-heat-pumps in Petersburg, most of them just this past year.

“What you’re really doing is taking heat out of the outside air. So, it’s actually harnessing solar energy because the sunshine heats the atmosphere and you’re … extracting the heat out of the atmosphere and concentrating it inside your home,” he says.

Air-source heat pumps can provide cooling as well as heating. They’ve been in use for decades in more moderate climates. However, manufacturers have been improving the technology to make it more efficient in drawing warmth from much colder, outside air. Some manufacturers advertise cold-climate units that can draw heat in below-freezing temperatures.

According to McDonald, the air-source pumps have been economical here, “Of course there’s always going to be savings over oil given oil prices now but what we’re finding now is compared with electric resistance heat, which has become popular lately, the heat pumps will actually run on about a third of the power. They get a mechanical advantage over direct resistance heat.”

There are no recent studies on the efficiency of air-source heat pumps in Southeast according to Alaska’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center. However, in a 2013 report on the issue, the center did a review of existing literature, a market assessment and some computer modeling. Center Research Scientist Vanessa Stevens was one of the authors:

“It was a little informal in that we didn’t monitor any existing systems but we did talk to a lot of homeowners that had installed them and we talked to some installers and some regional planners in southeast to see if the air-source heat pumps would be a good option for the region. And we did find that anecdotally they work really well. You know, we heard from a lot of people that it’s a good option. Even though there’s a lot of heating options in Southeast, especially like biomass is pretty big there, air source heat pumps have some advantages like they’re very low maintenance equipment and they use less electricity than electric baseboard,” she says.

Still, the report recommends a back-up system for the coldest days of winter, when heat pumps are least efficient. Most of Alaska’s colder regions are not good candidates for the unit, according to the report, which also says they can be prohibitively expensive to operate in areas with high energy costs. In areas with cheaper electricity, the report found air-source heat pumps are an attractive choice.

Fleet Refrigeration’s Wally McDonald credits homeowner Kim Toland for convincing him to start installing the pumps in Petersburg. Toland purchased one unit in 2009 and two more in 2010.

He says they have helped him save money on energy, “Oh, there’s no question about it. And plus you know, you feel more comfortable about keeping your house at an acceptable level because often times in Southeastern Alaska the outdoor temperature may be 50 degrees, which isn’t brutal, but if you’re inside and its only 50 degrees in the house, that’s not very comfortable. So, with an air-source heat pump, you know, the efficiency is so high when the temperature is above 40 degrees, that the amount of work that’s used to increase the inside temperature of the house is minimal.”

Along with the heat pumps, Toland also uses a catalytic wood stove to heat his home of about 15 hundred square feet.

Installation costs for air-source heat pumps can vary widely depending on the situation. For example, according to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, a single unit for a small home could run around three thousand dollars. A much larger, more complicated installation might cost closer to 10 thousand.

Petersburg borough staffers are recommending a rebate program to help cover a portion of the cost. People who purchase and install an air source pump would get 450 to 1500 dollars back from the borough, depending on the number and capacity of the units.

According to Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht, the incentive program would benefit the municipality as well as the residential and small-commercial property owners who take advantage of it, “The concept behind it is not only does it help them with what appears to be lower energy bills, it is a solution that is more energy efficient than the old style boiler or using space heaters. So, we’re pretty excited about it and it helps us in the long run from a standpoint of using up very valuable hydro resources in a way that’s more efficient.”

The increasing cost of heating oil has driven many people in Petersburg to switch over to electric heat in recent years, boosting the demand for the power, which is mainly supplied by the Tyee Hydro-Electric plant. Local officials have been concerned that growing demand will eventually exceed the town’s hydro capacity.

Similar concerns prompted the City and Borough of Sitka to offer a rebate program for several types of appliances in 2012 and 40 people received rebates for installing heat pumps.

Petersburg has previously offered a rebate to people who install ground-source heat pumps, which extract warmth from the consistent temperature of the ground. However, they are substantially more expensive than air-source units and no one took advantage of that program.

To try and cut its own heating bills, the borough recently installed a large air-source heat pump in its motor pool building. With its garage doors, Giesbrecht says it’s a tough structure to keep warm and the pump has made a big difference:

“We’re seeing about 5 thousand dollars in savings at this point. Its early in the process and if you talk to employees, they’re saying it’s a lot more pleasant in the room than it used to be and the unit appears to be working pretty flawlessly. So, we’re happy,” says Giesbrecht.

Giesbrecht plans to ask the Borough Assembly for approval before moving ahead with the air–source heat pump rebate program. He is hopes to put it on the Assembly’s January 6th agenda.