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Co-op Nearly Burned by Heat Pump Installers

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on February 2, 2022

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Climate Mobilization Act, air-source heat pumps, carbon emissions, co-op and condo boards.

A veteran engineer says, "We need more contractors, and we need more training for workers."

Feb. 2, 2022

Many co-op and condo boards in New York City have begun grappling with ways to reduce their buildings’ carbon emissions so they can avoid looming fines under the city’s ambitious Climate Mobilization Act. But even the best intentions can run up against a cruel economic reality: the appetite for clean energy systems appears to be outrunning the supply of workers qualified to install them.

Case in point: the board at a 10-unit, five-story co-op on the Upper West Side agreed to be part of a pilot project that would replace the century-old building’s oil-fired, single-pipe steam heating system with individual air-source heat pumps in every apartment. Rather than burning fuel to create heat, these heat pumps move heat energy from one place to another — from indoors to outdoors during the cooling season, and from outdoors to indoors during the heating season. They have the potential to greatly reduce a building’s carbon emissions — if they are installed properly. In this case, that “if” proved to be huge.

“We had trouble getting contractors to bid on the job,” says Tom Sahagian, an energy consultant and educator who helped put the pilot project together. “Everybody’s busy and there aren’t enough capable people to go around. The industry hasn’t caught up with the demand.”

The co-op’s system was designed by Taitem Engineering. The contractor with the winning bid claimed his crews had been trained to install the specific heat pumps selected for the job. “That proved to be false,” Sahagian says. “They were experienced in a general way, but not in a specific way. The crew was hard-working guys, but management was not as supportive as it should have been.”

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The lack of professionalism became apparent when the crew began testing the system, a critical step. The system uses the common R-410A refrigerant, which has more than 2,000 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide. So any leaks in the system would defeat the entire purpose of the project.

To his dismay, Sahagian discovered that the crew was using the wrong gauges, had failed to measure the length of refrigerant pipes and had introduced the wrong amount of refrigerant into several apartments. He was forced to intervene. “I had to be much more hands-on than I expected to be or should have been,” he says. “We redid the pressure tests and the vacuum tests. They had to pull all the refrigerant out and put the right amount in. Once they did that, the system was OK.” It’s now up and running, and in 2021 it cut the co-op’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 60%.

But that impressive number comes with a caveat for co-op and condo boards that undertake green projects. “Someone knowledgeable must oversee the job,” Sahagian says, “and that’s an added expense to an expensive project. When boards get bids for this kind of work, they need to meet with the people who’ve been trained by the manufacturer and see their certifications. If they don’t do the work right, the system will not be as efficient as it should be or, much worse, there will be refrigerant leaks. If there are leaks in these systems, it’s a big disaster for everybody — especially the planet.”

Ian Shapiro, the founder of Taitem Engineering, agrees. “Co-op and condo boards might want to hire an engineer to be an owner’s rep on these jobs,” he says. “If there’s an engineer on the board, that person could do the oversight. A little bit of oversight can prevent most or all of these problems. The board has to be engaged.”

Is there a solution for today’s shortage of qualified heat pump installers? “In the long run,” Shapiro says, “we need more contractors, and we need more training for workers.”

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