New Heat Pumps For Old Apartments

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Heat pumps are being touted as a great way to heat and cool our homes efficiently and with no direct carbon emissions. (Emission levels for all things that run on electricity always depend on how the electricity is generated in the first place.) Newer heat pumps are able to keep our homes warm even in winter, according to the latest report from Efficiency Maine.

Judging by the comments to that story, heat pumps are creating a lot of interest among CleanTechnica readers. The new Inflation Reduction Act promises incentives that will encourage more homeowners to install heat pumps. But just like residential EV chargers, people who live in a single family home have an advantage over those who live in apartment buildings or public housing. They can install the components needed for a heat pump system anywhere they like. That’s just not possible for those who rent.

Last year, city and state officials in New York invited manufacturers to develop new electrified technology that would both improve living conditions and begin to decarbonize public housing buildings, many of which rely on oil or gas fired boilers. Gradient, based in San Francisco, has created a novel solution to the problem — a unit that hangs from the window sill and can be installed using hand tools. Plug it in to a standard 120 volt wall outlet and you’re good to go. It won Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Award for consumer products.

Gradient says, “In the past fifty years, we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve built electric cars, cell phones and the internet — and yet, somehow, HVAC technology has barely changed. We still burn oil and natural gas in our furnaces and rely on ugly window ACs to cool our homes. With Gradient, progress has arrived. Our heat pump technology is the first of its kind. It’s beautiful, powerful, efficient and planet friendly — made for people who are unwilling to compromise their values or aesthetics.”

The units are climate friendly, too. “Up until now, cooling the home has meant warming the planet because of the refrigerants used in air conditioners. Commonly used HFC refrigerants like R410a are climate super-pollutants. They are over a thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide and accelerate planet warming which, in turn, increases our need for air conditioning. That’s why we are using R32, a next generation refrigerant that efficiently carries heat and has lower environmental impact.”

This week, New York officials announced the state and the city will invest $70 million to deploy 30,000 window-sized electric heat pumps in city owned apartments. Gradient and appliance maker Midea America were each awarded 7-year contracts to develop and produce devices for the New York City Housing Authority. Leaders in other cities, including Jersey City, Boston, and Seattle, say they’re tracking the project’s progress closely.

“We’re going to spur innovation for brand-new technologies here in New York that the rest of the nation will be looking at,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul. The Clean Heat challenge is part of a broader effort by city and state governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings 40% by 2030. Buildings account for nearly three-fourths of New York City’s emissions, compared to just 13% of total US emissions.

Heat Pumps Keep Rooms Warm — And Cool

The window sized units that will be installed in public housing apartments and are meant to replace a building’s centralized heating system, giving individuals more control over the temperature inside their living space. Ideally, this avoids the need to open windows in the middle of winter to let out extra heat or plug in small space heaters in underheated rooms, which risks sparking deadly fires.

The $70 million investment is a collaboration between NYCHA, the public utility New York Power Authority, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy across the state.

For the design challenge, the agencies asked companies to develop electrified systems that don’t require specialized technicians to put in place, cost no more than $3,000 per unit, and can operate in cold climates, meaning when outside temperatures hit zero degrees F or below. The challenge also involves replacing old, leaking windows in public housing apartments with new windows designed to better accommodate the heat pumps and prevent air from escaping.

“We’re looking for something that is simple to install and is easy to maintain,” Doreen Harris, president and CEO of NYSERDA, told Canary Media. ​“But it’s also able to be installed in a way that has no disruption to tenants.” She added that, while the 30,000 heat pumps will increase electricity use in the city’s buildings, the agencies don’t expect that local grid infrastructure will need upgrades to handle the extra demand.

Gradient heat pumps
Image courtesy of Gradient

Initially, Gradient and Midea America will develop 60 heat pumps, which they’ll install in dozens of apartments during the fall of 2023 and monitor throughout the winter months. After the trial period, they expect to ramp up production and deploy thousands of units in 2024.

Vince Romanin, CEO of Gradient, said his companies  technology can curb emissions in two ways — by shifting buildings away from fossil fuel heating sources and by using an alternative refrigerant. “We wanted to figure out a way to get better refrigerants and get heat pumps deployed way faster than they were currently on track to be deployed,” Romanin said.

“And the reason wasn’t just because of carbon emissions — it’s a public health issue. People need access to air conditioning to protect against the worst effects of heat waves” just as much as they need a reliable source of heating to protect against potentially deadly winter temperatures.

Gradient is already developing a $2,000 window heat pump unit designed to supplement an apartment’s main heating system. (See specs at this link.) For New York, the company is designing a slightly larger unit with a higher heating capability that can cover an apartment’s full heating needs and is built specifically for cold climates.

Doreen Harris said that focusing on public housing properties for the Clean Heat challenge is key to ensuring the equitable development of technologies like heat pumps that can lower carbon emissions. “Starting here is the most critical part of it all. We need to realize the benefits here, perhaps more so than other places, because of the fact that these communities have not always been served in the same way as others.”

The Takeaway

Bringing heat pump technology to apartment dwellers is just as important as making Level 2 charging for electric cars available to those same people. To make a difference in the struggle against an overheating planet, all members of society must have access go the best solutions available. The Gradient system is a simple yet elegant solution and starting at $1,999, it’s a bargain, one that could pay for itself in just a few years time. This is the sort of technology breakthrough that can have a significant impact on the climate crisis.

Gradient heat pumps
Image courtesy of Gradient

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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