Heat Pump Research

I’ve not posted lately because about two weeks ago, our 24-year-old heat pump quit with a BANG that recalls the report from my Dad’s old Remington 12-gauge shotgun. It also echoed off the mountain and across the ravine in just the same way.

Repair costs were going to begin at roughly the 80% point of an inexpensive replacement (and likely go rapidly up from there), so it was time to do some research. I’ve spent all this time getting bids and doing research on this project, and maybe through this I can now save someone else a lot of time.

(I also have extensive research on dishwashers, from a year or so ago; if you’d like to see that, let me know in the comments section. I’ll give a little insight into it below.)

Back to our story:

We have been heating the house with the pellet stove since the system quit, so the stove has gone from being secondary heat and ambiance to primary heat.

Meanwhile I’ve been getting bids on replacement systems and having my eyes opened as I research and find out how absolutely crappy they’re building entry-level systems now.

When we specified the original system 24 years ago, there was an assumption of longevity and quality, and it has proven to be true.

This is Just Not So, now.

We now have Chinese-sourced motors and compressors, and none appear to come with a guarantee beyond 5 years. At this point, it was a reasonable question to ask about rebuilding our old system. Parts and labor will exceed the cost of replacement with a mid-level system, since our existing system uses old technology, low pressures, and the refrigerant is like liquid gold. Parts and labor would be guaranteed for only one year, at best. There’s also the ‘green’ angle of continuing to use an ozone-depleting refrigerant; but I have to admit, although this was in consideration, it plays a tertiary role.

There is an important point to be made right here, and it’s worth the digression:

Manufacturers of all types of ‘durable goods’ like this have moved to a cost-conscious-consumer-model: They offer these crappy bargain-basement-priced units because people will buy them, regardless of the downstream cost.
Manufacturers have learned that when somebody wants something for cheap in the worst way, that’s what they should provide in order to get the business: ‘cheap, in the worst way’.
This Wal*Mart mentality means that many people don’t care about how long something lasts or where it’s made, having the gizmo is the most important thing.

This is also what I’ve found in my research with dishwashers: You want a cheap system in the worst way? We have it!

Problem is, people buy something like this, then bitch about ‘the quality nowadays’ but weren’t willing to pay for it up front. So they get what they get. Dishwashers that last four years and then pee all over the floor, washing machines that last the same kind of time with the same results… The culprit? Chinese-made seals. “Oh, but I paid another $50 for the Super-Yuan, it’s ‘higher quality’…” Um, yeah. You can’t get away from cheap, Chinese-sourced parts in dishwashers until you pass the $600 mark. Period.

All right, back to our heat pump story…

Our old heat pump system’s principle of operation is like an entry-level system’s in that it is a single-stage system, and it works like a furnace: the thermostat (hereafter, and in the industry, called a ‘stat’) calls for heat, so the system turns on. The stat hits the set point, and the system turns off. This is hard on the compressor because it has a ‘hard’ stop-start. This means it’s switched off under full load, and likewise started under full load.

Moving up to a 2-stage system adds roughly 50% to the cost, but the blower periodically runs, helping to even out the temperature in the house (which would be REALLY nice with our mountain-side location); the outdoor unit is a 2-stage unit, capable of running at a lower power, and then gear-shifting to higher power as required. The problem is, the higher-power-level is always required as the system runs, then of course the stat senses the temperature drop and calls for more heat. Meanwhile we still have a ‘hard’ stop-start cycle, but the guarantees now go to the 10-year point for some components, and finally we get the compressor added to this guarantee period.

The system I am reluctantly moving to (due to its extra cost) is a completely different system. It utilizes true motor-drive controls for ‘soft’ stop-start cycles, and is capable of infinitely varying the entire system output independently (meaning it varies the output of the outdoor unit, and varies the air handler’s blower speed) as necessary. The price premium is another roughly 15%, but as a generalization, all of these units are still in operation since their initial install.

So reliability and longevity are achieved with this type of system; and that’s one of my primary goals. I intend to never have to replace this system.

There is another real benefit. The actual measured electricity use is between 30% – 60% of single-stage systems (this wide variation is caused by different manufacturers’ efficiency numbers); when compared to our existing (but failed) system, actual electricity use is roughly only 30%. So there is a payback period that, from my best calculation, is less than 6 years over a cheap system. And it should exhibit a lifetime of about 300% of a cheap system.

I have narrowed the bids down to two competitors, one of them is local and I’d really like to use them as they have been totally up-front with me and very little of the salesman bullshit; but their price is $800 higher. Considering the high total system cost, I think I can get them to go back to their factory and squeeze them for the difference.

A bit more research on indoor air quality options with a system like this, and I’ll be ready to draw my pen (mightier than the sword) and go do battle. Meanwhile our local utility is offering excellent subsidised loan rates for these kinds of renovations, plus free consultation and contractor sort-out for best price versus quality on replacement windows. We have 11 left of the original windows that we’d like to replace, maybe we can do them with the same loan.

The paperwork, as they say, is already in the mail.

Editing note: I went back in and fixed my phrasing in a couple of spots for clarity. Also the measured electrical use is between 30 and 60 percent, not 40 to 60 as earlier stated.


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