A New Heat Pump for a Growing South Philly Family

Energy Efficiency Stories sat down with Dan Siegel, founder of Highpoint Campaigns, one hot summer day in June 2023. We talked about his and his wife Hoa’s journey installing heat pumps in their South Philadelphia rowhouse—all part of a plan to accommodate their growing family without leaving their beloved neighborhood.

So tell me about the project? How did everything get started?

So we live in South Philly in a row home. A few years ago, me and my wife Hoa started the family conversation, and we realized, well, we could start a family here, but then we’d probably have to move. It’s a two-bedroom, one-bath, and then COVID happened, so we’re both working from home, too. I bought this place almost 10 years ago and the neighborhood has increased in value, so to buy something bigger we’d either be spending a ton of money or we’d have to leave. We decided to stay put and add a third story.

So you know you’re going to have this construction project.

Yep. We started working with an energy efficiency certified architect who had done a number of LEED buildings in South Philly, Jackie Gusic and her group, inHabit. They advocated for a lot of energy efficiency things, like putting R49 insulation throughout the third floor.

And they really pushed us to consider heat pumps for the new floor. I say “pushed” but they didn’t have to argue; they just said to consider it and when we learned more about them, it seemed like a no-brainer. We wound up putting a Daikin heat pump on the roof and three tied-in mini splits in the third floor.

And how has that been?

It’s been really great, especially in the kind of really vertical home you see in South Philly. Our new top floor is so comfortable, because it has these independent, on-site, very efficient units working for it. Plus it’s very well-insulated, and that helps keep the floors below more comfortable.

So you’re officially moved into your new third floor?

Yes, we are. Hoa is 36 weeks pregnant, so we’re really rushing to get things done and it’s pretty much wrapped up! It was tough living here during construction, but now we can both work from home easily and we have a nursery.

The difference from before is huge. I’m talking to you right now from our second floor. I work in this room a lot. And come this time of year before this project, I would be sweating because the roof would be right above me and the sun would be beating down. But now we have a floor above us that is being kept cold by this lovely new efficient system. I’m sitting here, it’s, you know, 80-some degrees outside and I’m fine.

Philadelphia is full of narrow and tall row homes with distinct energy needs.

How had you been heating and cooling before you started the project?

When we bought the house, the original floors had central AC from a unit outside and heat from a gas furnace in the basement. That AC unit was rated for our square footage, but our bedroom on the second floor was still hot every summer, even at night. It almost didn’t matter what you turned the thermostat to, because the thermostat was on the first floor, you’re in this very vertical space, and the heat would rise. So we were also using a window unit to work and sleep up there, despite having central air. 

The architect said, you know, these problems will be worse in a new third floor, even if you re-size your HVAC unit. It’s a pretty common issue in row homes. So we decided on heat pumps for the third floor.

What do you think your energy bills are going to look like moving forward?

I haven’t gotten enough bills from PECO yet to officially say that it’s saved a bunch of money, but I expect that it will be better than what we had.

I can tell you, just anecdotally, today has been 80-something degrees. And I can hear our standard HVAC a lot less than I did on a day like this before the project, which means the heat pumps are picking up slack. And those things are going to be cheaper to run. So our bill might go up because we’re covering a whole additional floor, but our price for cooling a square foot is still going to go down.

We caught up with Dan later in the summer—with a healthy new baby—to check on his bill savings. This is what he told us:

So far we’ve seen a $12 per month increase in our electric bill. It’s hard to make total apples to apples comparison, but as of right now, I can say our bill is expect to go up $144/year—which is just about a 10% increase, despite adding 50% square footage above our old floorplan!

Some people hold off on heat pumps because they worry they’ll look really ugly, or run loud. Have those things bothered you?

They’re not noisy at all. We put in a roof deck and we hang out there right next to the heat pump, and it’s a fraction of the noise from my older cooling unit. I mean it’s, if it’s a third, I’d be surprised. And the mini split system is so cool because you can put it on quiet mode or you can turn a couple of them off and only use one.

So it’s been a good experience.

It’s been a game-changer for the house. We’re still running our traditional forced air AC for the first two floors and hoping to get another year or two out of it, but when it dies I’ll be replacing it with heat pumps. Probably a ducted model.

That would be a big next step–can you talk about why you guys are thinking in that direction? Is it comfort or savings or the environment, or something else?

(Laughs) All three? Can my answer just be “Yes”?

It’s all of it. You’re telling me I could spend less money on a more efficient system that saves space in my home and is good for the environment. Like, why would I not do that?

And there are tax rebates for it, too. You’d be crazy not to. And the natural gas is so unstable, you know, some months it’s cheaper, some months it’s more expensive. Why wouldn’t I just invest in a system where I know what I’m getting?

And there’s the space. So your furnace, your fan, everything down in your rowhouse basement is taking up a big share of real estate. If I can rip all of that out, I get the better part of a hundred square feet of my house back. If I put it in a heat pump and a tankless water heater, I mean, that’s a lot of space in my basement.

Got it. Before we close, do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about getting a heat pump in Philadelphia?

Just: the time is now. There is free money to upgrade a system that will save you money. If you have a brand new unit, maybe don’t throw it out today, but if you have something that’s more than five years old, you’re probably paying more maintaining it than just getting a heat pump. 

And I know people think of heat pumps from like 15 years ago, and they were not great at heating yet. They had limitations, but we also were on the first iPhone then and the first iPhone kind of sucked too. The iPhone is better now; heat pumps are better now.

And look, people just don’t get a lot of opportunities to have a triple bottom line. It’s lucky whenever you accomplish one goal at any given time, and getting a heat pump is an opportunity for an individual to accomplish three things that are both good for you and good for your community. It’s comfortable, it saves money, it’s good for the environment. Just get the thing! It’s great.

Thank you Dan, and congratulations to you and Hoa on your new family member!

Thank you!

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Success story from: Energy Efficiency Stories Original
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Added to the EE Stories website on: September 27, 2023

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