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Getting a heat pump? 10 things you should know

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Start by asking the right questions to find a highly-qualified contractor

So you've done some homework and think a heat pump might be a good choice for your B.C. home? Now it's time to choose the right system, get it installed correctly, and learn to use it so that it provides you with both energy savings and comfort.

Here are 10 things you should know (and do) before you add a heat pump system to your home. For more on how to select the right heat pump, see our heat pump information and tips

1. Shop around to find the best contractor and best system for your project

The importance of this step can't be overstated. There are a wide variety of contractors who install heat pumps, and a wide variety of different types of heat pump types and systems available. Some contractors specialize in heat pumps and have extensive training and experience with them, while others may install heat pumps occasionally as part of their general heating and cooling business. Not only should you get multiple quotes, you should also get quotes from contractors who offer different type of systems from different manufacturers so that you understand the options available.

2. To find the right contractor, ask the right questions

Finding the right contractor can seem daunting, so here are a few questions to help make a good choice:

What type of training and experience do you have related to installed heating systems and to heat pumps specifically?

"We highly encourage people to ask whether the contractor they're working with has their technical qualifications," says Gary Hamer, a specialist engineer with BC Hydro. "A heating contractor that's proud of those qualifications will be happy to talk about it."

Hamer doesn't tip-toe around this advice, which he sees as vital to getting the value, efficiency, and comfort you should expect from a major purchase for your home. Hamer suggests that contractors should have completed heating system training through a credible technical institution and additional courses offered by HVAC industry associations such as TECA or HRAI, as well as specialized training from the heat pump manufacturers.

In addition, look for a contractor who regularly installs heats pumps. Contractors who rely on heat pumps for a large part of their business are more likely to have taken specialty heat pump training courses and have the experience to make recommendations and correctly diagnose and fix any issues.

How will you determine the right size of heat pump for my home?

"The contractor should say: 'I'll do a heat-loss analysis of your home', and then he or she should provide an explanation of how they're going to do that. A rule of thumb just doesn't cut it!" says Hamer.

Why is this important? If your heat pump will be the primary heating source in your home, you want to make sure that it's properly sized to meet your heating needs most of time. Improper sizing can lead to comfort issues, reduced system efficiency, and higher maintenance and utility bills. Proper sizing is important for both ductless and ducted systems.

How will you ensure my ducting system is able to effectively distribute the heated air? (If you're planning to use a ducted system)

If you're replacing your existing central oil, gas or electric furnace, not only is the size of the heat pump important but the duct system needs to be evaluated to ensure the ducts are able to deliver the heated air to all your rooms. Ask your contractor about heat pump options that can work with your existing ducts or if alterations to your duct system are required.

Reusing old ductwork may seem like a good idea, but this can lead to problems. Most heat pumps are designed to deliver a higher volume of air than a traditional furnace, which means that older ducts may be too small to effectively circulate air from a heat pump. This mismatch can result in decreased comfort, drafts and insufficient heating. In addition, old ducting may be leaky and poorly designed, which will make your brand new heat pump work harder to supply enough heat and significantly reduce your energy and bill savings.

What other additional costs or work will be required that aren't included in your quote?

Heat pumps may require an upgrade to your electrical panel (especially if you live in an older home that isn't electrically heated) and there will likely be costs to run electrical wires to the outdoor unit as well as permit fees, etc. These costs may or may not be included in the quote provided by your contractor. These 'additional' costs can add up quickly.

Are there any rebates or incentives available for heat pumps? Will the unit you recommend qualify for the rebates?

Your heat pump may qualify for significant manufacturer, utility or other government rebates. A knowledgeable contractor who installs a lot of heat pumps will know about the available rebates and how to qualify. If your contractor isn't aware of this information, this may be a red flag that heat pumps are not a large part of their business.

3. Consider going ductless

We love ductless heat pumps at BC Hydro and so do many of our happy customers for good reason. On average, compared to other types of air source heat pump, ductless systems are typically more efficient and cost effective. They are also quiet, reliable, easy-to-install and provide high levels of comfort. Some even have advanced features such as specialized air filters, occupancy sensors, and sensors that can detect human body temperature. How cool is that?

Even if you have existing duct work in your home, it may be worth getting a quote from a ductless heat pump contractor. Ductless heat pumps can be set-up to provide whole home heating as well as zone specific heating (such as for your bedrooms or a basement suite).

4. Purchase the most efficient system you can – preferably a cold-climate unit

Heating efficiency for heat pumps is measured using the HSPF or Heating Season Performance Factor – the higher the HSPF the better. Ask your contractor about more efficient options, especially units that are designed specifically to operate in colder climates. Hamer has seen heat pump systems for B.C. that are designed to operate as low as -30° C.

"I think anybody can benefit from a cold-climate heat pump – regardless of whether you're in the Lower Mainland or in Prince George – they're just more efficient at pulling heat from the air," says Hamer. While higher efficiency units may be more expensive, their higher price tag will be offset by lower energy use, increased comfort, and are more likely qualify for a utility or government rebates.

5. Look for a quiet unit and make sure it doesn't violate your municipal bylaws

Ask your contractor about the sound ratings of both the outdoor and indoor units. Sound is measured in decibels – the lower the better. Some large outdoor units can be noisy, so pick a quiet unit to avoid annoying your neighbours or getting a noise bylaw violation from your municipality. The sound rating of the indoor unit is also important, especially if you're installing it near sleeping areas.

6. Make sure your home is well sealed and insulated

Prior to installing your heat pump, consider taking the time to seal any air leaks in your home, and if possible, upgrade the insulation. This will reduce your heating needs and may even allow you to use a smaller (and less expensive) heating system. Just make sure you get that work done before a contractor does a heat-loss analysis to determine the size of the heat pump you need.

"If you're planning to renovate your house anyway, your heating system should probably be the last thing you do," says Hamer. If you're upgrading your insulation or windows, don't forget to take advantage of the rebates offered with our Home Renovation Rebate program.

7. Ensure your contractor uses high quality installation practices

Just as important as picking the right system is making sure that the installation of your heat pumps is done correctly and to industry best practices.

Here are a few things to look for:

  • The outdoor unit should be mounted above ground on a stand to prevent seasonal damage from ice and snow build-up
  • The refrigeration lines leading from your outdoor unit should be insulated with foam and covered with a plastic casing to prevent damage
  • The entry point for refrigeration lines into your home should be fully sealed to prevent entry of moisture, pests, and cold air
  • There should be adequate clearance around the outdoor unit to allow sufficient air flow (away from bushes, decks and other structures)

8. Manage your back-up heating system carefully

Most heat pumps are designed to work with a back-up heating system (often electric resistance heating) for colder days when the heat pump isn't able to supply all your heating. Make sure that your back-up heating system, such as electric baseboards, is set to turn on only when you really need it. You may need to do this manually with baseboards that have controls on each heater, or if your back-up system is wired to a central thermostat, make sure that the temperature set point is low enough to allow your heat pump to function as the main heating system most of the time. Your contractor should be able to help you set up your system for optimal function, efficiency and comfort.

9. Set and forget the temperature

In the name of energy conservation, we've trained people to turn down their thermostats whenever their home needs less heat – all day when they're at work, all night when they're asleep. Unfortunately, this good habit can create challenges for heat pump systems, which can revert to less efficient back-up heating to bring the temperature up quickly.

"Generally speaking with heat pumps – particularly central systems – the advice is set and forget," says Hamer. "Set it at a comfortable temperature and allow the equipment to manage itself. If you're going away for a few days, go ahead and set it back a bit, but recognize it may take a while to bring the temperature back up."

10. Clean filters regularly

While check-ups from qualified technicians are a must, regular maintenance is the owner's job. Filters should be checked and cleaned often, depending on the model and specifics of the installation. Your contractor should show you how to check and clean the filter properly as part of the installation. Check your owners' manual.

Once you've done your research, spoken with a contractor, and decided on a heat pump, don't forget to check out our rebates on heat pumps and other energy-efficient home renovation projects.