Heat Pump Is A Dumb Name For A Smart Appliance. Can You Do Better?

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The heat pump is a wondrous device. It is far more efficient than an air conditioner or a furnace, so it can make our homes and office spaces comfortably cool in summer or pleasantly warm in winter, and do it for about at third of the cost of traditional heating and cooling devices. So why doesn’t everyone have one?

One reason is that “heat pump” isn’t sexy. Not two people in a hundred understand how it works. It has none of the cachet that makes us want to run out and buy one for ourselves. Marketing types know the power of branding. Tesla is a good example of a company that has learned this lesson well. It offers a range of products with interesting sounding names — Autopilot, Powerwall, Megapack — names that evoke an emotional response that makes us want one. (Well, maybe not a Megapack, but who wouldn’t want a Powerwall?)

Everyone wants an iPhone. A flip phone? Not so much. “Turbo” has such marketing cachet that Porsche continues to use it for some of its electric car models, even though they have no turbochargers installed. Volkswagen is thinking of keeping the Golf name around a while longer and applying it to an electric car, simply because it has nearly 50 years of brand recognition.

A year ago, the folks at Canary Media took up the cause of renaming the lowly heat pump to something with more pizzazz and more customer appeal. The debate followed a tweet by climate scientist David Ho.

That tweet got a lot of responses, some of them serious and some of them silly. Gizmodo writer Brian Kahn pinpoints the problem with the heat pump nomenclature. ​“Their name doesn’t begin to describe the wonders of what heat pump technology can do for the home and the planet.” He calls them ​a “poorly named appliance — they heat and cool buildings.” In 2021 on Twitter, Kahn wrote, “We need a Mad Men for climate tech ASAP. @cleancreatives, I know your goal is to take down the oil industry. But if you could squeeze in a heat pump rebrand in on your spare time, that’d be great.”

Here are some of the suggestions that have surfaced since then:

  • 2 way A/C
  • Two way air conditioner
  • Temperature-comfort machine
  • Electric heater cooler machine
  • Clean green comfort machine (No doubt a nod to Simon and Garfunkle’s Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine)
  • Fridge retrofitted with a fan
  • Freedom pump
  • Heaty McPumpface (that one is our personal favorite here at CleanTechnica world headquarters, where we have been using heat pumps exclusively since the Clinton administration)

Education Is The Key

Actually, many people say we need to spend less time thinking up clever new names and more time educating people why they might want a heat pump or two for themselves. That begins with explaining what heat pumps are and what they do. For that, we turn to an article by RMI from last July.

Heat pumps are different than traditional HVAC appliances in at least two big ways. First, many heat pumps can run in both heating and cooling mode — filling the role of both an air conditioner and a furnace. And second, a heat pump running in heating mode has one crucial, energy-saving edge over a traditional gas or electric furnace: the heat pump simply moves heat rather than creating it through fossil fuel combustion or electric resistance. This key differentiator enables heat pumps to reach far greater levels of efficiency.

The basic principles of a heat pump are similar to those of a household refrigerator. Both technologies use a refrigerant to move heat from one side of the system to the other. When a standard residential heat pump runs in cooling mode, a low pressure, low temperature refrigerant absorbs heat from the indoor air which is released outside when the refrigerant is compressed and passed through an outdoor heat exchanger.

In heating mode, the flow of refrigerant reverses. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the outdoors and vaporizes inside the sealed system. Crucially, the refrigerants used in heat pumps have very low boiling points and can efficiently absorb heat even from cold winter air. That heat can then be moved to the indoor environment by compressing the vapor and passing it through an interior coil, where it releases some of its heat.

Because a heat pump merely moves heat rather than generating heat, it can produce over four times as much heat energy (in kWh) as it consumes in electricity, resulting in lower energy use and operating costs than electric resistance heaters. Heat pumps also greatly outperform gas furnaces. That helps home and building owners avoid the burning of gas indoors, removing any potential risks of carbon monoxide poisoning or dangerous gas leaks and explosions. Eliminating fossil fuel combustion has massive benefits to outdoor air quality and health as well. According to a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study, fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for one in five deaths worldwide.

The Proof Is In The Pudding

When Naomi Cole and Joe Wachunus installed a heat pump and a heat pump water heater in one side of a duplex in Cleveland, they got to directly compare their costs and benefits with the conventional heating and air conditioning equipment on the other side of the house. They found the heat pump was nearly three times as efficient in terms of the heating and cooling provided for a given amount of energy. They also found their heat pump worked just fine during cold winter weather.

They also discovered an unexpected benefit. Not only did their electric heat pump water heater provide all the hot water they needed at one-third the cost of their old gas-fired unit, it also dehumidified the basement, which allowed them to unplug a dehumidifier. That one move saved them more than $500 a year in electricity.

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The Takeaway

Maybe someday, Elon Musk will decide to begin producing heat pumps and come up with a great name for them that dazzles the world. Until then, we should content ourselves with knowing that sexy names are not always necessary to get people to switch to new technology. Refrigerator and dishwasher and washing machine do just fine for household appliances. Television pretty much says it all. Car serves its purpose, even though it doesn’t say specifically what it does.

In the final analysis, people tend to perk up their ears when they hear that something can serve a common function and do it at much lower cost. Do people care whether they can explain how a heat pump water heater works, if it saves them hundreds of dollars a year in utility bills? Most of us can’t explain what allows an airplane to get off the ground, but that doesn’t stop us from flying.

Somewhere out there in the vast CleanTechnica community, someone has a good name for the heat pump, something better than “heating and cooling thingie.” If you do, please share it with us in the comments section.

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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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