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Watt's Happening: Do heat pumps work in the north?

Compared to a baseboard electric heater, a heat pump will provide the same amount of heat using about one third to one quarter of the electricity.

You may have heard about heat pumps as a new way of heating and cooling your home. Heat pumps are being widely adopted around the world and across Canada, but how well do they work up north, and how do they work anyway?

How they work

One of the great lessons of our on-going renewable energy transition is that there is energy everywhere, all around us, all the time. We used to think we had to MAKE energy, usually by burning some expensive and hard to find liquid, solid or gas.

Now we know better: we don’t have to make it much anymore, just collect the energy that is either pouring down on us every day from the sky (solar energy), blowing around us (wind energy), or just pulling energy out of the ground or air.

And now we have the tech to do it remarkably well and at little cost.

Heat pumps do not create heat, they collect it, concentrate and then pump it into your home. Heat pumps can grab their heat from the outside air (air-source heat pumps) or from the ground (ground-source heat pumps, also known as geothermal heating).

Like your refrigerator

The basic principle is very similar to how your refrigerator works: heat from inside the fridge is collected and pumped outside the fridge, cooling your food. The mechanism is simple, reliable and uses very little electricity.

A small heat pump unit sits outside your home and sucks in air, removes some of the heat from it, concentrates the heat energy and pumps it into your home, usually through small pipes filled with climate-friendly coolant, and into another small indoor unit on the wall, ceiling or floor that blows the collected heat into the room.

The outdoor unit can be connected to several indoor units to heat individual rooms separately. These are called “mini splits” and offer individual room heating for maximum efficiency and comfort.

Or the outdoor unit can feed one big whole-house unit that can use existing duct work from your old heating system. (The old system is usually left in place as a backup heat supply).

Healthy and cooling too!

The same unit filters the air (removing pollen, smoke etc.) and also provides air conditioning! Reverse the heat pump process and you get hot air pumped OUT of the house, thus cooling the building. Think of the refrigerator again. It is a huge benefit to get both heating and cooling from the same gadget.

For energy efficiency, heat pumps are considered the best yet. Compared to say a baseboard electric heater, a heat pump will provide the same amount of heat using about one third to one quarter of the electricity. That saves money too!

Plus they are super easy to use. Basically set a thermostat to the room temp you want, and the heat pump will provide heating or cooling to keep it there in any season. Set it and forget it, as they say.

Cold climate models

It is an amazing fact that outside air at -18C contains about 85% of the heat that air at +21C does, so there is plenty of heat to harvest in even very cold outside air.

Many cold climate heat pumps are becoming available from a wide range of manufacturers who claim high efficiency to as low as -30C. These cold climate units are more expensive but are also of higher quality and efficiency overall.

Three heat pump myths

1. They do not work in the north: cold climate heat pumps certainly work in the north down to at least 20 below. Then your old back up system (baseboard electric heater, gas furnace, wood stove) just kicks in for a while.

2. They are expensive: not with the generous rebates and incentives available. The Canada Greener Homes Grant and Loan, plus the Clean BC Program rebates can be combined for impressive savings.

3. They need a lot of maintenance: all heating and cooling systems require maintenance from time to time. Do not buy on-line. Buy only through a trained, registered heat pump contractor.

If you are looking for a way to save money on heating and cooling by using the most efficient and climate-friendly technology yet, heat pumps are the way to go, even in the north.


Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek.

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