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Environment

Don't rush to buy a portable air conditioner until you've considered this alternative

air conditioners seattle shopper
Elaine Thompson
/
The Associated Press file
Patrick Burnette examines the supply of fans and air conditioners at a Seattle Home Depot hardware store ahead of an expected heat wave in 2017. Energy-efficiency experts say you should skip the air conditioner and consider a heat pump.

The extreme heat in June left many people scrambling to purchase portable air conditioners. But energy efficiency experts have two words for anyone who isn’t in a huge hurry: heat pump.

The extreme heat in June left many people scrambling to purchase portable air conditioners. But energy efficiency experts have two words for anyone who isn’t in a huge hurry: heat pump.

Heat pumps can heat or cool homes. They use the same technology that keeps food cool in your refrigerator. And they generally run on electricity. In Seattle, that makes them "carbon neutral" because the vast majority of the city’s power comes from hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River; the utility has offsets to neutralize the rest.

Christine Bunch of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment says heat pumps are a more efficient way to keep people comfortable and healthy as the climate warms.

“You know, I think it got over 80, 85 (degrees Fahrenheit) much earlier this year than it did in the past,” she says. “And we're going to continue to see this. This is not a, you know, flash in the pan kind of thing. This is going to continue to happen due to climate change.”  

Bunch points out that heat pumps also filter the air, so they’re also helpful during smoke events from wildfires. Most people won’t need a separate air filter. And she says the cost of the system will pay off over the long run, because you’ll have lower electricity bills than if you’re operating multiple devices. This is especially true as the average temperatures in the region trend upward.

The city has a rebate program that knocks $1,500 off the price of a heat pump. The cost of conversion runs between $15,000-$20,000, though.

“So not everybody can afford it, even with the rebate,” Bunch says. “We want to support folks who, you know, really are struggling. And oftentimes folks with lower incomes are in areas of the city that have maybe poor air quality or other environmental hazards.”

The city’s office of housing has a pilot program that has provided grants to cover the entire cost for lower-income people in certain ZIP codes. Bunch says the program has provided these grants to about 65 applicants so far; 28 of those were in 98108 – which is both the most diverse ZIP code in the region and one that suffers high levels of toxic air pollution because of its proximity to Sea-Tac Airport and two major freeways.

The program will be expanding next year, with a more stable source of funding: the city’s new tax on home heating fuel, which kicks in this coming April.

Heat pumps are also subsidized by other local jurisdictions, including Tacoma Public Utilities. Most reputable HVAC companies should be able to walk you through the process of obtaining rebates or other forms of subsidies when you ask.

Homeowners can also visit www.nomoreoilheat.com to get a list of participating contractors.

U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, secured $400,000 to support the city’s programs to convert low-income homes from oil heating to electric heat pumps.

Seattle residents who are interested in learning more about the Seattle Office of Housing’s Clean Heat Program for low-income homeowners can call 206-684-0244 or go here.

Updated: September 8, 2021 at 5:11 PM PDT
This story was updated to clarify the number of homes in the 98108 ZIP code that were updated from oil heating to electric heat pumps.
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