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Give Your Heat Pump a Helping Hand

January 02, 2015   By Willard Strong in Reduce The Use

By the time you read this, we will have endured another cold snap.

For us genteel southerners of the Southeast, this meant morning temperatures in the upper teens and a day when it barely got above freezing.

I'm fond of saying we really don't know what cold is, a position heartily affirmed by co-workers who grew up far north of the Lowcountry. We live in the "heat pump belt." Since the heat pump was perfected in the mid-1960s, it largely replaced window air-conditioning units, a lifestyle-altering development that made Southern summers less brutal and bearable. In the winter, it magically heated our homes with the flip of a switch.

While some window units feature an electric heat option, most just offer relief from oppressive high temperatures and humidity. In the pre-heat pump era, I lived in a house that had oil heat, and back in the early 1960s a gallon of heating oil was in the 25-cents-a-gallon range, or even less.

I just saw an article in an electric utility trade publication that states about 25 percent of Northeasterners still heat their homes with oil, while only about 5 percent of all American homes stay warm that way. The story relates that there is much rejoicing throughout New York, New Jersey and New England because the average price of a gallon of heating oil is now considered a bargain at $3.23. Last winter, it topped $4. That's a long, long way from a quarter a gallon during the Cold War.

But back to the heat pump, its technical limitations and the recent chill. One downside to brief, intense cold snaps in relatively mild South Carolina winters is the strain it puts on the electric heat pump. It's a given that most customers will probably get a higher than normal electric bill. Heat pumps don't do so well when then the mercury drops below 25 degrees or so for any length of time. The "heat strips" (or heating elements) will automatically come on to maintain a comfortable temperature. Electric consumption ramps up and of course, so does the bill.

So what to do? It's always a good idea to dial down the thermostat to 68 degrees or less in the winter. Put on a sweater. Use an electric blanket. Last summer, I installed weather stripping around two doors at home. This winter, I have noticed that colder air was no longer entering the house before I spent those few dollars on what are essentially gaskets. How much of a difference this will make in my electric bill, we shall see. My heat pump man said last year I should install additional roll insulation in the attic. I plan to do just that.

Energy efficiency is not just one or two things. It's the big things such as buying an energy-efficient heat pump, appliances and using LED lighting. The small stuff adds up as well, and includes things such as turning off lights when you're not in the room and unplugging electronic components you don't use often (phantom loads) that stay on stand-by mode and use electricity needlessly.

I've always said that the time to prepare for extreme weather as it relates to energy usage is before it hits — and before the power bill hits your mailbox or the inbox on your computer. Learn more about ways to save at