Finding the Right Air Conditioner Is an Impossible Game. What If We Changed the Rules?

A retro-looking photo collage in oranges and yellows of the mentioned heat pumps, a window A/C, and a hand ready to spend a stack of cash.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Getty Images Plus, Midea, and Gradient.

A few months ago—even before record-breaking heat waves—I decided I should probably get an air conditioner. Last year, I put off the expense as long as possible, sleeping with the door open to catch the breeze. But then I moved; my new apartment has no breeze. Keeping cool seemed like a good investment, and the obvious choice seemed like an energy-efficient window A/C.

Nevertheless, I paused. “Is that still the right thing to buy?” I wondered. Many Americans, I knew, now have another option: heat pumps. This combo appliance can replace A/C in the summer and heaters in the winter. Like A/Cs, many heat pumps collect hot air indoors and dump it outside. Unlike A/Cs, they also work in reverse: In the winter they pull outdoor heat in, even when it seems like there is no heat to grab. Because moving heat is easier than making it, heat pumps can be three to five times more efficient than fossil fuel heaters, shrinking utility bills. This efficiency—paired with the fact that they are electric, and able to take advantage of the renewable grid—are why many climate wonks believe that to slow climate change, we need to go all-in on heat pumps.

The problem? For many Americans, they’re inaccessible. Homeowners often face long wait times for installation due to a shortage of trained contractors; most renters don’t have a say over which technologies their landlords choose. And for low- and middle-income households, the upfront costs of new systems can be prohibitive (even if switching would lower energy bills).

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, is trying to change that, through tax credits and rebates designed to help electrify buildings and save energy. Specifically, the IRA offers two rebate programs that include money for heat pumps: HOMES and HEEHRA. The latter is most relevant for apartment-dwelling renters; it offers up to $14,000 in rebates for energy-saving appliances. For low-income households, it promises to cover 100 percent of the cost of a heat pump (up to $8,000), and for middle-income households, 50 percent. In some cases, rebates (which should be available soon) can also be combined with tax credits (which are already available).

At the same time, companies are trying to develop more agile heat pumps—the window A/C or space heater equivalent for renters who can’t make structural changes. This is another effort toward increasing accessibility, because the heat pumps currently on the market are generally clunky and tricky to install, designed to replace a central boiler or central A/C.

In 2022, for example, a startup called Gradient debuted a renter-friendly window-unit heat pump that works year-round—but only in places with warm winters. This year, in partnership with New York City’s public housing authority, Gradient and HVAC giant Midea are developing window heat pumps that they hope will work down to −13 degrees Fahrenheit; they could be available for retail as soon as next summer. These window-unit heat pumps are not yet covered by IRA rebates or tax credits, but Gradient and Midea are working with the Department of Energy to get them approved. If they succeed, these appliances could wind up being one of the biggest-ticket rebate items available directly to renters—and because window units are portable, renters can take them along when they move.

Hypothetically, rebates could be available in late 2023, but don’t hold your breath. The rollout will be funded by the Department of Energy but managed by the states. The DOE released its state application requirements at the end of July, and while all states are expected to apply for grants, they have until August 2024 to do so, said Leah Stokes, a professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara who contributed to the drafting of the IRA.

Once states secure funding, figuring out how to administer rebates is its own can of worms. HEEHRA rebates are designed to serve low- and moderate-income households, definitions which are based on area median income. Nationally, the DOE estimates that 40.3 percent of U.S. households count as low-income—if you live in an expensive city, you might be eligible for more than you think. On the other hand, income is not a perfect proxy for wealth, because it doesn’t account for savings or other assets.

“State and local energy efficiency programs have consistently demonstrated that—without firm guardrails—rebates flow quickly to affluent households, often before low-income households can even learn about the programs,” Stokes wrote in an email. The recently released DOE application requirements attempt to address that issue—to be eligible for funding, states will have to set aside money for low-income households and describe how they plan to get rebates to the communities that need them most. (After five years, if those “good-faith” efforts fail, states may be able to reallocate funding to higher-income households.)

Rebates are also supposed to be available at checkout, which means states need to verify income in advance—and to verify it quickly, so people can replace appliances when they break, and not months after. The DOE is requiring that states make rebates automatically available to people receiving certain federal benefits like SNAP, Medicaid, or free school lunch; this strategy catches just a fraction of eligible households but at least prioritizes many of the lowest earners. States are also free to check pay stubs, pull tax information, or to go with “self-attestation”—basically the honor system.

Another notable feature of the new DOE guidelines is that building owners can use rebates on behalf of their tenants. Sage Briscoe, director of federal policy for the electrification nonprofit Rewiring America, said in an email that this is a good potential incentive to help old, multifamily buildings retrofit and reduce their energy usage—for example, by pooling rebates to install building-wide heat pump systems. If landlords use their tenants’ rebates, some protections are baked in: They can’t raise rents or evict tenants because of the upgrades for at least two years after renovating.

When it comes to individual rebate use on the tenant side, the picture is a little more complicated. The new DOE guidelines say that if tenants want to use rebates directly, they will need written landlord permission before “commencing work.” It’s not yet clear if landlord permission is needed for appliances like window heat pumps, which involve no “work,” per se; in an email, a DOE spokesperson said the agency would soon offer guidance on when renters will need landlord permission to access rebates.

If the IRA rebate rollout is done right—with, for example, strong tenant protections, renter access, and community outreach—it offers the potential to give renters more control over the historically inaccessible and expensive fiefdom of HVAC. The burgeoning market for window-unit heat pumps is a step in that direction. The New York City public housing authority, NYCHA, recently co-sponsored the grant that spurred Gradient and Midea to develop cold-weather models of their heat pumps, which are being designed to work in NYCHA apartments. NYCHA (which, importantly, is not exactly known as a stellar landlord) will be field-testing 20,000 prototypes from each company starting this summer and running through winter.

Ultimately, electrifying America will take all of us: homeowners and renters; responsive landlords and frustrating ones. If you can’t replace your A/C or heater or don’t have one in the first place—between 15 and 20 percent of U.S. apartment-dwellers don’t—there are other ways to help the planet and your energy bill while staying cool.

Lauren Spencer Humphrey, director of sustainability for the affordable housing provider L+M Development Partners, recommended that renters enroll (if possible) in utility-administrated community solar programs, which subsidize local rooftop solar installation. She also suggested enrolling in electricity demand response programs, which let you sign up for text alerts when the grid is overloaded, cuing you to switch the A/C to fan or turn other appliances off. If you are low-income and need cooling, your state may have funding available to help you buy an A/C or pay your bill. If you want to drop a few hundred bucks, go for the most energy-efficient unit you can find that is the right size for your room. (You can find the most energy- and climate-friendly A/Cs on Energy Star, or filter by Energy Star ratings when searching on Amazon.)

Personally, I’m still in search of my just-right A/C. I’m currently testing one from Midea, which has a convenient scheduling app and a quiet, energy-saving motor. It costs about $400 and offers a space-heater setting—but can’t replace my furnace. The Gradient model currently on the market recently jumped in price from around $2,000 to around $5,000; it’s unclear how much Gradient and Midea will charge for their cold-weather heat pumps once they reach retail. I’m hopeful that whatever the cost, rebates will cover them—and that they will spur tenant-friendly upgrades more broadly.

In the meantime, I’ve started to notice air conditioners while I’m out walking—which rooms have them, which rooms don’t. I spot flowerpots resting on window bars next to first-floor A/Cs, and I think about how new window-unit heat pump designs won’t fit behind those bars—yet. Some A/Cs, like the one I’m testing, rest on jury-rigged hardware-store brackets; others lean on stacks of wood, or brick, or, in one case, a rock—their owners improvising to keep cool. My A/C occasionally drips onto the front step of the business below me—the same business that recently painted neon smiley faces onto its own A/Cs as part of a mural.

Together, this collage of A/Cs points to the distance between the summers we want and the summers we get. In that distance, rebate-incentivized heat pumps provide a tantalizing promise: a way to keep people cool at prices they can afford, while cutting emissions to keep temperatures from climbing even higher. If that promise holds, we’ll be one step closer to the summers we all deserve.