Interview by Efficiency Vermont
Note: Pat Perry is the owner of Vermont Heat Pump, LLC, of Shelburne, VT
Efficiency Vermont: What is your background?
Pat Perry: I worked as an electrical engineer for 30 years, and after that I started Vermont Heat Pump. I’ve had that business for almost 10 years now.
In a nutshell, how would you define a mini-split heat pump?
PP: Conceptually, a heat pump is an air conditioner that moves heat in either direction. You switch from heating to cooling via remote control, or via your smartphone or smart speaker using Wi-Fi. The term “mini-split” refers to the fact that the heat pump is split in two. There are separate indoor and outdoor units.
How did you get into the heat pump business?
PP: I first learned about air-source heat pumps from my brother, who had a friend in Maine who was in the business. They came and installed it, and it was great! I went from using 550 gallons of oil a year to using 100 gallons. At that time, Maine was ahead of us in heat pump awareness. No one seemed to have heard of them here in Vermont. So six months after I retired from IBM in 2012, I started the business.
How has heat pump technology changed over the years?
PP: It used to be that heat pumps were good only to about 30 degrees outdoor temperature. They were fine down South but not practical for the Northeast. Around 2010, because of concerns about the ozone layer, the industry moved away from freon and transitioned to a refrigerant called R410a. R410a has a much lower boiling point, and this allowed heat pumps to operate efficiently at temperatures well below zero.
We are still using R410a today, but it needs to be phased out per the Montreal Protocol (on substances that deplete the ozone layer) in the next few years. We need a new refrigerant that neither is ozone depleting nor has greenhouse gas potential. Propane and CO2 are being considered, but there doesn’t seem to be an industry consensus on what the new refrigerant will be.
What’s your impression of the awareness of heat pumps in Vermont today?
PP: The people who have them love them, because they see how much money they save. So my experience is that every install I do can lead to five others, when homeowners talk them up. Demand is overwhelming.
The problem now is that we can’t get heat pumps (as a result of pandemic-related shortages). There’s a global shortage of the chips that have built-in Wi-Fi. Fujitsu has decided to deal with the shortage by offering a new model without a Wi-Fi chip, and if the customer wants, in the future they can update it.
I think that’s a good design. For the units without the Wi-Fi controller, maybe the price will be lower. I think most people would be happy to save 50 dollars, and many of them never use the Wi-Fi control anyway.
What has the growth of your business been like?
PP: In my first year, I installed seven systems. The next year, it was 23; the next year, 43. The past four years I maxed out at 124 installs each year. I used to think about hiring somebody, but I didn’t really want the hassle of employees, so I found a better solution. I got a couple of friends from IBM, trained them, and got them going with their own businesses.
So you created your own competitors?
PP: We still can hardly keep up with the demand. We help each other out, share knowledge, send customers to each other. For example, a single-zone unit weighs 87 pounds, and I can lift that by myself. But a multi-zone unit is 140 pounds. If somebody wants that, I send them to my friend who works with his brother. And having those [resources] allows me to go on vacation. Normally, if a unit has a problem, it’s hard to find someone who will repair a heat pump they didn’t install. But we all install Fujitsu. And we all will repair each other’s installs.
How do people hear about you?
PP: It’s mostly word of mouth. I am on Efficiency Vermont’s website as a member of the Efficiency Excellence Network, and I’m listed on Fujitsu’s site. And people tell me they heard about me on Front Porch Forum.