Natural Gas Heat Pumps Offer a Tremendous Advantage to Hospitals

Natural gas heat pumps (originally invented by Albert Einstein) have often been overlooked as a method of heating, despite operating with energy efficiency in excess of 100% due to their innovative properties.  As was uncovered in AGA’s latest Advancing America report however, they offer potentially massive advantages to an unexpected sector of the economy – hospitals.

There are approximately 6,129 hospitals in the United States. Out of these, not a single one is all electric. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), 80% of American hospitals use natural gas for water heating, and 74% use it for space heating. Because of this, the average hospital would need 61.4% more electricity without natural gas. However, the potential exists for hospitals to use their natural gas even more efficiently. Enter natural gas heat pumps.

How is a natural gas heat pump different from an electric heat pump? Both work by moving heat around, essentially harvesting heat from the outside of the building and transferring it inside. As one might imagine, this means that most heat pumps struggle with extreme temperatures, as the less heat there is to move around, the more work the heat pump struggles. At very low temperatures, this leads to extreme inefficiency, high energy consumption, and a cold building. Conversely, a natural gas heat pump overcomes this problem by also producing its own heat.

The U.S. Department of Energy has an excellent explanation for how natural gas heat pumps work.

“The difference in absorption heat pumps is that the evaporated ammonia [used as a refrigerant] pressure is not increased by a compressor. Instead, the ammonia is absorbed into water where a relatively low-power pump can then pump the solution to a higher pressure. The problem is then removing the ammonia from the water, and that’s where the heat source comes in. The heat essentially boils the ammonia out of the water, starting the cycle again.

A key component in units presently on the market is generator absorber heat exchanger technology, or GAX, which boosts the efficiency of the unit by recovering the heat that is released when the ammonia is absorbed into the water. Other innovations include high-efficiency vapor separation, variable ammonia flow rates, and low-emissions, variable-capacity combustion of the natural gas.”

In other words, natural gas heat pumps do not suffer from the same issues at low temperatures that electric heat pumps do. The most popular models currently on the market today are primarily aimed at larger facilities with high heating and cooling demand. Hospitals fit this bill perfectly.

While all customers care about reliability, hospitals simply cannot lose power, even (especially) during the worst natural disasters. This means that all hospitals have a backup generator – frequently a natural gas backup generator, as natural gas customers almost never have unplanned outages. A relatively small backup generator would be more than sufficient to run a natural gas heat pump, ensuring that generators are not strained by heating or cooling the hospital during a winter storm or a summer heat wave.

While residential natural gas heat pumps are still a work in process, commercial natural gas heat pumps are ready for prime time. With natural gas heat pumps, America’s hospitals can significantly increase the efficiency of how they heat and cool, lower their energy bills, and benefit from the lifesaving reliability of natural gas.