Heat pumps are everywhere — even in clothes dryers

Using heat pumps to dry clothes is dramatically more energy-efficient. Thanks to new rebates, the appliance could be coming soon to a laundry room near you.
By Alison F. Takemura

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Woman with brown curly hair stands with load of laundry in front of gleaming metal stacked clothes dryer and washer..
The LG Washtower has a heat-pump dryer. (LG)

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Canary Media’s Electrified Life column shares real-world tales, tips and insights to demystify what individuals can do to shift their homes and lives to clean electric power. Canary thanks Lunar Energy for its support of the column.

Last year, Dan Fulop faced a problem. The 46-year-old computational biologist had inherited a used gas clothes dryer with his newly purchased Boston-metro townhouse — and the appliance was leaking fuel. He and his family could smell the gas lingering in the air.

So Fulop, who plans to decarbonize his whole home, was thrilled last September when he was able to chuck the faulty fossil-fueled appliance for an uber-efficient electric heat-pump dryer.

Haven’t heard much about heat-pump dryers? You’re not alone.

While the tech is popular in Europe and Japan, it’s still relatively unknown in the U.S. Of homes that have dryers, 80 percent use conventional electric-resistance machines; the rest have gas models. Heat-pump dryers accounted for only about 1 percent of residential dryers sold last year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But with new federal incentives, improved performance and a greater variety of models now available, this tech is poised to be more appealing than ever.

Here’s your intro to the heat-pump dryer, an appliance with climate and consumer advantages that could change how America does laundry.

Why get a heat-pump dryer? 

Heat-pump dryers can slash energy use by an enormous 40 to 70 percent over gas and electric-resistance models, the EPA shared with Canary Media. (That’s a familiar story; heat pumps for heating and cooling are also far more efficient than conventional models, even in the cold.)

A more efficient dryer isn’t going to have a huge impact on a home’s carbon emissions, though; only about 4.5 percent of a home’s electricity use is associated with clothes drying, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But a heat-pump dryer’s lower operating costs could save families hundreds of dollars each year. That’s what Peter McPhee, senior program director at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state economic development agency, estimates his heat-pump dryer is saving his family of four. They run around 20 loads a week, and the Bay State has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, so efficiency makes a big difference in their bills. Even if your laundry throughput is a more modest six loads each week, you could still save over $900 across a heat-pump dryer’s typical 12-year lifetime, according to the EPA.

Those operational savings can help balance heat-pump dryers’ higher upfront costs. Yale Appliance, a retailer with experts who like to nerd out about laundry and kitchen appliances, estimates heat-pump dryers are priced about $300 to $400 more than gas and electric-resistance counterparts.

A number of utilities and local programs across the U.S. incentivize heat-pump dryers. Massachusetts, where McPhee lives, for example, can help eligible residents knock $50 off the cost. Try searching online for incentives in your area.

The Inflation Reduction Act also has forthcoming rebate programs that can help consumers choose a heat-pump dryer. The first incentivizes the efficient appliance indirectly: Homeowners who reduce their whole-home energy usage by 35 percent or more can recoup up to half the cost of the project, capped at $4,000. Benefits are even higher for families that earn less than 80 percent of the median income in their area.

The other federal rebate program will provide low-income families a point-of-sale rebate of up to $840 for an Energy Star heat-pump dryer. In most cases, that discount would make a heat-pump model the most affordable choice, McPhee points out. (Though the cheapest and most energy-efficient option of all is far lower-tech: air-drying.)

Read more details on the IRA’s efficiency and electrification incentives in this cheat sheet.

How does a heat-pump dryer work?

The key feature of a heat-pump dryer is that it doesn’t make heat — it moves it.

Gas and electric-resistance dryers fire up like toasters to dry your clothes. The resulting hot air picks up moisture, which is then blown out a dryer vent. Blasting all of this heat outside,” especially in winter, is a huge waste of energy, McPhee said.

A heat-pump dryer ditches the vent. Like an inside-out refrigerator, the dryer uses refrigerant to soak up warmth from the ambient air. Instead of dumping warm, wet air outdoors, the heat pump reabsorbs the heat, condensing out the water in the process. The water drains via a hose or fills a reservoir that’s emptied after each use. Meanwhile, the recycled heat moves back into the dryer drum to evaporate more water from the laundry in a continuous cycle until the load is dry. It’s an elegant thermodynamic feat.

How a heat-pump dryer works (EPA Energy Star program)

What to know before getting a heat-pump dryer

Heat-pump dryers have some key differences from conventional models.

First, since there’s no vent, heat-pump dryers are feasible for renters or homeowners who don’t want to punch a hole through their home’s exterior. When he replaced his gas dryer, Fulop sealed his old dryer vent opening to further reduce home-energy loss.

The only real restriction on where a ventless dryer can go is power. Most large or full-size” heat-pump dryers need a 240-volt socket, though some new models can run on a more convenient 120-volt plug, according to the EPA. If you can get by with a smaller compact” model, a 120-volt outlet is all you need.

Because a heat-pump dryer’s maximum temperature (about 120˚F) doesn’t get as hot as gas or electric resistance systems (which reach about 170˚F), drying typically takes longer. This is one of the reasons Americans have been hesitant to embrace the technology, according to the EPA. But heat-pump dryers have vastly improved since they were introduced to the U.S. in 2014, and now have typical dry times of 37 to 70 minutes. Both McPhee and Fulop told me the difference from their old dryers has been barely noticeable.

Maintenance is also a little different. Heat-pump dryers typically catch lint with two traps: one that’s emptied every cycle just like a conventional dryer and a finer mesh that’s cleared less frequently. Manufacturers will have varying guidance, but LG, for example, recommends cleaning that filter every 10 uses. It’s also a good idea to check for lint around the heat pump’s condenser coils at least every few months, since a buildup impedes performance. If you see fuzz on the coils, you can easily hoover it with a brushed vacuum head, which is the method the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center recommends. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about a lint-clogged dryer vent catching fire.

As for Fulop, he adores his heat-pump dryer. Besides saving energy, he says his top-rated Miele appliance has noticeably reduced the wear and tear on his family’s clothes, and — because it’s not gas-powered — he knows it’s safer for his two young kids. To anyone thinking about getting a heat-pump dryer, his advice is simple: Do it right away.”

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.