What’s Hot (and Cool) in Energy Efficiency: Heat Pumps

In the quest for more sustainable, more energy-efficient homes, there have been several advances. One of the most talked about innovations is a newer technology to our part of the world, in Calgary.

If you haven’t heard about heat pumps, we promise you will soon.

Air-sourced heat pumps (or simply ‘heat pumps’) are a complementary technology designed to significantly reduce the annual run time of your furnace – and provide air conditioning in summer months.

In fact, installing a heat pump can improve your furnace’s energy efficiency by up to 400%!

Once considered viable only in warmer climates, this technology is being increasingly adopted throughout the Scandinavian countries and the northern US States. We’re seeing more and more installations among Calgarians seeking to minimize their carbon footprints.

What is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is an add-on that dramatically improves your furnace’s energy efficiency. But in addition to heating your home in the winter, it can also cool it in the summer – and replace the need for an air conditioner.

Heat pumps don’t rely on natural gas. They are electric appliances. The appeal is that they are 4X (400%) more efficient than even the most energy-efficient natural gas furnaces.

What makes heat pumps so efficient is that they move heat rather than generate it through combustion or resistance heating.

Essentially, they use one unit of energy to move four units of heating energy from the ambient outside air (regardless of outside temperature) into your home to heat it.

Heat pumps reduce your furnace’s run time.

Heat pumps work best when the temperature hits 0°C and above. In winter climates like Calgary’s, you can still run your heat pump at temperatures below zero, but the efficiency advantage will be reduced the colder it gets. For example, when outdoor temperature drops below -20°C you may only get a 2X to 1.5X efficiency gain (versus 4X in the warmer months).

This is only a minor concern. Because over 50% of your furnace usage happens when the temperature exceeds 0°C. This means you are still saving a huge amount of energy and doing your part to fight the impacts of climate change!

Did you know? Heat pumps can also be used in conjunction with other technologies, such as solar panels, to further reduce energy consumption.

How do Heat Pumps work?

A heat pump looks like an air conditioner and works in a very similar way. It heats or cools a space by moving heat from one environment to another.

Heating Mode

In heating mode, a heat pump extracts heat from the outside air, the ground or water – and transfers it to the indoor space. This is done by circulating a Refrigerant gas/ liquid through a closed-loop system, aided by a compressor.

The Refrigerant enters the condenser (outside the home) at a temperature below the outside temperature and absorbs heat from the environment. This causes the Refrigerant to change state from liquid to gas within the condenser.

The gas is then passed through by a compressor, which increases its temperature and pressure. The hot gas is then circulated through a coil inside the indoor unit, which transfers heat into the coil inside the home and indirectly into the indoor air. Through this process, the gas cools and returns to its liquid state, and the cycle repeats.

Cooling Mode

In cooling mode, the process is reversed. The heat pump extracts heat from the indoor air and releases it outside. The refrigerant flows in the opposite direction through the system, absorbing heat from the indoor air and then releasing it to the outside environment through the compressor and outdoor coil.

Myth: Heat pumps aren’t made for cold weather climates

At one time this was true. However, the technology has come a long way. Modern heat pumps can efficiently heat a home even when the temperature drops below -10°C. In fact, they will provide dependable performance at temperatures exceeding -30°C.

This is why we are starting to see this technology take hold in winter countries.

Heat pumps are widely used in Sweden, Norway, and Finland – countries with winter climates very similar to Canada. According to one analysis, it was shown that the average homeowner in Maine (known for its cool winters) could rely on heat pumps.

What Does a Heat Pump Cost?

As a newer ‘green’ technology, heat pumps have a higher upfront cost than traditional gas furnaces. The total cost (installed) can be around $8,500 and requires a compatible furnace.

Not all high-efficiency furnaces are compatible, so adopting this technology may require a new furnace.**

While that sounds like a lot of money, over time there are significant heating savings and reduced carbon footprint. Especially if paired with renewal electrical energy sources.

The good news is that many air-sourced heat pumps qualify for up to $5,000 cash-back, plus a $40,000 interest-free loan that can be paid back over 10 years through the Canada Greener Homes Grant. This is a national program to fight climate change by promoting energy efficiency.

Also, with significant energy savings on your utility bill, a heat pump will slowly pay for itself.

For Those Committed to Sustainable Living

Heat pumps are becoming increasingly in vogue among those taking real steps to reduce their environmental impacts through alternative technology. It is an investment in a cleaner future that will slowly pay off through increased energy savings.

Advantages of a Heat Pump

  1. A furnace and AC unit in one: Provides hot or cool air on demand.
  2. Drastically reduces annual furnace run time.
  3. Increases heating efficiency by 400%! Reducing your carbon footprint.
  4. Lower utility costs: Can save consumers hundreds a year.
  5. Eligible for cost savings programs: Including the Canada Greener Homes grant (up to $5,000).
  6. When paired with Solar Panels, you can heat and cool your home at significantly reduced (or no) cost for certain months of the year.

Disadvantages of a Heat Pump

  1. Higher upfront costs (which can be offset by grants).
  2. May require an upgrade to an electrical panel.*
  3. Best paired with newer furnaces.**


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* This is similar to an electrical upgrade required to install an air conditioning unit. If you already have AC in your home, you will not require any electrical upgrade.

** A heat pump will work most effectively with a newer, high-efficiency furnace. If you have an older model, it makes sense to upgrade your furnace at the same time that a heat pump is installed.