Northeast MN

Finding success with air source heat pumps in cold climates

Homeowner, contractor, utility share perspectives

Cold Climate Comfort

 

With improvements to “cold climate” air source heat pump (ASHP) technology in recent years, it’s an encouraging sign that homeowners, contractors and utilities are each helping to advance the technology in the northern reaches of Minnesota.

We spoke with Brent Hartwig, a homeowner in Saginaw (pictured here), Mitch Minardi of Brent’s Heating and Cooling and MN Ductless Solutions, and Jon Sullivan, Senior Customer Programs and Services Representative at Minnesota Power, to learn more about their experiences with new and improved cold climate ASHP technology.

 

I had one mini-split heat pump installed upstairs first, and then I liked it so much—it provided that comfort, circulated and moved the air and was quiet too—that I bought a second one after that.

Brent Hartwig, Saginaw homeowner

Efficiently heating and cooling with electricity

With improvements to “cold climate” air source heat pump technology in recent years, it’s an encouraging sign that homeowners, contractors and utilities are each helping to advance the technology in the northern reaches of Minnesota.

Brent Hartwig from Saginaw is one such homeowner. After having a ductless or “mini-split” air source heat pump installed in the upstairs of his home, Hartwig decided to come back for seconds. He had another unit in his basement installed the following year.

“I had one mini-split heat pump installed upstairs first, and then I liked it so much—it provided that comfort, circulated and moved the air and was quiet too—that I bought a second one after that,” Hartwig said.

Air source heat pumps (ASHP) use electricity to both cool and heat a home. ASHPs work in similar ways to air conditioners for cooling and then in reverse for space heating, moving warmth from outside air inside a home, even on really cold days. These units heat homes up to three times more efficiently than forced air and electric resistance heating systems.

 

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Now that air source heat pump technology can effectively heat in subzero temperatures, we are seeing more interest. It really started gaining momentum in recent years.

Jon Sullivan, Senior Customer Programs & Services Representative, Minnesota Power

Increasing ASHP knowledge and demand

Advancements in ASHP technology for colder climates have increased adoption of these systems in recent years, according to Jon Sullivan, Senior Customer Programs and Services Representative at Minnesota Power.

“Now that air source heat pump technology can effectively heat in subzero temperatures, we are seeing more interest. It really started gaining momentum in recent years,” said Sullivan. Minnesota Power serves utility customers across its service area in northeast Minnesota and is part of the Minnesota ASHP Collaborative, which has been working to improve the efficiency and deployment of ASHPs across Minnesota.

As an added incentive for cold climate ASHPs, Minnesota Power started offering rebates to its customers that install new systems. The utility is currently running a promotion where customers can receive an increased rebate of $1,200 from April 1st to June 30th. Additional federal tax credits are also available this year.

“These rebates are a big invitation to get an air source heat pump. That’s quite the coupon, in my opinion, so that helped in my decision-making,” Hartwig said.

With increased awareness and incentives available, Minnesota Power is seeing an upward trend in the demand for ASHP technology in its region. In 2020, for example, the utility saw a nearly threefold increase in the number of rebate forms it received compared to the previous year.

“We believe that trend will continue as the technology continues to evolve and consumer awareness increases,” Sullivan said.

Contractors who work on energy-efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have had a similarly positive assessment of the future of ASHPs in the region.

“The popularity increases every year—it has while I’ve been in business,” said Mitch Minardi of Brent’s Heating and Cooling, the Carlton-based parent company of MN Ductless Solutions, which installs ASHPs throughout northeast Minnesota. Minardi worked with Brent Hartwig to install the ASHP units in Hartwig’s home.

“There are a lot of primarily electric-heated homes in our area... and knowledge is growing especially around the heating capability of heat pump technology,” Minardi said.

There are a lot of primarily electric-heated homes in our area... and knowledge is growing especially around the heating capability of heat pump technology. The popularity increases every year—it has while I’ve been in business.

Mitch Minardi with Brent’s Heating and Cooling and MN Ductless Solutions

Finding a knowledgeable contractor

Homeowners and other customers may learn about air source heat pumps from their utility, through advertising or by word of mouth, but need to find a trained and knowledgeable contractor in order to install the technology. Doing some research and getting multiple quotes can help ensure a good fit.

“After doing research on my own—I like to be thorough—I shopped around [for quotes]. I called Mitch with Brent’s Heating & Cooling and MN Ductless Solutions. We talked through the process. Mitch was very fair and stayed competitive with others I’d seen. His technicians were extremely good, too,” Hartwig said.

 

Photo: Mitch Minardi, manager of Brent’s Heating & Cooling, outside his office building.

Minardi noted many homeowners he works with hear about MN Ductless Solutions because the company is part of Minnesota Power’s network of participating contractors. These contractors, who must be licensed and bonded, receive training and resources from the utility on the latest in ASHP technology. This ensures these contractors serve as a trusted resource to customers.

“Customers can have peace of mind that they will speak to someone familiar with this technology and our rebates,” Jon Sullivan explained about the utility’s participating contractor network. “We try to make it as easy as possible for customers to connect to expert HVAC installers and take advantage of our programs.”

When a customer is interested in installing an ASHP, Minardi starts by understanding a homeowner’s needs and goals for their new system.

“Explaining this equipment to my customers is part of my success,” Minardi said. “I meet and talk to them about all the options on the table and provide pricing. With that, comes education about each one of their options.”

Exchanges like this between the homeowner and contractor help to make sure the ASHP technology is sized appropriately and operates efficiently for the room or home.

“The combination of an expert HVAC installer and an informed homeowner will ensure the system will efficiently keep the home comfortable,” said Sullivan.

ASHPs can be installed across a full spectrum of homes regardless of whether the system is for new construction or a remodel. The technology has proved to be particularly popular among homes without ductwork, like Hartwig’s and others in the region.

“Heating and cooling in one system seems to perk customers' interest,” said Sullivan. “This is especially true for electrically-heated households where ductwork commonly doesn’t exist. Air source heat pumps provide an opportunity to add proper air conditioning and upgrade their heating efficiency at the same time.”

Hartwig, for example, did not have air conditioning in his home and was first drawn to the ASHP technology’s cooling capabilities. Since installation, however, he has made full use of both units to supplement his off-peak electric radiant heat and free-standing propane and wood-burning stoves.

“The cooling and air conditioning features of the mini-split caught my interest first. This was part of what initiated the upgrade, but we use it for heat too,” Hartwig explained.

 

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A mini-split mounted on the inside wall of Hartwig's home provides heated and cooled air to the room.

 

In practice, Hartwig and Minardi both noted how it helps to be mindful of the seasons and outside temperature to adjust the units and settings accordingly. While the technology continues to improve, efficiency of the units does decrease on the coldest days, which is certainly true in northern Minnesota.

“I couldn’t eliminate the other sources of heat in my home [on the coldest days]... but they work together,” Hartwig noted.

In addition to heating and cooling, Minardi also likes to educate homeowners about the technology’s other functions, so they can get the most value from the technology.

“There is cooling and heating, but I also emphasize dry and fan modes. All of these are important to know about in our climate,” said Minardi. “Dry mode, for example, provides dehumidification. It can be 75 or 80 [degrees Fahrenheit] and humid, but once these units remove the humidity, for example, it’s comfortable. And that’s what people want.”

“Every house is different and a homeowner needs to play with the features to be most efficient and comfortable in their space,” he added.

Even with the learning curve that comes with new technology, it is an encouraging sign that customers, contractors and utilities are satisfied with the progress being made with cold climate ASHPs, especially in a climate like Northeast Minnesota.

“There is always more to learn when it comes to energy and technology,” Hartwig said. “But all in all, though, air source heat pumps are a great technology. I do love mine, and I’ve pitched them to quite a few people. My brother is probably sick of me talking about mini-splits.”

 

Editor’s Note: There is no relationship between homeowner Brent Hartwig in this story and the contractor company Brent's Heating and Cooling, managed by Mitch Minardi.

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