A heat pump can help BC residents cut utility bills, but do your own research first

As energy prices rise and consumers look for ways to save on utility bills, experts say Canadians should consider whether installing a heat pump could be part of the solution.

A heat pump is an electrically powered device that is a bit like an air conditioner and can be used for both heating and cooling.

In winter, an air source heat pump draws heat from outside (there is always heat in the air, even on a cold day) and pumps it in. In summer, the cycle is reversed and the heat pump takes heat from the indoor air and releases it outside.

This technology, which has been around for a long time, could be an energy-efficient alternative to other types of home heating systems, such as a gas stove or electric baseboards.

It can also eliminate the need for conventional air conditioning and reduce your home’s environmental impact if you are replacing a heating element that uses natural gas, propane, or heating oil.

“Heat pumps are great because they provide year-round efficient cooling in the summer and heating in the winter,” said Susie Reader, a spokeswoman for BC Hydro, who runs a heat pump in her townhouse in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Ryder, who relied on electric baseboards before purchasing a heat pump, says her heating bills have dropped by about 40 percent since switching. In addition, its heat pump eliminates the need for a separate air conditioning system.

“Summer is getting hotter,” Reeder said. “Especially in places like the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, you see a lot of people using these portable air conditioners, which can be quite inefficient and costly. So installing a heat pump can be really helpful.”

Many utilities, such as BC Hydro, are encouraging the adoption of heat pumps as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and many homeowners who have switched to this method say they will never go back to them.

But in general, adoption in Canada is slow. There are only about 700,000 air source heat pumps installed in this country, according to Natural Resources Canada. In contrast, 35 percent of Canadian households, or 5.1 million homes, are currently heated by natural gas stoves.

A recent survey by BC Hydro found a general lack of knowledge about heat pumps among homeowners, with almost a quarter of British Columbians saying they were unlikely to consider installing a heat pump, and 30% of respondents saying it was because they didn’t know enough about devices.

Part of the problem is that earlier versions of heat pumps were not always compatible with the Canadian climate. Since the ability of a heat pump to extract heat from the air decreases as the temperature drops, having a backup heat source for harsh winters has often been a necessity.

However, this has changed in recent years as heat pump technology has developed. Geoff Sharman, Residential Product Manager, HVAC, Mitsubishi Electric Canada, said some types of heat pumps can now operate down to -30 C. (Consumers can also opt for ground source heat pumps, which are more efficient in Canada, they are taking advantage of warmer and more stable soil temperatures, says Natural Resources Canada.)

“The heat pump market is growing,” Sharman said. “Indeed, (heat pumps) can now provide heating in Canada for buildings of almost any size. And since natural gas prices may rise in the future… a heat pump could be a good solution.”

The upfront cost of a heat pump can be intimidating, according to BC Hydro: The average cost to purchase and install a system is around $7,000 for small homes and around $16,000 for larger homes. Experts say the exact type and size of heat pump you’ll need will depend on the size of your home, the climate you live in, how well your home is insulated, and other factors.

Similarly, how much you can expect to save on your energy bill also depends on your local climate, the type of heating/cooling system you currently use, and the size and type of heat pump you purchase. There are many online calculators, including one on the Natural Resources Canada website, to help you estimate potential savings.

Homeowners who upgrade to an electric heat pump from fossil fuel (natural gas, propane, or oil) heating may also be eligible for a rebate from the federal government, their local utility, or their province or municipality.

BC Hydro, for example, offers rebates of up to $3,000 for switching from a fossil fuel-based system, which can be combined with provincial and federal rebates for a total savings of up to $11,000 on heat pump cost and installation.

“You need to bring in a professional,” Sharman said. “With all the discounts, you may end up paying only 15 to 20 percent of the cost of your system. Who knows? But you really need that professional to come in there, evaluate it all, and tell you what programs apply to the product you’re looking at.”

Edmonton homeowner Shelly Robichaux, who replaced her gas oven with an electric heat pump a couple of years ago, made the decision largely out of a desire to eliminate natural gas from her home.

She and her husband also have rooftop solar panels and produce their own electricity, leaving their annual heating and electricity bills marginally “positive”. (Last year they actually made a $300 profit by selling the excess electricity they generate back to the grid.)

“I’ve been an environmentalist for as long as I can remember, so to be honest, that was a major factor in that,” Robichaux said. “However, you can come out ahead (financially).”

“I think with heat pumps, as with everything else, people are afraid of new technologies,” Robichaux added. “It takes first followers to start it first and then others will follow.”

— Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press.

climate change energy sector

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