Sales of ducted air-source heat pumps have been on a tear in recent years, fueled by the transition to electrification in many parts of the country as well as advances in technology that have made heat pumps more effective in colder climates. In fact, AHRI reported that in 2019, shipments of air-source heat pumps hit an all-time high of more than 3.1 million units.
Despite economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, OEMs expect demand for HVAC equipment to continue in 2021 — particularly for heat pumps, which they believe will see strong sales across the U.S. and Canada.
Sales of heat pumps for 2020 started slowly but rebounded nicely starting in the early summer months, said Bryan Rocky, director of residential product management and technical services at Johnson Controls.
“Johnson Controls saw good growth in higher-efficiency heat pump products (16 SEER and above) in this timeframe,” he said. “With the growth of heat pump systems in several key areas of the country (southeast U.S. in particular) and with the impacts of electrification and decarbonization, we look for a strong market for heat pumps going forward for the coming year in many parts of the U.S. and into Canada.”
David Garvin, product manager at Nortek Global HVAC, noted that even though heat pump sales were down in the low single digits year-to-date at the end of 2020, they were up over 10% compared to the previous summer.
“For 2021, we predict that we’ll continue to see heat pumps grow as a part of the overall unitary market, and Nortek is expecting our sales to follow that trend,” he said. “Heat pumps continue to demand a greater share of the North American market each year, and this is likely to increase as electric utility rates go up in price.”
Ducted heat pump sales remained strong in 2020 and accounted for 35% to 40% of the total market, while ductless heat pump sales continued to exhibit strong growth, although starting from a much smaller baseline, noted Jeff Goss, senior manager of product development at Rheem.
“There are several market factors at play that indicate heat pumps could continue to see growth in both ducted and ductless applications in 2021 and beyond,” said Goss. “Some of those include a trend toward smaller homes, a shift towards electrification, and a recognition by contractors and homeowners that today’s heat pumps can provide comfortable heating at ever lower outdoor ambient temperatures.”
Indeed, one of the reasons for stronger sales is the wider acceptance of heat pumps in the colder northern climates, where fossil fuels are either not available or have limited availability, said Rocky.
“With energy efficiency and application development of several U.S. regional energy efficiency organizations promoting heat pumps in colder climates, there is definitely a shift — or maybe a split — in the heat pump markets taking place today,” said Rocky. “That split may result in optimized heat pump designs for cooling, which are desired for the southern markets where cooling is the primary use of a heat pump system. And with the development of cold climate specifications, heat pump performance is being optimized for heating performance.”
Right now, ducted heat pumps are usually not the sole source of heat when installed in very cold climates, added Garvin; instead, they are often paired with an electric or gas-fired furnace or even a wood-burning stove to heat the home on the coldest days.
“That being said, in cold climates, heat pumps can still be beneficial at the beginning and end of winter,” he said. “In southern, central, and northwest climates, heat pumps make a great primary source of heat for the home. I live in Missouri and personally find having a heat pump combined with a 96% AFUE gas furnace to be the most comfortable system. During mild winter temperatures, my heat pump provides all the heat I need without overshooting the room temperature.”
When customers shop for a new heat pump, they usually take into consideration a number of factors, including efficiency, reliability, comfort, performance, low noise, Wi-Fi thermostats, and communications, said Rocky. Contractors must understand which factors are most important to their customers in order to recommend the correct heat pump to suit their needs. And manufacturers offer a wide range of equipment to fit every budget.
For example, Johnson Controls recently launched a new series of residential heat pumps, including the Coleman® LX Series TH4 model, which provides 14 SEER performance with air handlers and furnaces using standard electronically commutated motors (ECMs) for airflow delivery. These products provide performance at an affordable price point for replacement options, which are desired by consumers, said Rocky.
Johnson Controls’ 16 SEER single-stage product family, including the Luxaire® LX Series TH6 model, also saw significant growth, noted Rocky, by meeting desired higher efficiency levels up to 17 SEER with air handlers and furnaces with standard ECMs for efficient airflow delivery, again at an affordable price point.
“Our premium, variable-capacity, inverter-driven models, such as the York® Affinity™ Series YZV heat pumps, offer our highest efficiencies with full communications/connectivity,” said Rocky. “They are designed for use with our Hx3™ Communicating Zoning products, which feature our unique Charge Assurance™ feature. With this feature, a built-in touchscreen instantly displays the system conditions, including the system pressures and refrigerant charge, without the need to attach additional gauges or sensors for easier installation and future servicing by the contractor.”
Customers interested in premium heat pumps are often looking for controlled comfort, which is a feature of Rheem’s line of connected air systems, said Goss. This includes the Prestige® Series variable-speed heat pump, which allows end users to monitor and adjust the units from their smartphone devices. These heat pumps offer efficiencies up to 20 SEER and feature built-in overdrive function to boost compressor output for added capacity in extreme conditions.
“Our Prestige Series ducted heat pumps can also be matched with Rheem’s EcoNet zoning systems to offer precision heating in the parts of the home where it is needed most, while offering strong heating capacities down to 5°F,” said Goss. “These systems use optimized defrost control to intelligently determine when the system needs to defrost, decreasing the number of defrost cycles and further enhancing comfort. For the ultimate in comfort and efficiency, a Prestige Series modulating gas furnace can be paired with these heat pumps to achieve up to 98% AFUE when operating the furnace during the coldest winter months.”
For more budget-minded consumers who still desire communicating technology, Rheem offers its Classic Plus variable-speed heat pumps. These units are also compatible with the EcoNet smart thermostat, which offers connectivity, control, and diagnostics in Rheem’s mid-tier portfolio.
Nortek Global HVAC’s premium FSH1BG heat pump features a variable-speed compressor that is matched to a variable-speed blower. This configuration creates a whole new level of comfort, as variable-speed blowers have ramp up and down profiles to ensure warm heated air comes out of the vents, said Garvin.
“Our heat pumps use all-aluminum coil technology, which — because of its inherent lower internal volume — allows for a reduced amount of refrigerant compared to traditional coil configurations,” he said. “Our unique patented hot gas bypass defrost system is also something to pay attention to. It ensures a fully defrosted coil that is ready to perform at the end of every cycle.”
Nortek Global HVAC has also improved the ease of installation of its heat pumps with the introduction of its web-based charge calculator. This intuitive program allows the contractor to dial in the refrigerant charge required in any given configuration, saving valuable time and reducing costly callbacks.
Refrigerants are also top of mind with most manufacturers, given California’s mandate for a 750 GWP limit in new stationary air conditioning systems, which starts in 2025. This will likely mean the use of mildly flammable (A2L) refrigerants, which are some of the only solutions available that meet the new GWP limit.
“At Nortek Global HVAC, we’ve been talking about the A2L refrigerant change with all our customers, not just those in California who are leading the way on this,” said Garvin. “We believe these new refrigerant requirements will eventually be adopted in other states, so we have been discussing this with our distributor partners and their customers to educate them as best as possible. We are testing all available alternative refrigerants for our products, including heat pumps, and will choose the best refrigerant compatible with the products we make.”