How efficiency’s best makes its way to Vermont

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by Jake Marin, Efficiency Vermont Program Manager

An air-to-water heat pump installed at a residential site in Brattleboro, Vermont. Photo courtesy of Alexander Beck.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m tempted to say that I predict the future. That’s because my job enables me to be aware of energy-efficient technologies while they’re still in development, or when they’re not yet known in our part of the world. I’m one of the people at Efficiency Vermont who maintains this awareness through long-standing partnerships with the innovators who design and build the latest in energy-saving equipment. When my co-workers and I spot a new technology that would benefit Vermont, we work with manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, and retailers to make that equipment available to Vermonters at affordable prices.

I’m happy to report that we’re now using this supply-chain approach to alert Vermonters to a highly efficient way to heat buildings with water: low-temperature water distribution. We are bringing this heating approach to the attention of equipment suppliers, installers, and service technicians throughout the state, to make it easier for Vermonters to benefit in their homes and businesses.

Why low-temperature water?

Traditional water-based heating systems use a natural gas- or oil-fired boiler to heat water to 180 degrees and then send it out to baseboards or radiators. Using water that hot to achieve room temperature wastes quite a bit of energy. Low-temperature distribution systems, however, are designed to keep a building comfortably warm with water that’s heated to 110 degrees or less, resulting in great energy savings. Today’s sub-floor radiant-heat systems are already effective at squeezing a lot of heat out of low-temperature water, while traditional baseboards and radiators need to be upgraded to accommodate low-temperature water.

The heat pump connection

Even greater energy savings can be had by using an air-to-water heat pump, instead of a boiler, to provide low-temperature water. Heat pumps burn no fossil fuel. They need just a small amount of electricity to draw heat from the air and introduce it to the water circulating through a building.

Air-to-water models are the newest generation of heat pump–a technology that we introduced to Vermont in the form of air-to-air models in recent years. Vermont has seen a surge in popularity of these air-to-air heat pumps, which can heat the air in individual rooms or in multiple rooms with open layouts. The new air-to-water model makes heat pump technology viable for homes that heat with water and offers a central-heating option for many heat pump users for the first time. The strength of the air-to-water heat pump recently earned it the 2019 ENERGY STAR® Emerging Technologies Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This prestigious award recognizes a technology as the best in new energy-saving equipment.

Right now, most Vermont homeowners don’t know about air-to-water heat pumps. Those who’ve heard of them can’t buy them locally and might not be able to afford them or to get knowledgeable advice about them from a local contractor. That’s why we held a day-long educational summit to introduce air-to-water heat pumps to Vermont. The summit brought together Vermont distributors, suppliers, and contractors to learn about this equipment and to interact with heat-pump manufacturers. With this summit, we began setting the stage for introduction of this approach to Vermont consumers.

Why inform the marketplace before the consumer?

For a new technology to be successfully introduced in our state, it’s not enough to simply tell the public about it. There first needs to be a statewide network of informed people who sell, install, and service the equipment. We have found it highly effective—and cost-effective—to maintain relationships with the Vermont businesses that provide efficient products and services. We strategically support these providers with training, promotions, and shared price reductions for recommended equipment. So, by the time we start informing the public about a beneficial efficient approach, the infrastructure is in place. Products are on the shelves of knowledgeable Vermont sellers at reduced prices, local contractors know when the product is right to recommend to a customer, and Vermont installers and service technicians know how the equipment works. This “backstage” activity is an approach known as market transformation.

Among the new technologies that we’ve brought to Vermont through market transformation efforts, the most widely known is probably the light-emitting diode (LED) light bulb. The LED, which uses 70-90% less energy and lasts 15 times longer than the old incandescent light bulb, was largely unknown in Vermont when we identified this emerging technology as a great fit for our state in 2010. We knew about LEDs both because of our awareness of manufacturers’ innovations and because of our long-standing partnership with the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, which certifies that products meet high standards for efficiency and quality. With this knowledge of a great new opportunity for Vermont, we got to work. We coordinated with lighting distributors, retailers, lighting designers, building-retrofit contractors, new construction designers, and tradespeople throughout the state. Together, we ensured that consumers had an informed statewide network of providers and that bulbs were on shelves at reduced prices. Only then did we start launching public information campaigns and promotions. Today, ENERGY STAR certified LEDs are the standard for efficient lighting in Vermont.

What market transformation means for Vermonters

Market transformation is an exciting, gratifying way to bring sustained energy savings to consumers while benefitting local providers. Whenever I see somebody buying LEDs at my local hardware store, it’s a great feeling knowing what happened “backstage” to make that purchase easy and affordable. I feel the same way when a neighbor can get expert energy-saving help, locally, from a home-improvement contractor in Efficiency Vermont’s Efficiency Excellence Network (EEN), or when a Vermont business is happy with the high-efficiency equipment that their EEN service technician recommended. It’s also great knowing that, while energy efficiency is lowering overhead in homes and businesses across the state, numerous Vermont businesses are strengthening their bottom lines and workforce security because of their customers’ purchases of efficient goods and services.

So, even though I can’t really see the future, I’m sure that it looks bright for Vermont.

Find rebates on air-to-water heat pumps for your home or business.

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