May 4, 2017 by Blake

There's a program where I live called HeatSmart.

I'll say, right off, that I think HeatSmart is a great program.  It's essentially a community-education program, that helps people understand that heat pumps can work well in cold climates and can help us move towards a carbon-free future.  I believe in heat pumps.  Shoot, I designed and built an entire building around a heat pump. (p. 6)  But I don't believe that they're THE solution.  Sometimes you just need an awesome dehumidifier.  (Which is a heat pump too, hee hee.)

Some months ago, I met with the now-Director of HeatSmart.  We had pizza and talked for two hours.  We met because the Board was looking for a Director, and they were gauging my interest.  I said "no" for a number of reasons.  One of them is that I'm on a Board already.  The pizza we had is in Trumansburg.  If you want to know about our Sicilian pizza guy, get in touch.  (Side note: he's having a house built.  I tested it.  It's awesome.)

A second is that I asked him a question.  HeatSmart is in its second annual round, so my question was, "how do you know it worked the first time?"

I'm not denying that heat pumps save energy.  They most certainly do.  But heat pumps are a "thing."  "Things" don't necessarily save energy.  Processes do, but processes are hard to sell.

His answer was, "we don't know."  HeatSmart doesn't know how much energy was saved the first go-round.  It's being studied, but we don't even have any estimates to work with.  I'm pretty confident that the first round of HeatSmart saved some energy, but I want to know how much.  I want to know how effective it was, and whether the community's investment was worth it.

The reason that I want to know is that I'm trying to figure out the value of things.  Terrawatt could have joined the HeatSmart program as an installer.  I do all the things on their list, no problem.  But without knowing whether HeatSmart was "working," and how well...I felt funny.  So I passed.

Well, now we have information to work with.  I recently went to a home, and convinced them to replace their dead fossil-fueled boiler with heat pumps.  They're working directly with their heating contractor to install a heat pump, outside of the HeatSmart program, and they were kind enough to share their contract pricing with me.  I compared their price with HeatSmart's prices, and this is the result:

(outdoor: outdoor unit, indoor: individual heads, extras: various other things that get added to the project)

My preferred heating partner, long-established, with a storefront right in downtown Ithaca and a staff ready to help you in the middle of winter when your heat goes out, is $1824 LESS than the CHEAPEST of the HeatSmart installers.  And this is the third reason I chose not to participate in HeatSmart.

HeatSmart purports to drive prices downwards.  They pre-negotiate the pricing so you know what to expect.  That makes you think that you're getting "the best price."  But between the three HeatSmart-certified installers, the price can vary by more than $2000 for the same system.  So what's the point?

It makes no sense to me.  The fourth reason I declined HeatSmart participation was because my overhead would increase to meet the program's requirements, and that would mean that I would have to INCREASE my prices.  The program does not reduce prices.  It increases them.  If you are participating in the HeatSmart program, you are paying thousands of dollars more than you would if you just found a heat pump installer that you can trust.

That's really what it comes down to, doesn't it?  Trust.  Who do you trust?  That's where HeatSmart shines.  They did all the work to establish trust - they "vetted" the installers, by making them jump through a whole lot of hoops.  They made all the pricing transparent.  They made it easier to do an apples-to-apples comparison.  

Compare HeatSmart's apple to Terrawatt's apple.  What could you do with the thousands of dollars you'd save by hiring Terrawatt?  Not just for heat pumps, either.  For everything.

Give it to a person who needs it.  And be more intentional with your money.

(p.s. the fifth reason I didn't participate was that NYSERDA doesn't support heat pumps.  Low- or medium-income?  Need a new heating system?  NYSERDA will give you $4000...but not for a heat pump.  They're locking us into a fossil-fuel future.  And that's wrong.  So, so wrong.)

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Matt Redmond

Blake is a motivated action-oriented wiz kid with just a touch of wise ass. (ed: we prefer "spunky.") He clearly cares for our lived-in environment and has been a diligent carbon warrior for quite some time.