‘Heat-pump coaches’ help neighbors ditch fossil heat in Massachusetts

In 2021, Mike Pineault decided he wanted to dump his oil-fired boiler and replace it with a carbon-cutting heat pump. Because heat pumps come in a wide variety of types, Pineault, an attorney living in eastern Massachusetts, did a ton of research trying to understand the best kind of system for his home.

Yet despite making progress, Pineault decided he could use input from someone with firsthand experience with heat pumps. So he did what many other Wayland, Massachusetts residents seeking home-electrification advice have done in recent years: contact Steve Breit. A retired engineer, Breit has helped dozens of locals switch to heat pumps over the last three years. Such is his enthusiasm for helping people navigate and install the tech that Breit goes by the title of “heat-pump coach.”

Breit is a co-founder of the Massachusetts volunteer organization HeatSmart Alliance and one of the pioneers of heat-pump coaching. He’s helped kick off a small but growing movement of heat-pump coaches in the state as demand for the tech surges and more people seek out support in transitioning from fossil-fuel heating. Since getting started in 2020, the group has helped 250 residents and grown to 21 coaches.

“Steve was an enormous help,” Pineault said, explaining that Breit was somebody to talk to, for free, with “absolutely no financial or other interests.” Those conversations made Pineault a more discerning customer.

“Working with Steve really gave me the confidence to…push back on a couple of installers who had proposed equipment that probably exceeded what we needed,” he said. As of April 2022, Pineault has been the satisfied owner of a Mitsubishi Hyper Heat heat pump.

Heat-pump allure

With their ability to work in cold climates and their rock-star efficiency compared to fossil-fueled and electric-resistance heating systems, heat pumps are crucial decarbonization tools. But they’re also complex HVAC systems that aren’t yet widespread in the frigid far reaches of the U.S. Northeast.

Heat-pump coaches aim to lower the activation barriers for people interested in the technology. They help neighbors understand the climate and financial benefits of heat pumps, how they work, what incentives owners can get, and how to check that a system will actually meet their home’s heating and cooling needs.

Home heating in New England typically relies on burning fossil gas and fuel oil for heat. HeatSmart Alliance estimates that switching to heat pumps could cut the annual carbon emissions of households in the region by an average of approximately 3 metric tons.

Over the course of a home heating system’s lifespan, estimated to be 15 to 30 years, that’s a staggering 45 to 90 metric tons of emissions avoided per home. For comparison, a flight from London to New York results in about 1 metric ton of emissions.

By helping others in his community reduce their emissions, Breit told us he wins too. “I've multiplied my impact,” he said. “I find that very gratifying.”

Growing demand for heat-pump coaches

Interest in developing local heat-pump coaching programs in eastern Massachusetts has taken off, Breit said.

Zero programs existed in 2020, but by the end of 2022, 14 had sprung up. The HeatSmart Alliance is engaged with 11 of those programs. And participation is still picking up. For example, in Concord, Massachusetts, 24 households consulted coaches before installing heat pumps in 2021; in 2022, it more than tripled to 90 households.

The ballooning interest from towns and residents alike is straining the capacity of the volunteer-based HeatSmart Alliance, Breit said — at least for now, as it seeks funding to grow its efforts.

Meanwhile, the home-efficiency and decarbonization consultancy Abode Energy Management has kicked off a separate, independent effort to train heat-pump coaches in the Bay State.

Since September, Abode has used its 10-hour virtual and in-person curriculum to teach 76 individuals in 20 towns, many of which have local decarbonization initiatives. The consultancy charges these cities about $1,000 per trainee, which some cities pay for with grants from utilities. The participants are mostly volunteers, but some cohorts have also included employees of city governments and municipal light plants — another regional term for publicly owned utilities — that have heat-pump incentive programs.

Abode envisions the heat-pump advocates having initial conversations with potential heat-pump adopters, with the consultancy stepping in to provide deeper expertise as needed.

“As advocates have conversations with folks within the community, if they encounter things that are too technical or customers that need a higher degree of support, they can [then] hand them off to Abode,” Travis Estes, chief operating officer at Abode, told Canary Media.

Coaches poised to grow a grassroots heat-pump movement

In October, Abode trained four volunteer heat-pump coaches in Arlington, Massachusetts, with Talia Fox, the town’s sustainability manager, in attendance.

She’s thrilled with Arlington’s new, “very engaged” heat-pump coaches, who have also joined the HeatSmart Alliance to access the network’s expertise.

“Something that really excites me most about this program is the opportunity for residents to connect with one another and share their stories,” she said. “If we're going to be making this large-scale transition over the next few decades, it's going to take that kind of individual connection.”

Both HeatSmart Alliance’s and Abode’s training sessions expose coaches to technical details that the average consumer is unlikely to have explored on their own. For instance, trainees use digital tools to approximately size heat pumps in order to match a building’s heating and cooling needs or loads.

Each city that hires Abode for training also puts its own spin on the heat-pump advocate or coaching program. In Arlington, the coaches are going beyond talking about heat pumps. They’re helping neighbors — in particular, lower-income families, renters and property owners — also access home-electrification and efficiency savings. For example, they’re talking about the state’s energy-efficiency program, Mass Save, which provides free energy audits and $10,000 heat-pump rebates to those who have weatherized their homes.

“It can be very empowering” for coaches and consumers “to even just roughly check something like a heat load estimate for a building,” Fox said.

In fact, Pineault, the heat-pump coachee, has now become a coach himself after Breit trained him last year. For those outside of Massachusetts who would also like to join the ranks of heat-pump coaches, Estes said to stay tuned.

Abode has been getting calls from the Pacific Northwest, where heat pumps are installed in more than a quarter of the region’s homes, and expansion beyond Massachusetts might happen this year, Estes said. The consultancy is also developing an online suite of short training videos that can benefit energy coaches broadly and which touch on everything from heat-pump selection to sealing air leaks.

Both Abode and the HeatSmart Alliance expect the heat-pump coaching model to grow as federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act for home electrification flows to states.

It’s a change that can’t come soon enough for Estes. “I think about the urgency of everybody on my street needing to know about heat pumps — and everybody on your street needing to know about heat pumps,” Estes said. And despite their rising prevalence, he told Canary Media, heat pumps still need help in the popularity department.

In particular, he thinks coaches can tip the scales on heat-pump literacy by serving as local resources whom neighbors can ask basic questions.

And sure enough, back in Wayland, there’s already some evidence of that dynamic playing out: HeatSmart Alliance coach Anne Harris has a sign in front of her home that she said is attracting welcome attention. “I’ve had one neighbor say, ‘Oh, you have heat pumps? I’d love to talk to you about those.’”