Considering a heat pump? We answer the 7 most common questions

Monday June 26, 2023

Did you know that nearly two thirds of the energy used in Canadian households goes to heating and cooling? For homeowners who want to shrink their carbon footprint, installing a heat pump is a great way to boost energy efficiency and switch to cleaner energy sources. Even plugged into a carbon-intensive grid, heat pumps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20%. 

To help you make an informed decision about whether a heat pump is right for you, we’ve answered seven common questions about air-source heat pumps. They’re the most common type on the Canadian market, and they come in conventional and cold-climate models. 

1. How do heat pumps work?

Air-source heat pumps are electrically powered systems that pump liquid refrigerant between an indoor unit and an outdoor unit. When the refrigerant moves through the system, it can absorb heat from the outdoors and move it into your home, or vice-versa. In some instances, it can even heat water! 

In the winter, the refrigerant passes through a circuit of coils and absorbs heat from outside. The heat pump compresses the refrigerant to make it even hotter, and then sends it indoors to release all that thermal heat. In the summer, the process is reversed. This mechanism of transferring existing heat is unlike common heating systems like boilers and electric baseboards, which turn electricity or fossil fuels into heat. 

In cold weather, heat pumps absorb heat from the outdoors and move it inside.

When it’s hot, heat pumps absorb heat from indoors and move it outside.

2. Can I heat and cool my home with a heat pump?

You bet! In the winter, heat pumps absorb heat from outside and bring it indoors. In the warmer months, this mechanism works in reverse to absorb heat from your home and pump it outside. In the right circumstances, a heat pump can replace both your air conditioning and your heating system. 

3. Can heat pumps work in cold Canadian weather?

The answer is yes! It may sound surprising, but even in sub-zero temperatures there’s heat that can be extracted and transferred indoors. For example, the heat content of air at -18°C is about 85% of heat content of air at 21°C. 

Air-source heat pumps work efficiently in temperatures as low as -25°C, and they’re a proven and reliable technology in Canada. Heat pumps have been used in homes since the 1960s, and innovation has continually improved efficiency and capacity to work in colder weather. If the weather in your region drops below -25°C, you’ll need a supplemental heat source for those days.  

Fun fact: approximately 60% of buildings in Norway are heated with heat pumps, and 40% in Sweden and Finland! 

4. What makes heat pumps cost efficient?

Air-source heat pumps are less expensive than other heating methods because it’s much more energy efficient to move existing heat around instead of creating it. When comparing the amount of thermal energy transferred to the amount of electricity used, heat pumps have an efficiency range of at least 300-400%. Fossil fuel-sourced heating, even with efficiency improvements, has less than 100% efficiency. In other words, conventional heating produces less energy than it takes to run. 

To achieve this level of efficiency, there are several factors that should be considered – here are some of the most important ones: 

Heat loss due to poor insulation. This can include leakages through cracks, holes, ceilings, windows, and doors. Maximizing your home’s heat retention allows you to buy a smaller sized heat pump, reduce equipment costs, and operate more efficiently. 

Outdoor and indoor temperature. The efficiency of the heat pump largely depends on how much heat is available to be pumped indoors. The system will work more efficiently when the temperature difference between inside and outside is smaller. 

Operating costs of your current system. Achieving a reduction in your monthly energy bills is highly dependent on the efficiency of your current system and the cost of electricity compared to other fossil fuels like natural gas and heating oil. Contact a qualified energy advisor to evaluate your home’s current system and determine if a heat pump would present a significant advantage. 

5. Where can I find a trusted installer?

It’s important that you work with a qualified contractor or energy advisor to ensure your installation meets your home’s heating and cooling requirements. You should consult a few heating and cooling professionals to size, install, and maintain your equipment to ensure efficiency and reliable performance. 

The cost of installing an air-source heat pump may also require additional modifications to your home. In some cases, ductwork or electrical services may be necessary to support your new heat pump installation. 

To help you make an informed decision, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has developed an Air-Source Heat Pump Sizing and Selection Guide. This free guide, along with a companion software tool, is intended for energy advisors and mechanical designers to provide guidance on suitable sizing. 

6. Aren’t refrigerants bad for the environment?

Now you may be thinking about the climate consequences of leaked refrigerants, which are harmful to the ozone. In weighing the net carbon emissions and risk factors, the MIT Technology Review and International Energy Agency (IEA) found the climate benefits from heat pumps outweigh the warming potential of leaking refrigerants. Nonetheless, these risks are important, and alternatives could help cut this risk further. Regular maintenance and proper decommissioning and recycling where appropriate can mitigate these risks. 

This is why RD&D efforts are currently focused on lowering the environmental footprint associated with materials and refrigerants. Some manufacturers have developed alternative refrigerants with lower global warming potential (GWP) levels. With known risks and downsides, heat pumps are still the central technology in the global transition to secure and sustainable heating. Even with full leakage of today’s fluorinated gases (F-gases) used as refrigerants in heat pumps, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by at least 20% compared to a high efficiency gas boiler running on a carbon-intensive grid. 

7. Are there any government incentives?

It is important for governments to remove barriers to installation, like high upfront costs for purchasing and installing a heat pump. Canada’s Greener Homes Initiative provides incentives to help Canadian homeowners make energy-efficient retrofits and fight climate change. You can apply online to assess your eligibility and receive grants up to $5,600. To be eligible, you need to first undertake an EnerGuide evaluation, which you can sign up for online. The grants include installing an air-source, cold climate source, or ground-source heat pump. Click here to learn more about the criteria and important disclaimers to receiving a grant. 

The Greener Homes Initiative also includes retrofit home grants that will improve your heat pump or home’s energy efficiency such as: home insulation, air-sealing, window and door replacements, and installing a smart thermostat.  

For Ontario residents, the Greener Homes Initiative has been replaced with the new Home Energy Rebate Plus (HER+) program as of January 2023. The HER+ program makes Ontario residents eligible for up to $10,000 for energy efficient retrofits and up to $600 (one time rebate) for the cost of pre-and post-retrofit EnerGuide evaluations.  

The road to a low-carbon future relies on generating electricity from renewable sources and electrifying everything we can. Heat pumps are a cost-effective, reliable, and efficient technology that allows you to electrify your home’s heating and cooling needs. And if your home is bullfrogpowered with green electricity, your heat pump’s energy usage will be emissions free! 

If you’re not in the position to be able to make big changes like switching to a heat pump, there are plenty of things you can do to decrease your home’s energy consumption. Check out our Conservation Tips booklet for some easy cost saving initiatives. Remember, every little change matters when our community works together!