This new training program will put people to work as heat-pump installers

Leaders in the city of Philadelphia, like many across the country, are striving to lower energy bills and cut carbon pollution. Ejecting fossil fuels from homes and installing electrified systems, such as heat pumps, are key to achieving those goals.

But the city has a problem. It doesn’t have enough contractors who can install them at the pace required to decarbonize Philly's more than 700,000 homes, which contributed 31 percent of the city's emissions in 2019.

To help break that bottleneck, the Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia, a nonprofit with many energy-focused equity programs, has just opened a heat-pump training lab. It’s the latest addition to a training facility in North Philadelphia that provides skill certifications in clean energy and efficiency.

The heat-pump training lab is among the first of its kind, according to independent experts, including Nate Adams, CEO of HVAC 2.0 and an advocate of home electrification. Heat-pump training is typically done through trade-school programs, large contractors that train employees in-house, or heat-pump manufacturers — for example, in April, Mitsubishi opened a new distribution and training center in New Jersey. Having a training facility led by an energy-equity nonprofit represents a different approach.

“I'm really excited about the heat-pump lab,” said Alon Abramson, director of residential programs at the Philadelphia Energy Authority, a municipal quasi-governmental agency.

“I think it's exactly what's needed. […] This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment for Philadelphia and other areas around the country” because of opportunities created by the Inflation Reduction Act, which incentivizes home energy efficiency and electrification, including heat pumps. “We need to have the capacity in place to serve that customer demand,” he said.

The problem the heat-pump lab looks to solve is not unique to Philly: Around the nation, eager-to-electrify customers face long wait times and skeptical contractors due to high demand for a technology that is still relatively new to many parts of the U.S.

The city's new program will kick off with support from the Philadelphia Energy Authority, which has committed $100,000 to put approximately 30 to 40 individuals through the Energy Coordinating Agency’s heat-pump training. The agency also partners with the ECA to train people to weatherize and electrify homes.

The lab's six instructors will teach everyone from high school students embarking on a career in heating, ventilation and air conditioning to seasoned HVAC installers who lack experience with heat pumps.

Some of those veteran HVAC contractors might’ve even been turned off by heat pumps in the 1980s and ‘90s, when the technology “got a bad rap” because it didn’t perform well in the Northeast U.S., said Steve Luxton, ​​executive director at the Energy Coordinating Agency. “I want to change their mindset and provide training to contractors to be fully educated…because heat-pump technology has progressed and now they work” — in Philadelphia and beyond.

He added: “A lot of contractors just aren’t aware of that.” (Read more on economic hurdles and how to get contractors on board with heat pumps.)

The training lab has heat pumps from multiple manufacturers and includes heat pump home-cooling and -heating systems, as well as other appliances that heat pumps have crept into, including heat-pump water heaters and heat-pump clothes dryers.

Trainees will gain not only a foundation in the physics of refrigeration — refrigerants are the heat-absorbing blood of heat pumps — but also hands-on experience installing heat-pump systems, Luxton said.

ECA will prioritize disadvantaged individuals when filling the training spots. It’s part of the organization’s DNA, Luxton said. ECA was founded in 1984 to intervene on behalf of vulnerable families at risk of having their winter heat turned off by the utility Philadelphia Gas Works because they couldn’t afford to pay their gas bills.

To that end, ECA will recruit lower-income residents, Black and other people of color, women and the formerly incarcerated to become heat-pump installers and technicians.

The training comes at no cost to these groups, whose seats are paid for by grants and partner organizations. Students often receive stipends of $250 to $500 a week to help them with expenses while they complete the training, Luxton said. Depending on skill level, a course will last one week to several months.

For people just starting down a career path in HVAC, this is a chance to make real money, Luxton said: $80,000 and up per year. With that kind of livelihood, Luxton sees the heat-pump training lab as a way to help provide solid economic opportunity to groups that have faced decades of systemic racism and inequality.

This year, ECA plans to train three cohorts of 15 to 20 individuals each. The first group will start June 2. In the long term, ECA’s goal is to usher through the lab’s doors 500 trainees each year — a growth trajectory that could wind up mirroring the rapid advance of heat-pump technology adoption itself.