The boxy machines look and function like large air conditioners in reverse, but the Germans hope they hold the key to Europe’s push for fossil-free heating.
After decades of heating their homes with relatively cheap Russian natural gas, Germans are facing exorbitant energy prices. An alternative heat source that is climate-friendly and natural gas-free is being sought.
The heat pump.
With technology dating back to the 1970s, these boxy machines are suddenly being embraced across Germany – so much so that heat pumps are often sold out and the wait for a qualified installer can be months.
The German government is one of the fans.
“This is the technology of the future,” Robert Habeck, the economy minister, told reporters last month as he announced a government plan to promote heat pumps.
“To achieve our goals, we want to have six million customers by 2030,” said Habeck.
Heat pumps work like a reverse air conditioner, with a large fan that pulls air past refrigerant pipes to extract heat from the outside environment. The cost of the electricity needed to power a heat pump is about 35 percent lower than natural gas, according to Verivox, a company that compares energy prices for German consumers. The savings are even greater for those who can run their heat pump on solar panels.
For Vaillant, a 150-year-old family business in Remscheid that has been a leading manufacturer of gas boilers and ovens for decades, the impulse from Berlin has come at the perfect time. Six years ago, the company decided that to stay relevant it needed to look beyond fossil fuels to a more sustainable, but still affordable way to heat homes.
“We realized that if one device is going to replace the gas heater, it will be the heat pump,” said Norbert Schiedeck, Vaillant’s managing director.
The gamble paid off. Sales of heat pumps in Germany have more than doubled in the past two years, mainly because gas prices have risen sharply.
Expensive purchase and installation
Yet heat pumps made up just 15 percent of all heating systems sold in Germany by 2021, after the ubiquitous gas condensing boiler, according to data from the German Energy Agency. Many Germans are still hesitant about the high purchase and installation price, which can amount to 25,000 to 30,000 euros: three times that of a gas oven.
To encourage people to make the switch, the government is offering grants that can cover up to a quarter of the purchase price of an appliance, along with grants for other energy efficiency improvements totaling €60,000.
Germany lags far behind its European neighbours, where imported natural gas is not as affordable or abundant. According to Agora Energiewende, a policy institute in Berlin, residents of Finland and Norway, who are more dependent on electricity, have 10 times as many heat pumps as Germans. Even the Netherlands, which sits on its own wealth of natural gas but gave impetus to more climate-friendly machines a few years ago, has double the number of heat pumps of Germany.
One of the biggest problems with the expansion in Germany is an acute lack of qualified technicians to install heat pumps. This has led to an ever-expanding DIY community, driven by information shared on online forums and videos.
‘I wanted to get rid of fossil fuels’
When Andreas Schmitz bought a house for his family on the outskirts of Cologne in 2020, he wanted to make a positive change for the climate. That meant installing solar panels on his roof and doing away with the oil tank in the basement.
“Continuing to use gas or oil was not an option for me,” he said in an interview from his home overlooking a foggy field. “I wanted to get rid of fossil fuels.”
But when he realized how much it would cost to buy a heat pump and have it installed by a professional, Schmitz declined. “Even with the grants, it was clear it would be too expensive for me,” he said.
A scientist by training who enjoys tinkering with batteries in his spare time, he decided to convert an air conditioner into a heat pump for his living room. In the meantime, he has also installed appliances in other rooms and expects to save at least 2,000 euros in heating costs this winter.
Alternatives to gas
Although autumn temperatures have been relatively mild and German natural gas storage facilities have reached capacity, natural gas prices remain twice as high as a year ago. Analysts do not expect the price to drop any time soon, and the Germans are looking for alternatives.
Vaillant is addressing the need for more heat pump installers by training them itself. Building on a network of plumbers and mechanics who have worked with the company for decades, company officials said they hoped to reduce wait times for customers.
“Installing heat pumps is more complex and complicated than installing a gas unit,” says Schiedeck, the director. “That is why we have set up a very large training center to update our technicians.”
Germany has a shortage of about 175,000 skilled workers, of which about a third are needed for jobs related to the energy transition, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. These include installers of heat pumps and solar panels and employees who insulate houses or maintain wind turbines.
Another obstacle to the widespread use of heat pumps is their noise. Germany’s noise abatement regulations have led to numerous lawsuits between homeowners who have installed heat pumps and their neighbors who are fed up with the constant hum of the machines.
German manufacturers are aware of the problem. They have refined their machines to make them quieter. Vaillant changed the angle of the blades and made zigzag notches in the edges and tested the results in an acoustic room at the factory.
Even as German industry ramps up production, manufacturers are still struggling to source parts trapped in the supply chain slowdown.
Oliver Loitzsch decided this year to modernize the heating system in his home in western Germany by replacing his 32-year-old furnace and boiler with a hybrid system that combines a heat pump with conventional natural gas heating.
“I wanted to do my part in the fight against climate change,” he said.
In February, he ordered a device from another German family business, Buderus. He just waited for months. In August he received word that some parts were ready, and a few weeks later a piece of pipe, some wires and a transmission box arrived.
He is still waiting for the delivery of the heat pump.
Buderus says it’s working to meet demand, but struggling to get parts. The company does not expect the situation to improve in the short term.
For Loitzsch, who ran a gas and water installation business for more than 25 years, the one bright spot is that he doesn’t have to worry about the installation – he’s got help arranged and he’s had several months to study the manual.
© The New York Times