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Heat Pumps With a Twist

With an eye to electrification, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is embarking on a pilot project that could create a fossil fuel-free path many could follow in the near future. A key part of the solution is installing heat pumps, but with a twist — the pumps will be installed in window frames, much like air conditioners. This retrofit eliminates the need for a central boiler running on fossil fuel and also bypasses a full-building heat-pump retrofit.

With these units, each apartment resident will be able to control the amount of heat and cooling needed. If units such as these were in a private market co-op or condo, and if the building were submetered or if residents received their own utility bill, the cost for controlling temperature would be shifted from the building’s budget to each apartment owner. Like the cost to turn on lights and run electricity in a home, this shift could encourage conservation when residents actually have to pay for what is used each month.

Window heat pumps are not a new technology, but they have not been able to operate successfully in climates with low temperatures. To find out if they can be made to do so, the Clean Heat for All Challenge is spearheading a $70 million investment in this technology. Two manufacturers — Midea America and Gradient — have been tapped to create a window-based cold-climate heat pump. Midea America is a unit of the Chinese conglomerate Midea Group Co., and Gradient is a San Francisco-based startup. This summer, a NYCHA complex in Woodside, Queens, will be installing prototypes of these products, and they will be tested and monitored for a year.

In addition to ease of installation, the window units circumvent some of the biggest challenges boards face when considering a switch to this technology — disruption, cost and a shortage of qualified installers. Tom Sahagian, an energy-efficiency practitioner who currently is part of the electrification team at NYCHA, will be monitoring the Woodside experience. “My experience with more conventional heat pump retrofits in buildings led me to think that there’s got to be a way to make it less expensive, less disruptive and also to operate on standard 120-volt electricity,” he says. If all works out, Sahagian adds, this product could be on the market and available for everyone in the next couple of years.

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