Heat Pumps: Deep Dive Into Whether, and How, to Make Switch


Air source heat pumps pull heat from one air mass and transfer it to another, heating by moving energy into the building and cooling by moving it out. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

When Kyle O’Neil bought his home in Ashaway, R.I., three years ago, he asked his home inspector and his real estate agent, “What do you think about heat pumps for this house?”

They answered with variations of, “We’re not in the proper climate, heat pumps aren’t for the Northeast.” O’Neil didn’t know it then, but they were wrong.

It’s a common experience: Rhode Islanders interested in switching to modern heat pump technology — which is both more efficient than other heating and cooling options and has a far less negative impact on the environment — often hear myths and concerns based on outdated or false information. And, in our busy lives, that’s usually where the story ends.

“I’m too busy at the time to do research because I got a zillion other things, I’m buying a house, I’ve got three young kids,” O’Neil said. “I didn’t even think about it.”

In effort to encourage the transition to heat pumps, Rhode Island has joined eight other states in the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM)-written pledge that electric heat pumps will make up at least 65% of all residential heating and cooling products shipped to Rhode Island and other partner states by 2030, and raise that to 90% by 2040. However, according to the latest survey by the Energy Information Administration (EIA, 2020), Rhode Island uses electricity for only 11.9% of heating needs, which includes inefficient electric resistance as well as heat pump technology, meaning Rhode Island is far from the 16% average across the nation.

There are many preconceptions about heat pumps, which can heat and cool a home by replacing both a traditional air conditioner and a home heating system such as a furnace, boiler, or inefficient baseboard heat. 

“Someone may have heard those rumors,” said Brian Kearney, director of residential services for RISE Engineering, “and while they might have been true 10 or 15 years ago, we strongly believe that it’s no longer the case, if the equipment is sized appropriately, and the design is an appropriate mix of system, based on the details of your home.”


Myth: Heat pumps don’t work in a cold climate and will always need a backup system.

Reality: Heat pump technology has improved drastically in recent years. According to Carbon Switch, “Contrary to popular belief, modern cold-climate heat pumps can heat a home efficiently even when the temperature drops below [minus] 10 degrees. At this temperature the best cold climate heat pumps are still more energy efficient than furnaces and boilers.”

In fact, Maine is adopting heat pumps faster than any other state.

Myth: Heat pumps cost more to run and will increase heating bills.

Reality: Heat pumps are “the cheapest and most efficient way to handle both heating and cooling for your home, no matter where you live (especially when you factor in the recent tax credits and incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act).”  And, according to a report from Carbon Switch, switching to properly sized and installed residential heat pumps should save the average consumer $557 a year.

Myth: Heat pumps are expensive to maintain and need to be replaced more often than other heating systems.

Reality: According to, “Their lifespan is typically on par with other HVAC systems including furnaces and air conditioners.”

Myth: Heat pumps don’t work in existing buildings, old houses, apartments or condos; they only work well in new construction.

Reality: There is no property type or architectural era that is unsuitable for a heat pump, according to the U.K.’s government-funded Electrification of Heat project.

Myth: Heat pumps won’t work in a house or building that is not insulated.

Reality: As with any other heat source, heat pumps work best in energy-efficient homes. People thinking about getting a heat pump can utilize RI Energy’s free EnergyWise home energy audit program to learn about weatherization options and making a home more energy-efficient.

Myth: Heat pumps are difficult to learn how to use and are noisy.

Reality: Heat pumps are no more complicated than other heating systems. As for noise, while older heat pumps may have been loud, modern heat pumps operate at the same volume as boilers, and residents are less likely to hear them because the compressor units are installed outside.

Myth: Heat pumps will never offset the carbon emissions resulting from making them.

Reality: The World Economic Forum, using data from the International Energy Agency, said, “Globally, heat pumps could reduce CO2 emissions by 500 million tons by 2030 as they replace gas, oil and coal.”

Myth: Heat pumps hurt property values.

Reality: According to research by the University of Rhode Island, switching to heat pumps “not only offers an energy-efficient source of electrified heating and cooling but also increases home values in the U.S. by $10,400 to $17,000 on average.”

Making the switch

Clean Heat RI (CHRI), a program embedded in the state Office of Energy Management (OER) and managed by Massachusetts-based consultants Abode Energy Management, is spearheading the effort to increase heat pump adoption. Funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act, CHRI has $25 million to promote adoption of heat pumps, much of which takes the form of financial rebate incentives for Rhode Island residents and commercial building owners. Additional federal tax rebates are available for up to $2,000 a year for each household, and can be used each year through 2033.

CHRI is “designed to offer incentives to assist homeowners and small-to-mid-size business owners with the purchase and installation of high-efficiency electric heat pumps, with an emphasis on families in environmental justice communities, minority-owned businesses, and community organizations.”

Since its launch in September 2023, CHRI has seen slow but steady growth. CHRI includes a data dashboard on its website that tracks project numbers by month, category, and overall program totals. From an initial 155 total projects in October 2023, the monthly rate has grown to 334 as of March. Taken together, the 1,192 completed projects will prevent 42,633 tons of carbon emissions during the installed equipment’s lifetimes, which is approximately the amount from 5,044 homes. This works out to an average of 32 tons per project, an amount that equals the carbon emissions of two humans per year, according to The Nature Conservancy. (You can calculate your own carbon footprint using this TNC tool.)

Those residential totals include installation of heat pumps that either fully displace or are the primary heat source alongside legacy deliverable fuel systems. By the end of March a total of 1,058 residential customers completed installation and received incentives, while another 196 are in the process, with a combined $3.35 million in rebates going to consumers (roughly $2,6750 per residential participant).

According to Robert Beadle, OER’s chief public affairs officer, among the 744 rebates going to those living in existing (not newly constructed) homes, heat pumps fully displaced or were installed as primary heat source alongside legacy deliverable fuel systems to augment the operation of 331 natural gas systems, 367 oil systems, and 34 propane systems, with the rest undefined. Most installations were in single-family homes (692), followed by apartments/condos (50), and townhouses (25). Nineteen businesses have completed their projects, with another 24 in progress. 

An enhanced program for income-qualified Rhode Island residents covers 100% of the costs of equipment and labor and up to $3,000 in necessary electricity service upgrades, along with an increased level of support from CHRI. People enrolled in LIHEAP, SNAP, or the RI Energy Discount Program are automatically eligible, and others can apply based solely on income. RI Community Action Programs offers help for people who want to apply for these programs.

This segment of the CHRI program has grown slowest, with 14 residential homes converting from oil or propane heat (current low prices for natural gas exclude these homes from the income-eligible program) and seven more are in the process, with a total of $401,90 in financial support (about $19.14 per participant). The slow pace reflects the extra attention income-qualified residents receive and a limit on how many projects in this category can be in process at a given time.

Commercial projects have risen to 55 completed or in process, for a total of $1.17 million in rebates (or $21,290 per project).

Getting a heat pump

A homeowner, business owner, or organization can use the CHRI website to sign up for and schedule a free 45-minute virtual consultation with a specialist from Abode that walks the participant through each step of transitioning to a heat pump and answers questions. After the consultation, participants will receive a report detailing the information shared and a list of next steps. CHRI also includes on its website a residential guide to heat pumps, a list of preferred installers, questions they recommend homeowners ask installers, and user tips.

CHRI encourages participants to utilize RI Energy’s home energy assessment. Once the appointment is scheduled with RISE Engineering, contracted by Rhode Island Energy, a specialist will visit the home or building, inspect the property and then offer a personalized set of energy-efficiency recommendations. In addition to offering free energy-efficiency devices (such low-flow shower heads, programmable thermostats and advanced power strips), RISE will send a report with recommendations for weatherizing and an action plan. The plan outlines the costs for weatherization and the amount of financial assistance given to Rhode Island Energy customers. Costs for air-sealing around doors is covered 100% and costs for insulation services are covered at 75% and up to 100%.

The assessment and subsidized weatherization work is available to all Rhode Island Energy customers, not only those in the process of converting to heat pumps. If a participant chooses to complete the weatherization work, RISE will send a contract that outlines the work, connect with a contractor to complete the work, and will inspect the work done by that contractor before sending a bill for the 25% of the cost of services.

Angela Li, supervisor of low-income programs for Rhode Island Energy, recommended weatherizing before installation of a heat pump.

“Heat pumps are going to be working harder if you don’t weatherize your home. Your house will leak good air outside,” she said. Li also encouraged customers to explore the utility’s cooling incentive for those switching from less efficient cooling options (like window units) to using heat pumps for air conditioning.

Only those who seek financial assistance through the income-eligible program are required to complete the assessment and work prior to accessing the financial incentives.

CHRI suggests receiving at least three quotes and using their Quote Review Tool. Participants can upload up to three quotes from installers for review. Christopher Haringa, director of decarbonization programs for Abode, said the tool offers “a report that provides an objective, non-biased view [of] different options, so that you have the ability to make a more informed decision.”

The review will help customers learn about the different equipment and designs offered by installers, concerns about oversizing compressors and other factors that impact initial and life-time costs, and provide improved efficiency calculations and educational information.

Once a choice has been made (or at any time in the process), participants can begin the formal two-step CHRI application process.

Kearney, of RISE Engineering, said the decision to switch heating and cooling types may feel overwhelming, but if “you want to be a steward of the environment, and are concerned about carbon emissions, and you’re in a position to do something, I don’t think you’ll regret it.”

‘Best financial solution’

Homeowner O’Neil encouraged those thinking of switching to a heat pump to consider the long-term financial benefit.

“This seems to be the best financial solution,” he said. He cited the fluctuating cost of oil and gas as well as the cost of installing central air conditioning or using window or wall units to cool a house as factors in his decision.

O’Neil called CHRI and spoke with a specialist, who confirmed that heat pumps work well in Rhode Island and walked him through the rebates and financial incentives. O’Neil’s new heat pump system was installed April 12.

“We will be using more electricity,” he said, “but in a year, I’m going to install solar panels to offset that.”


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  1. We installed heat pumps in January as an alternative to our oil boiler. They worked great this winter and I’m excited to finally have some kind of central air. It was weird to see a higher electric bill at first, but it’s nice not filling the tank. We also look forward to reclaiming some floor space by having some radiators removed. Overall, we’re happy so far and the LG units are meant for the New England winters.

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