As energy prices soar and consumers look for ways to save on their utility bills, experts say Canadians should consider whether installing a heat pump could be part of the solution.
A heat pump is an electrically driven device that looks a bit like an air conditioner and can be used for both heating and cooling.
In the winter, an air-source heat pump extracts heat from the outside (there is always some heat in the air, even on a cold day) and "pumps" it inside. In summer, the cycle is reversed and the heat pump takes heat out of the indoor air and moves it outside.
The technology, which has been around for a long time, can make for an energy-efficient alternative to other types of home heating systems, such as a natural gas furnace or electric baseboards.
It can also eliminate the need for a conventional air conditioner and reduce your household's environmental footprint if you're replacing a heating unit that uses natural gas, propane or furnace oil.
"Heat pumps are great because they provide that year-round, efficient cooling in the summer and heating in the winter," said Susie Rieder, a spokeswoman for BC Hydro who uses a heat pump at her own Burnaby, B.C. townhouse.
Rieder, who relied on electric baseboards before getting a heat pump, says her heating bills have declined about 40 per cent since making the switch. In addition, her heat pump negates the need for a separate air conditioning system.
"The summers are getting hotter," Rieder said. "Especially in places like the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, you see a lot of people using those portable air conditioners -- which can be pretty inefficient and costly. So getting a heat pump installed can really be helpful there as well."
Many public utilities, such as BC Hydro, are encouraging heat pump adoption as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and many homeowners who have made the switch say they'll never go back.
But in general, Canadian adoption has been slow. According to Natural Resources Canada, there are only about 700,000 installed air-source heat pumps in this country. By contrast, 35 per cent of Canadian households, or 5.1 million homes, are currently heated with natural gas furnaces.
A recent survey by BC Hydro found a general lack of knowledge among homeowners about heat pumps, with almost a quarter of British Columbians saying they are unlikely to consider installing a heat pump and 30 per cent of those respondents saying the reason is because they do not know enough about the devices.
Part of the problem is that earlier iterations of heat pumps weren't necessarily compatible with the Canadian climate. Because the ability of a heat pump to extract heat from the air declines as the temperature falls, having a backup heat source for harsh winters was often a necessity.
However, that's changed in recent years as heat pump technology has advanced. Geoff Sharman, residential product manager, HVAC, for Mitsubishi Electric Canada, said certain types of heat pumps can now work in temperatures as low as -30 C. (Consumers can also choose ground-source heat pumps, which are more efficient in Canada because they take advantage of warmer and more stable ground temperatures, Natural Resources Canada says.)
"The heat pump market is growing," Sharman said. "Really, (heat pumps) can provide heating for almost any-sized structure in Canada now. And as natural gas prices may rise in the future ... a heat pump can be a good way to go."
The upfront cost of a heat pump can be intimidating, with the average cost to buy and install a system being about $7,000 for small homes and about $16,000 for larger homes, according to BC Hydro. Experts say the exact type and size of heat pump you'll need will depend on the size of your home, the climate where you live, how well your home is insulated and other factors.
In the same way, how much you might expect to save on your energy bills also varies depending on your local climate, what type of heating/cooling system you currently use, and what size and type of heat pump you buy. There are many online calculators, including one on the Natural Resources Canada website, that can help you estimate your potential cost savings.
Homeowners who make the switch to an electric heat pump from fossil fuel heating (natural gas, propane or oil) can also be eligible for rebates from the federal government, their local utility or province, or their municipality.
BC Hydro, for example, offers up to $3,000 in rebates 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 do need to get a professional involved," Sharman said. "With all the rebates, you may end up paying only 15 to 20 per cent of what your system is worth. Who knows? But you do need that professional to go in there, size it all up, and tell you what programs are applicable to the product you're looking at."
Edmonton homeowner Shelly Robichaud, who replaced her gas furnace with an electric heat pump a couple of years ago, made the decision largely out of a desire to get her house off of natural gas.
She and her husband also have solar panels on their roof and produce their own electricity, with the result being that they're marginally "net positive" on their yearly heating and electricity bills. (Last year, they actually made a $300 profit by selling the excess electricity they generate back onto the grid).
"I have been an environmentalist for as long as I can remember, so honestly that was the major factor in doing this," Robichaud said. "You can come out ahead (financially), though."
"I think with heat pumps, like everything else, people are afraid of new technology," Robichaud added. "It takes the early adopters to go ahead with it first, and then others follow."