BY SHANNON MONEO
For anyone thinking about updating their home heating, there’s much to consider. Rebates, the environment, costs, standards and even finding skilled tradespeople are all factors. Victoria isn’t Inuvik or Phoenix, but climate, by its nature, is unpredictable, so reliability — for the long term — is key.
As technology advances and fossil fuel use declines, choices around home heating systems are much different than a few decades ago.
When FortisBC brought natural gas to the province in 2002, there was a successful push to attract customers, many of them switching from fuel oil or electricity. Propane is another option, and solar and wind systems, with their heavy upfront costs, attract a minority. Wood burning remains confined to rural areas.
According to Natural Resources Canada (2015), about 50 per cent of the energy used in a household goes towards heating. With no cooling of costs, the “how” is becoming increasingly important.
Of late, Victoria-area homeowners seem pumped about heat pumps, often the type that uses heat in the air to either cool down or heat up a home. The manager of Gaslight Heat Services says the company had sporadic calls from sub-contractors before COVID-19 hit.
“Now we’re running two teams,” says Jennifer Culley.
The teams are HVAC specialists, who are trained to install heating, ventilation and air-conditioning. Heat pump installations are by far the most requested service.
Heat pump popularity
Why have heat pumps suddenly become flavour of the month? According to BC Hydro spokesperson Kyle Donaldson, heat pumps can be 300 per cent more energy efficient and are less expensive to operate than electric baseboard heaters or natural gas heating — and they can also cool a home.
Heat pumps do not create heat — they work by transferring air from the air, ground or even water, and use a refrigerant that circulates between the indoor fan coil (air handler) unit and the outdoor compressor to transfer the heat.
In cooling mode, a heat pump absorbs heat inside your home and releases it outdoors. In heating mode, the heat pump absorbs heat from the ground or outside air (even cold air) and releases it indoors.
Sounds simple, but there are several considerations.
Culley recommends doing plenty of research and not to get lost in the public relations campaigns. “There’s a big battle between gas and electricity right now,” she says. “You really have to compare them.”
Most heat pumps use electricity, but according to a FortisBC spokesperson, the company is running a pilot program to test gas heat pumps in homes.
“Gas heat pumps have the potential to cut the energy needed for space and water heating by up to 50 per cent, lower GHG emissions and operate in colder winter conditions,” says Holly Harrison.
Heat pumps should last about 20 years. But for them to be most effective, homes need to be well insulated.
Noise from the units can be a concern. Donaldson says outdoor units aren’t noisier than a rain shower and indoor units can be even quieter. Space requirements are minimal.
But heat pumps come with caveats, according to a University of Victoria adjunct professor. When a product begins to enjoy unfettered popularity, there’s a risk of unintended consequences, says Andrew Pape-Salmon, who teaches in the civil engineering department. If the lauded cost savings aren’t as robust as promoted and if those who install the systems are not properly trained and accredited, public confidence will wane, he says.
Culley notes that it takes about four years of training to be well qualified at heat pump installation. Standards for the industry have not been well developed.
And while she appreciates an office warmed by a heat pump, Culley notes that some systems are not as cost-effective as touted.
Other home heating choices include high-efficiency gas furnaces or hot water heat (using natural gas-fuelled boilers that heat water that’s distributed via hidden floor pipes), which would be an expensive reno project.
The final word goes to Donaldson: “Each home is different. The comparison between heating systems can depend on the system installed, the size of the home, the number of occupants, where the home is in B.C. and how well insulated the home is.”
Upgrade rebates and grants
Federal, provincial, municipal and even manufacturer rebates and grants are available for various home heating upgrades. Here are a few resources:
Natural Resources Canada – nrcan.gc.ca
Better Homes BC – betterhomesbc.ca
FortisBC – fortisbc.com/rebates-and-energy-savings
BC Hydro – bchydro.com/powersmart
In colder months, heat pumps can be 300 per cent more energy efficient and are less expensive to operate than electric baseboard heaters or natural gas heating.
Know your heat pumps
The two most common type of heat pumps are air-source and ground-source (geothermal). Air-source transfers heat between indoor and outdoor air. Geothermal transfers heat between inside air and the ground outside. But geothermal pumps carry a high installation price, roughly $30,000 to install because of Greater Victoria’s rocky terrain.
An air-source system costs between $10,000 to $20,000 to install but can be more depending on square footage and the system being replaced. Within the air-source heat pump category, “ducted” air-source heat pumps use ducts to move air. A “ductless” heat pump (also called mini-split) uses the same principles to heat and cool air, but the outdoor unit is connected to indoor heads that are installed in the home.
Other types include underwater/underground heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps and even cold climate heat pumps.