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Emerging from a cold and very snowy winter (and chillier-than-normal early spring) in Wyoming, warm weather finally seems to be here for good. Trails are packed with people and their dogs, and the mountains are coming alive with wildflowers. The seasons seem to change overnight! 

For many of us, inefficient and expensive space or water heating may not be top of mind since the cold seems far behind us (for a few months, anyway). In northwestern Wyoming and much of the greater Mountain West, where we enjoy some of the lowest electricity rates in the country, most buildings use electric resistance space heating and water heaters—but this comes with significant environmental impacts and overburdens our utility companies. And with electric heat pump technology now being appropriate in even the coldest climates, the old electric resistance default now comes at a cost premium as well.

Frigid weather will be here again before we know it, and now is the time to plan for and make improvements to your mechanical systems to enjoy better efficiency and reduced operating costs. Read on to learn about the wonders of heat pumps and get to know our newest staff person!

Principal + Founder, Beyond Efficiency

Heath Pumps for Space Heating: Costs + Performance
in Cold Climates
by Nathan Iltis

I’ve lived in frigid climates that have four distinct seasons my whole life. These places, like my hometown of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, and my college town of Bozeman, Montana, have winter daily average temperatures in the range of 10-30 degrees F, and are certainly what you would call “heating dominated climates.” Air conditioning is often not needed at all. These cold climates deserve special considerations when selecting modern heating systems.

At Beyond Efficiency we know that the future is electric, and eventually combustion will be eliminated as a heating source in the vast majority of homes. However, the simplicity of burning things for heat and the high amount of heat that it produces has been hard to beat in cold climates. Electric resistance heating using electricity from the grid is often not a better option than natural gas or propane in regard to green house gas (GHG) emissions, since most grid electricity consumes fossil fuels in its making also. And in most regions of the country you will pay 2-4x more in utility bills as compared to heating with gas. A better heat source is needed.

Fortunately, market and policy demand have brought us to the point of being able to produce heat using electricity at a cost comparable to natural gas, using heat pumps. Air-source heat pumps (as opposed to ground-source heat pumps or geothermal) concentrate heat from the outside air and pump it indoors. They concentrate heat energy from a giant space in order to make a little space hotter. And now, some heat pumps can continue to pull concentrated heat from the outside air even if temperatures are well below zero, in some cases operating down to or even lower than -22º F (see this real-life heat pump demo from MRCOOL). With performance like this, a backup heat source is still advised, but it will run so infrequently that electric resistance heat is acceptable be used, which means the system can be made all-electric and gas infrastructure can be eliminated from the home.

Read the rest of Nathan's blog post

Mechanical Q&A w/ Katy Hollbacher

A Deep Dive on Heat Pumps
by Laken Allen

Laken: We've been hearing a lot about heat pumps lately. For those who don't know, what is a heat pump?

Katy: A heat pump does exactly what it says! It uses electricity to pump heat from one space (such as inside a refrigerator) to another space by using a refrigerant, which is a fluid or gas that can absorb a lot of heat. In buildings we can use heat pumps to move heat from inside to outside when it's hot, or from outside to inside when it's cold. It may seem odd that you can actually capture heat from cold air, but until you get down to absolute zero or -460º Fahrenheit there is heat energy that can be captured and moved!
Laken: So, what's the fuss about heat pumps when there's electric resistance heating?
Katy: Electric resistance heating is cheap to install but expensive to operate. Heat is generated by pushing an electric current through a resistor, an element that doesn't want the current to flow through it— usually a metal alloy called nichrome. The actual heating device could be a baseboard convector, toe kick heater, underfloor radiant electric heat mat, cove heat, you name it... and manufacturers will claim their products are "100% efficient" since using a kilowatt-hour of electricity generates about a kilowatt-hour of heat energy. But heat pumps are way better! They can generate at least three times more heat than electric resistance given the same electricity input. And because they move heat, they can also provide air conditioning. Electric resistance has no answer to that.     
Laken: And what role does Beyond Efficiency play with heat pumps?

Katy: We help architects and building owners integrate heat pumps for space heating, space cooling and water heating (DHW) into their projects. Even in very cold climates where a heat pump needs to work harder to squeeze enough heat from the air, the technology just keeps improving and we sometimes don't even need to include electric resistance backup. A wide range of products on the market lets us engineer systems that that work from coastal California to the mountains. We talk with clients to understand what they want to see, or not see, on the inside to recommend the best systems and strategies. We get a lot of questions about ground-source heat pumps; in our experience they rarely pencil out. We encourage investing more in the building envelope and pairing that with air-to-air or air-to-water heat pumps to end up with great comfort at lowest cost and complexity.   
Laken: I've actually been looking into installing a ductless mini-split heat pump and heat pump water heater (HPWH) in our house. Any tips? 

Katy: Like most homeowners in the Mountain West, your current heating and DHW is electric resistance. That means that your current electric service should be able to accommodate a switch to heat pump equipment without needing to upgrade the panel. Something nice about ductless mini-splits for retrofits is that you only need to run refrigerant lines from the outdoor unit to each indoor unit, so it's less invasive than running ducts when you don't already have a ducted system. Swapping out the water heater may or may not be easily feasible depending on where your current water heater sits. If you hire a contractor to make these improvements, be sure to take advantage of local rebates and federal tax credits for installing heat pumps!

New staff profile: Nathan Russell

Energy Engineer
by Laken Allen

Nate holds a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering, both from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Throughout his life he has been involved in many construction projects from simple remodels to full-gut rehabs and new construction. He draws upon that firsthand construction experience and technical background to facilitate the adoption of high-performance buildings and practices.

Q: What do you do at Beyond Efficiency?
A: I am an energy engineer providing guidance on achieving better performing buildings.

Q: What's your favorite thing about working at Beyond Efficiency?
A: Working with colleagues and clients that are genuinely interested in, on board with, and appreciative of higher performing buildings.

Q: What are the most exciting trends you see today in sustainable building?
A: One trend is the push for all electric buildings and the resultant tech and regulatory development to support it. More broadly, there seems to be increased interest in addressing issues farther upstream as opposed to reacting to the symptoms.

Q: What's an amazing accomplishment most people don't know about?
A:  I designed and built kitchen cabinets almost from scratch. Processed rough cut, quarter-sawn oak slabs into a 40 dovetailed-drawer cabinet system.

Q: And finally, what's a secret talent no one knows about?
A: Cooking

Learn more about Nate and his teammates

Noteworthy Events

We'll be presenting, attending, or wishing we were there

June 10, 2021
Clean Energy Home: Key Systems + Energy Modeling, Online
Offered by PG&E in partnership with Southern California Edison, learn more about fundamental products and systems used in all-electric new, existing and multifamily homes. This includes heat pumps for space conditioning, heat pump water heaters, and induction cooktops. 

June 23, 2021
Green & Healthy Housing for All, Online
Join USGBC Northern California and USGBC Orange County for this virtual event to discuss the affordable housing crisis in the golden state. Speakers will focus on how the buildings we create affect the communities and environment around  them.  Expect thought-provocative conversations with leaders in healthy and green affordable housing, including. multi-family, ADUs, and other building types.

June 24, 2021
All-Electric Homes: Benefits for Builders, Online
Build It Green, in partnership with Consol and Southern California Edison (SCE) bring you this webinar on how all-electric homes benefit California home builders. They will also address common misconceptions about electrification, including costs, compliance, solar and storage, and health and environment. 

June 22 - June 29, 2021
Green Living and Building in Teton ValleyVictor, ID
Join Mountainside Institute for its free Green Living and Building workshop series, featuring topics including Minimizing Heat Loss, Passive Solar + Climate Responsive Design and Sustainable Building Materials. 

PG&E Energy Centers

July 27, 2021
Retrofitting Homes for Electrification and Decarbonization, Online
Offered by PG&E, this online workshop will cover adopting electrification retrofit strategies into your next projects. Dan Perunko of Balance Point Home Performance will present critical considerations for electrifying an existing home, offering case studies of successful projects and ways to overcome the challenges presented by existing infrastructure. 

June 28 - 30, 2021
ASHRAE 2021 Annual Conference, Online
Now being held online, this conference will include a mixture of live and on-demand technical and interactive sessions. These will include Fundamentals and Applications, HVAC&R Systems and Equipment, Research Summit, Professional Development, Design, Control and Operation of Critical Environments, HVAC&R for Indoor Plants & Animals and Future Proofing - Renewable Regenerative and Resilient.
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