Yes, you can buy a heat pump in a hurry

Break out those space heaters, and focus on finding a heat pump specialist

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Planning on switching to a heat pump when the time is right? What if your furnace or AC just croaked—and all of a sudden, that time is right now?

Good news: You can (usually) convert your home to a heat pump on short notice. It could be as fast as 2 or 3 days, according to the pros we’ve talked to. It’s becoming a normal part of their business.

The downside is that emergency installations usually cost extra. That’s true of any last-minute HVAC replacement, but especially first-time heat pump conversions. Older houses in cold climates sometimes pose extra challenges, too.

You’ll also need to be diligent about finding the right contractor, and you might need to track down space heaters or room ACs to tide you over for a few days (some contractors loan these out to their customers). Old homes in cold climates can pose some unique obstacles to a quick conversion, too. 

So how should you approach an emergency heat pump installation, and what kinds of challenges should you expect to encounter? It depends on the time of year, and how harsh your local climate can get. 

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“There’s ‘how much’ weather, and there’s ‘how soon’ weather,” says Victor Hyman, Executive Director at ClimateCare Canada in Ontario. During the milder shoulder seasons, you can afford to take your time and find the right contractor at the right price. But in the summer or winter, the stakes are much higher, and there’s no time to waste. Here's how to navigate each scenario.

Before you rush into an expensive emergency heat pump conversion, first try to figure out if your old HVAC system is actually dead. Some breakdowns are actually pretty cheap and easy to fix. 

Even if you know that you want to switch to a heat pump eventually, it can still make a lot of sense to resuscitate an old system in the short-term. That buys you time to get a heat pump installed the right way (including a proper load calculation, plus duct modifications, electrical upgrades, and weatherization if you need them). You might still have to pay a rush-job upcharge for that initial repair—but not for the entire conversion.

Is there a cutoff where it stops making financial sense to Frankenstein an old furnace back to life? That’s hard to say. If it’s $200 for a furnace igniter or AC capacitor, a repair probably makes sense. If it’s $1,500 for a new heat exchanger or evaporator coil, you should probably move on. What if it’s $700? That’s a tougher call.

Hyman points out that most HVAC equipment goes out of warranty after 10 years. “That first time it breaks down [outside the warranty], you’re going to start to throw good money after bad.” He also says that HVAC manufacturers often stop making parts for equipment that’s more than 15 years old—so the age of your old system might make the decision for you. 

To some extent, you’ll have to trust the advice of your HVAC technician. In emergency heating or cooling situations, the contractor you hire will probably be the first contractor that answers your call. So it’s really important to make sure the first pro you talk to can actually do heat pumps.

Just because an HVAC company has been in business for 30 years doesn’t mean that they’re the right contractor to put in a heat pump.

Cold-climate heat pumps are still relatively new in the U.S., and lots of old heating pros haven’t learned how to work with them yet. (Some of those guys don’t seem to have even heard of cold-climate heat pumps, and they think they’re doing you a favor by trying to talk you out of getting a heat pump at all.)

So how do you find the good contractors? The EnergySage Marketplace only works with contractors who know and love heat pumps, and our entire reason for being is to make those connections for you.

You can also try to rely on word of mouth. If you don’t personally know anyone who has made the switch, you might be able to find some local heat pump enthusiasts on Reddit or through a nearby green energy advocacy group. You might be able to find some good leads through Google—just check any company’s user reviews specifically for references to heat pumps. (More advice on how to handle that search here.)

However you find your heat pump pros, identify a handful of them if possible—the first one (or two, or three) simply might not be available. “We’ve done emergency replacements in as little as 48 hours,” says Josh Lake, co-founder at Elephant Energy, which operates in the Denver and Boston metro areas, and is on the EnergySage Marketplace. “That said, rapid service means that we need to have capacity in our schedule, which isn’t always the case.”

The good news is that more qualified heat pump techs are getting trained daily, and new tools are coming out all the time that make their jobs easier, with a lower likelihood of an installation or design error.

If your old furnace or boiler is well and truly dead, you should be able to get by on space heaters for 2 or 3 days while you wait for the heat pump to go in. Both Hyman and Lake said that they loan electric space heaters to customers who need them, typically one per room. If you have a fireplace as a backup, even better.

Beyond that, the installation process is basically the same as any other heat pump project—just on a shorter timeline. 

Potential roadblocks

The biggest potential barriers to a speedy install—if you're going all electric, without a backup furnace or boiler—don’t actually have much to do with the heat pump itself. It’s your electrical panel, and potentially your ductwork. 

  • On the electrical side, retrofitting a heat pump often means running a new 240-volt circuit near the air handler, if you don't already have central AC. That's not such a big deal, though. The tricky part, where time gets tight and the price gets high, is if an electrician needs to shuffle some circuits and breakers around to make space on the panel, or even perform a complete panel and service upgrade (though there are often some workarounds for this). 

  • Sometimes ductwork modifications are called for, especially in homes that want to completely ditch the old furnace, and that don’t already have a central AC. Heat pumps need better airflow than fossil heaters do, and that can mean expanding the size of the main duct trunk, or adding an extra return duct or two. You might find a contractor that’s willing to skip this step until later, but some pros won’t do it because it’s a warranty risk. It really makes the most sense to have those done at the same time as the heat pump installation, and that can slow down the project by at least a few hours.

What about insulation? “The good news about weatherization is that it’s almost never an emergency,” Lake says. (And insulation isn’t technically necessary for a heat pump to work, though it’s a really good idea.) 

Some heat pump incentive programs require an energy audit or insulation upgrades to qualify for rebates, but all the programs that we’re aware of in the U.S. allow those steps to happen after the installation. (Hyman says that in Canada, the most recent incentive program required the audit and efficiency upgrades first, which made emergency heat pump installs extra-complicated.) 

If you’re pretty sure that you’re going to need an insulation or electrical upgrade, look into hiring a home performance pro or electrification contractor to install your heat pump. These companies are built around both building efficiency upgrades and HVAC installations, often in the context of homes that are transitioning to all-electric appliances and more. They’ll help you navigate the process most effectively.

Getting a hybrid system? Install the backup heating first

It can make some sense to install a new furnace and a new heat pump. If you're going that route, it probably makes sense to put in the furnace first—even if that’s days or weeks before the heat pump goes in. Hyman says his company takes this approach pretty regularly. Furnace swaps are usually simple, whereas full heat pump conversions can be tricky. So you get heat faster, and it buys you some time to get all the details right with the heat pump.

If you're buying a heat pump to replace a busted air conditioner, congrats, you’re making an excellent choice. Heat pumps cool your home in exactly the same way that an air conditioner does—often better, actually. There’s no good reason to buy a cooling-only central AC anymore, especially because heat pumps should actually cost less with incentives. 

Installing a heat pump where a central AC used to be is relatively straightforward. It isn’t exactly as simple as throwing a new box into the same spot where the old AC went, and calling it a day. Your contractor might need to run some extra wires between your thermostat and the air handler. 

They’ll also need to account for some heating-specific details: The heat pump needs to be big enough to handle the winters, which means it'll need more Btus than the AC it’s replacing. The ductwork needs to be able to handle the load, too (though ducts built for air conditioning might be fine as-is for a cold-climate heat pump). A trained contractor can get to the bottom of this in an hour or two.

The other upside in this situation is that a cooling emergency isn’t quite as urgent as a broken heater, in most cases. It’s no fun to live without a cooling system in July, but it’s not typically as big of a safety risk as a heating failure. You could also get by with room air conditioners while you wait for a permanent replacement, though we haven’t heard from any contractors who provide these for their clients, like they might provide emergency space heaters.

If you’re not in the midst of a no-heat crisis and you’ve been reading this article for fun, hopefully you’ve gotten the impression that it’s better to avoid an emergency heat pump conversion in the first place. Every contractor we spoke to for this story stressed that point. Just because you can find a contractor who will take an emergency heat pump swap doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interest to do so.

Unexpected breakdowns will happen. But if you know that your existing HVAC equipment is aging and you’re planning to switch to a heat pump, look for good contractors now, and set up some consultations. Even if you’re months away from following through on the purchase (or longer!), you can figure out which contractor you like, they can get the scope of work done and sit on it until you’re ready. Then, the whole project can go faster.

The proactive approach gives you a better shot at getting a better price, too. “If you do this in the shoulder seasons [spring and fall], contractors have extra capacity,” Hyman says. “They’re willing to give you a deal. You can negotiate.”

Whether you need a heat pump right this second, or you’re willing to wait until the prices start to sag in the slow seasons, the EnergySage Marketplace makes it easy to get in touch with a vetted, experience heat pump contractor—along with other clean-energy upgrades like solar panels, batteries, EV chargers, and more.

Image credits: Top, iStock. Middle, Midjourney and Photoshop.

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