Heat pumps are one of the key technologies that will save the planet from the unfolding climate crisis. In addition to heating our water and heating and cooling our homes, in their latest incarnation, they can now also dry our clothes. Yes, heat pump dryers are an exciting, mostly uncharted, use of heat pump technology with three to four times the efficiency of a standard dryer. In Europe, heat pump dryers already make up at least half of the market. Our family recently jumped on the bandwagon and purchased our first heat pump dryer last year (spoiler alert, we love it).
While dryer energy use is small compared to space and water heating, and could be replaced by hang drying, the dryer does consume around 7% (700 kWh a year) of the average home’s electricity. With more heat pump dryer models coming to the market, and rapidly improving technology, we figured it was a good time to look into what this technology is all about.
What is a Heat Pump Dryer?
As the name suggests, heat pump dryers use the seemingly magical technology of heat pumps to more efficiently dry clothes. Instead of creating heat, they capture it from the air using refrigerants and recycle that heat over and over again rather than wastefully venting it outside. ENERGY STAR has a great one-minute video explaining how they work.
There are three types:
- Heat pump dryers. Most heat pump dryers are powered only by a heat pump without any electric resistance backup system. ENERGY STAR rates these as the “most efficient” type of dryer, and they use an average of 100-200 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year. They also have longer drying times (see below).
- Hybrid heat pump dryers. This is a heat pump dryer combined with electric resistance technology. It can run in more efficient heat pump mode or in the less efficient electric resistance mode, which can kick in to speed up drying time. Hybrid dryers usually come in bigger sizes. ENERGY STAR estimates they use between 400-500 (kWh) which is better than the standard electric dryer (700-800 kWhs/year) but not mind bendingly so.
- Combo washer/heat pump dryer units. This is an exciting emerging product that combines a washer and a heat pump dryer into one appliance. GE just released a model that our friends at Yale Appliance say, “could change the way we do laundry.” The washing and drying happens in one machine that’s both water and energy efficient. The product saves time and valuable space.
Benefits of Heat Pump Dryers
From our perspective and a year of experience, there are lots of benefits and just a couple drawbacks to heat pump dryers. First, the fun benefits:
- Energy savings. ENERGY STAR shows how heat pump dryers are 61-72% more efficient than standard dryers, as illustrated below. Using electricity more efficiently is increasingly important as we electrify everything because it’s possible to shift household electric loads to other climate-saving technologies like electric vehicles.
- Carbon savings. Eliminating 500 kWh a year with a heat pump dryer will save around 425 pounds of CO2 compared to electric resistance or gas dryers, according to the EPA. That’s a lot from one little appliance.
- No venting. Heat pump dryers collect and drain water through a condensate tube so they don’t require a vent to exhaust damp air. (If you don’t have a place to run the condensate tube, they have a water collection compartment that you can empty manually.) This means they can go into virtually any room in a house and makes them great for apartments and Accessory Dwelling Units. Note that the absence of vents means that they can warm the room a bit.
- Operational savings. Because they use less energy, heat pump dryers cost less to operate. Saving 500 kWh a year will save the average homeowner $85. While those savings won’t make anyone rich, that’s 6% of the average home’s electric bill.
- Help free your home of fossil fuels. 25% of US dryers run on natural (aka fossil) gas which when burned adds dangerous carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Because many of the heat pump dryers can plug into a standard 110-volt outlet, they help homes eliminate gas without requiring a 240-volt line to the laundry room for an electric resistance dryer.
- Better for the grid and homes with small electrical panels. All heat pump dryers draw significantly less wattage (around 1,000 watts) than electric resistance (6,000-7,000 watts). This is better for the grid as it lowers electricity demand and usage. It’s also better for homes with smaller electrical panels that may not have capacity for an energy hogging electric resistance dryer.
- Less fire risk. Nearly 15,000 fires are caused by clothes dryers annually and result in 13 deaths. Heat pump dryers greatly reduce the risk of fire because they operate at much lower temperatures.
- Easier on clothing. Because they use less heat, heat pump dryers won’t scorch your undies.
All of the benefits of heat pump dryers are condensed in a 1 page shareable factsheet here
While heat pump dryers are happily drying clothes in millions of homes across the world, in the US, there are still a couple limitations associated with a maturing technology.
- Few models. There are limited heat pump dryer models available in the US market. ENERGY STAR currently identifies 577 efficient certified dryers. Only about 7% of those (42) are heat pump dryers. This is changing quickly, however. As the chart below shows, the number of options available have more than doubled in the last 5 years, increasing from 16 in 2018 to 42 in 2023.
- More expensive. Lack of significant market share plus product complexity (due to the heat pump) means heat pump dryers usually cost more than their electric resistance dryer counterparts. Typical dryers cost $800-$1,200 according to Home Guide and below is a table we created to show the price of heat pump dryers. A couple of the heat pump dryers actually cost less than Home Guide’s average dryer estimates but most cost more. To bring down cost, there are rebates in the Inflation Reduction Act for low to moderate income households, and it’s worth checking ENERGY STAR’s rebate finder to see if there are other heat pump dryer rebates in your area.
- Compact size. American standard sized dryers typically have 5-7 cubic feet of capacity. Heat pump models available today are more compact. ENERGY STAR lists 12 models available with over 4.4 cubic feet of capacity.
- Longer drying times. The cycle time of heat pump dryers is generally longer. ENERGY STAR requires certified dryers to meet an 80-minute minimum cycle, and ours generally says 75 minutes when we start it, but it usually takes 90-120 minutes to fully dry a load. But this too is improving. Some newer models have 35-50 minute cycle times. The key is to pair a heat pump dryer with a front loading energy efficient washer because the spinning removes a lot of water. Top loading washers can’t spin as fast so require the dryer to do more work.
- Refrigerants with Global Warming Potential (GWP). Most heat pump dryers use refrigerants with high GWP which means that if these gasses escape, they can heat the planet significantly. The good news is that EPA’s AIM Act is phasing down the GWP level of refrigerants. And the refrigerant is factory sealed in the appliance so it’s unlikely to escape until the end of its life which is why it’s crucial to always properly recycle all appliances with refrigerants.
Our Heat Pump Dryer Experience
After mostly hang-drying our laundry (including cloth diapers and Airbnb sheets) for the past decade, we decided to buy a heat pump dryer in August of 2022. We were eager to test the new technology and Naomi was particularly excited about eliminating the ever-present drying rack under our ductless heat pump in the winter. After a lot of research, we went with the cheapest option: Best Buy’s Insignia heat pump dryer.
One of our big questions was, “Will it actually dry clothes?” After a year, our answer is a resounding yes! It dries clothes as well as any other type of dryer, but it takes about 1.5 times longer. Occasionally we have to add a little extra time to the cycle, but getting clothes dry is not an issue.
We also haven’t noticed any increase in our electricity usage (even though we rarely used our dryer before) so we’re confident the energy use is minimal. Our happiness matches other customer satisfaction surveys studies from Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and Center for Energy and the Environment, which found users are very pleased with the technology.
Our one challenge is that bulky loads with sheets, duvet covers, and towels take a couple hours to dry, and we often have to check the load once during the cycle to make sure the laundry isn’t twisted up to make drying harder (though this can happen in any dryer).
In addition, our dryer’s fan belt broke during its first year. It was still under warranty, so it was fully covered and apparently a fluke. But the repair tech told us that a best practice with heat pump dryers is not to fill them fully to reduce stress on the dryer drum. We were stuffing it pretty full, so that might have impacted the fan belt.
Overall we love the newest heat pump in town and the fact that a veritable heat pump army now efficiently, and inexpensively, heats (and cools) the air, water, and clothes in our home.
This article is part of a series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.
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