Not Just Hot Air: NYCHA Starts Swapping Out Steam Radiators for ‘Greener’ Pumps
New units were developed specifically for NYCHA as part of a 2021 challenge to companies to build a better heater for the city’s public housing.
Radiators are on the way out at a Queens public-housing complex — where the first wave of a project to modernize how 10,000 apartments are warmed in the winter and cooled in the summer is taking shape.
The New York City Housing Authority this month installed electric-powered heat pumps at 12 apartments inside the Woodside Houses, where residents lost heat and hot water for months in 2021 after boilers at the 20-building complex were damaged by flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
The units are replacing steam-heat radiators, which could leave residents sweltering in winter or sometimes without heat when the gas boilers powering them failed. The pumps operate by pulling warm air in from the outside in to heat a space, or essentially in reverse to cool it.
They are more efficient than window air-conditioning units and boilers, which combust fossil fuel on site to produce heat — the reason that buildings emit the most harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the city.
“It’s like winter in here,” Roseline Vieira, whose second-floor apartment was one of the first equipped with the pumps, told THE CITY on a day when the temperature outside neared 90 degrees. “It’s so nice.”
But the big test will come once temperatures drop in the coming months.
According to NYCHA data, there have been 2,448 total unplanned heat outages over the last five heating seasons..
The pumps are among the improvements planned for a public housing network that says it needs $78.3 billion to renovate its aging housing stock, a task that includes replacing old boilers. Presently, the most cost-effective move is to replace a gas boiler with another, instead of a cleaner, greener option.
“If that’s our only option, then we’ll never be able to decarbonize our buildings at needed scale,” Vlada Kenniff, NYCHA’s senior vice president for sustainability, told THE CITY. “We’ll never be able to afford some of the clean technologies that are available to market-rate and wealthier buildings.”
But the pumps could change the calculus.
They are the product of a NYCHA contest that in 2021 challenged companies to develop a custom heat pump that could be installed for under $3,000 and without disruptive, time-consuming infrastructure work — while signaling the agency’s new efforts to cut pollution and shift toward greener appliances at 335 public housing developments citywide.
“We spun this into existence. These units did not exist,” Kenniff said. “They were created specifically for NYCHA.”
Heat pumps are more efficient than window air-conditioning units and boilers, which combust fossil fuel on site to produce heat — the reason that buildings emit the most harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the city.
Midea America, a New Jersey-based appliance manufacturer, won a contract for 20,000 heat pumps — 36 of which are now at the Woodside Houses. Gradient, a California company, won a contract for 10,000 more units, and NYCHA plans to install 36 of those in another building at the Woodside Houses this fall.
Vieira, 61, said she’s slept more soundly since the new heat pump was installed by her bedroom window. Previously, she ran a window air-conditioning unit all night .
“It’s big, but what can I say?” Vieira said. “It’s for free, so why not enjoy it?”
Heat pumps were also installed in another bedroom and her living room. But in order for the living room unit to fit, Vieira had to rearrange her furniture and move a couch. There are scrapes on a wall and broken flooring where the radiator once was — she’s waiting for NYCHA to make repairs.
Three floors up, Jazmin Nazario noticed her 8-year-old son, who has breathing problems, has not been coughing in his sleep ever since the heat pump was installed.
Nazario, 36, said she was initially skeptical, but has been won over by the pumps’ abilities to cool her apartment — despite being unable to open the three windows where the heat pumps were installed.
“It’s working,” she said. “It’s just so freaking huge.”
But the biggest question — for residents like Nazario and for NYCHA — is whether the new units will adequately heat apartments in the winter.
“Hopefully, it keeps us warm because it can get freezing in here,” Nazario said.
NYCHA will monitor how the heat pumps work, how much power they use and how they affect the rest of the building’s systems. By May 2024, the housing authority says it will have a better idea of how successful the project was, with feedback from residents and an outside evaluation.
“Heat pumps are the next frontier of heating and cooling in homes,” said Diana Hernandez, associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “NYCHA is keeping in step with modern energy services and building systems that allow people to achieve comfort.
“From an operational perspective, it’s actually cost-saving,” she added. “So I think this is a win all the way around.”
The hope, Hernandez said, is that the heat pumps eventually will be adopted widely, especially by other older, multi-family buildings that face similar financial and logistical hurdles in transitioning fossil fuel-powered appliances to electric — as many will have to do to comply with Local Law 97. That citywide law mandates buildings over a certain size reduce emissions from fossil fuel sources and NYCHA must make efforts to do so as well.
Hernandez said the effort points to what other developers and landlords will turn to in electrifying heating systems and making buildings more efficient and reliable.
“This is just the beginning of what a lot of buildings throughout New York City will have to do in order to mitigate the real risks of climate change,” she said.