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Mini-split heat pumps installed at a home in the West End of Halifax Thursday, November 2, 2023.Ingrid Bulmer/The Globe and Mail

In early November, the federal government enhanced its program encouraging Canadians to make the switch to electric heat pumps, which has many wondering: Is it worth it?

The combustion of fossil fuels for space and water heating in Canada’s homes and buildings accounts for 13 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, a figure that has remained unchanged since 2005. In order to align with Canada’s climate targets, more than 10 per cent of home heating in Canada needs to come from heat pumps. The government says adoption of heat pumps “is a crucial tool in the fight against climate change.”

The newly announced program will entirely cover the costs for lower-income households in Atlantic Canada to install heat pumps, but there are also programs across the country incentivizing Canadians to make the switch.

Here, The Globe answers some common questions about heat pumps to help you decide if they’re the right energy solution for your household.

How do heat pumps work?

Heat pump technology has been around for over a century, with the first heat pump being built by Austrian Peter von Rittinger in 1856. Von Rittinger was conducting experiments to see if the heat in water vapour could be used to evaporate salt brine.

Heat pumps Canadians can buy today work with the same principle. Natural Resources Canada explains that the device extracts heat from a low temperature place like the air or ground outside, known as a source, and delivers it to a higher temperature place like your home, known as a sink.

Heat naturally flows from places with higher temperature to locations with lower temperatures. That’s why in the winter, heat from inside a building is lost to the outside.

Using electricity, a heat pump counters the natural flow of heat by pumping the energy available in a colder place to a warmer one. Surprisingly, cold air contains heat – for example, air that is -18°C still has 85 per cent of the heat contained in air that’s 21°C. This principle allows the heat pump to provide a good deal of heating, even during colder weather.

As energy is extracted from a source, the temperature of the source drops. That’s how heat pumps efficiently cool your home.

As energy is added to a sink, its temperature increases. If the home is used as a sink, thermal energy will be added, heating the space.

Heat pumps take advantage of the fact that heat naturally moves from places with higher temperatures to places with lower temperatures. This means the heating or cooling is done more efficiently.

How efficient are heat pumps?

Generally speaking, heat pumps are more efficient than other forms of home heating and cooling because they concentrate and move more energy than they consume, versus fossil fuel-based heating systems which can only release the energy stored in the fuel.

Efficiency Canada says that for every 1 kWh of electricity heat pumps consume, they provide 2 to 5.4 kWH of heat, making them 200-540 per cent efficient.

By comparison, new natural gas boilers or furnaces are typically rated at 82 to 98 per cent efficient in Canada, and electric boilers or baseboards are at a maximum 100 per cent efficient – providing no more than 1 kWh of heat per kWh of electricity consumed.

Do heat pumps save you money?

Whether or not heat pumps will cost less money depends on the price of electricity where you live compared to the cost of other fuels such as gas or heating oil, and on which type of system is being replaced.

Natural Resources Canada says heat pumps generally are more expensive to purchase than other systems like furnaces or electric baseboards because of the high number of components in the system. In some regions and cases – especially if you qualify for rebates on purchasing and installation – the cost can be recouped through the money you save on your heating bill.

An interactive tool from policy research organization Canadian Climate Institute allows you to compare the cost of heat pumps to other heating methods in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montréal and Halifax, or compare the cost to the average cost in these five cities.

For example, if you live in a single detached home in Halifax that was built around 1940, the tool estimates that gas heating with air conditioning costs $2,800 per year. While a cold-climate heat pump with electric backup will only cost $1,610, a savings of $1,190.

The Ontario Clean Air alliance also has a calculator for people living in Ontario; to get started you need to know your current annual gas consumption, which you can find by logging into your gas utility account.

A release from the federal government said on average, homeowners who switch from oil to cold-climate heat pumps to heat and cool their homes save up to $2,500 per year on home energy bills.

Bryan Purcell, vice-president of policy and programs at The Atmospheric Fund, told The Globe that the best time for landlords and condo corporations to begin exploring heat system retrofits is towards the end of the life-cycle of existing HVAC systems, which typically need to be replaced after 25 years. Homeowners can follow the same guidelines.

What are the different types of heat pumps?

Air-source heat pump

These heat pumps are the most common type. In the summer, they take heat from the air inside your house and transfer it to the air outside. In winter, they take heat from the air outside and transfer it inside.

Ducted versions can be connected to previous ducted heating systems, or built into new buildings.

Ductless heat pumps, sometimes called ductless mini-splits, are have an outdoor unit that’s connected to an indoor unit installed on a wall which acts as a localized heat source, like a wood stove. Mini-split units allow multiple indoor units to be connected to the same outdoor unit.

This type of heat pump comes in conventional and cold-climate models.

Ground-source heat pumps

These heat pumps, sometimes called geothermal heat pumps, transfer heat from the ground or water. They are much less common as they require deep drilling, large land lots, or permitted access to a body of water, but somewhat more efficient.

Do you need a cold-weather heat pump?

The vast majority of air-source heat pumps have a minimum operating temperature. If temperatures drop below that, they won’t work. For newer models, this can range from between -15°C to -25°C. Below this temperature, a supplemental system must be used to provide heating to the building.

Cold climate air source heat pumps have been designed to work in lower temperatures, down to -25°C temperatures. If you live somewhere that the temperatures are in this range, it could be worth looking into a cold weather heat pump.

Ground-source or geothermal heat pumps can work in temperatures as low as -25°C because the temperature of the earth stays more constant than the temperature of the air.

Where to access heat pump rebates

There are more heat pump incentives and rebates available to Canadians now than ever before. Information about federal programs can be found here. Each province and territory may also have its own rebates available to buyers. For more information: Newfoundland; Prince Edward Island; Nova Scotia; New Brunswick; Quebec; Ontario; Manitoba; Saskatchewan; British Columbia; Yukon; Northwest Territories; Nunavut

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