A Heat Pump With DIY Installation Can Decarbonize Public Housing

Making apartment buildings more energy efficient can mean a massive cost to replace carbon-powered heating and cooling systems — something that’s pretty much out of reach for lower-income communities. And while air-source heat pumps are environmentally friendly they can struggle to work efficiently in very cold climates.

San Francisco-based startup Gradient and Midea America, a unit of Chinese conglomerate Midea Group Co., have developed a solution to both challenges: small, apartment-friendly air heat pumps that are both easy-to-install and designed to work in chillier weather. Their pilot units are slated for public housing installation next year in New York City, where the average temperature in January gets down to 26F (-3C).

Other cities are already showing interest in the technology and the companies are eyeing expansion. Gradient is raising new financing and exploring the potential for the US Inflation Reduction Act to help it bolster production, while Midea is looking at other markets.

“Several other cities and utility partners have shown a lot of interest in this concept, so we’re hopeful more partners get on board in the near future,” said Adam Schultz, residential air conditioning product manager for Midea America in Louisville, Kentucky, adding that it’s hard to assess what the potential market size might be. “The trend with these products is migrating to more heat pump technology, so we suspect other product families and categories will follow this lead.”

Heat pumps aren’t new — about 190 million of them were in operation in buildings worldwide in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency. The most commonly installed are air-source heat pumps, which work by absorbing heat from outside air and moving it to an indoor space. In warm weather the operation reverses and the device extracts heat from a room and moves it outdoors. The devices can deliver as much as three times more heat to a home than the electricity they consume, and the combination of energy efficiency and reduced fossil fuel use shrinks carbon footprints.