There’s nothing more exhilarating than being in a room where you can feel change happening.
I had that experience on May 3 when our office partnered with HVAC industry partners to host almost 100 HVAC contractors for a conversation about air source heat pumps in Dane County.
This meeting was the culmination of about 18 months of conversations with HVAC manufacturers and distributors about heat pumps in Wisconsin and specifically Dane County. Every time I met a new HVAC industry person I shared that electrification enthusiasts in our communities were struggling to find contractors willing to sell and install cold climate air source heat pumps. To be clear, some contractors were willing to offer people zoned/mini-split heat pump systems to provide heat to specific areas as a supplement to the furnace, but when the customer said they wanted to reduce emissions or go all electric, the contractors often said it was not possible in our climate.
I pursued these conversations because I was sure Wisconsin’s HVAC industry could facilitate a rapid transition from older inefficient technologies to newer more efficient options. That was not wishful thinking; it's was based on history. In the 1980s and 1990s, Wisconsin HVAC industry transitioned from standard efficiency furnaces to high efficiency condensing furnaces faster than anywhere else in the country and, in the 2000s, the industry shifted from high efficiency furnaces to variable-speed high efficiency furnaces, making a second leap in comfort and energy savings for customers in record time. So I knew these shifts are possible.
I also pursued the conversations because I know how important HVAC contractors are to consumer decisions. Most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about heating and cooling systems. When there is a problem we want a contractor who can solve that problem, so customers rely heavily on contractor recommendations. That means contractors need to be aware of all the new heat pump options available and how those technologies work here in Dane County.
As I talked with industry folks the idea emerged to do an event for contractors that featured multiple manufacturers and distributors talking about how the HVAC industry was changing and what they were doing to support contractors during this transition. Once I expressed interest in hosting such an event, a core team of HVAC thought leaders worked with our office over months to plan the event. The collaboration was inspiring; normally fierce competitors set their differences aside and strategized about the best way to engage contractors and inspire action.
During the conference I talked about Dane County’s tendency to lead on climate action—that we have more rooftop solar and more electric vehicles than other communities. I talked about how Dane County residents are more concerned about climate issues than their peers in other parts of Wisconsin. And I challenged the contractors to include a heat pump option in every customer proposal that they deliver in Dane County.
Throughout the heat pump event I was encouraged to see contractors really grappling with a transition to heat pumps. Attendees asked good questions, pushing distributors and manufacturers (as well as Focus on Energy and government entities) to do more to expedite the transition. We talked about dual fuel options and heat load calculations and the need for tools that help customers understand the economic and environmental impacts of their choices. By the end of the half-day session many of us had significant to-do lists, tasks that could accelerate a transition to heat pumps. In addition, I had a good deal of optimism because it just felt like things were shifting as I listened to the industry discussions.
The post-event feedback survey made me feel even more optimistic about the potential for change. On the survey we asked contractors how often they included a heat pump option in customer proposals before the event and how often they expected to include heat pump options after the event. Fewer than 25% of respondents said they included a heat pump option most or all of the time before the event and almost 75% of respondents said they would include a heat pump option most or all of the time after the event.
Obviously one event will not change all contractor practices but we definitely created some momentum. The contractors who are not including heat pumps in their proposals are now more likely to be wondering if the competition is offering a heat pump option. And as more customers choose heat pump options, especially with the tax credits available under the Inflation Reduction Act, more contractors will include heat pumps in more proposals.
I believe that change happens slowly and then all at once. Incremental steps can feel painfully slow and then, all of a sudden, there is a new normal. Thanks to our awesome HVAC industry partners I think we are a little closer to a new normal around heating and cooling in Dane County.
Kathy is the Director of the Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. In that role she's leading efforts to implement the Climate Action Plan. Prior to coming to Dane County, Kathy led Cool Choices and, prior to that, she led Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program.
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