Stories & Features

There's more to heat pumps than you might think

Image of heat pumps on the side of a building
Heat pumps can also offer air conditioning functionality – which can be a huge help if your building has windows that can't be opened.

Proper installation, maintenance are key to making a heat pump work for you

Awareness around heat pumps has grown a lot over the last decade – and with good reason. Their ability to efficiently heat and cool buildings by transferring thermal energy gives them two key advantages over traditional systems. When installed and managed properly, they can significantly offset greenhouse gases and carbon emissions while also reducing heating and cooling bills.

But proper installation and management is the key. "I think it's a bit premature to assume that replacing your current heating equipment with a heat pump is as straightforward as replacing it with similar equipment" says Christian Cianfrone, Executive Director of ZEBx, the Vancouver-based zero emissions building exchange. "There are differences in how this equipment works compared to electric or gas heating equipment; careful design, installation and maintenance is critical to realize all of the benefits."

So if you've been considering moving your business over to heat pump technology for space and water heating, here are some of the things you should be aware of:

Heat pumps don't just provide heat

Heat pumps are not only heating devices that can replace your electric or gas heating system, they can also add air conditioning to a building at the same time. This is attractive for buildings that currently do not have air-conditioning as we face increasingly hotter and smokier summers where opening windows may no longer be enough or safe.

Heat Pumps can be more expensive to install. "In order to mitigate those up front costs and space requirements, you also need to figure in load reduction measures," says Cianfrone. "Consider reducing your heating and cooling load so that when you do invest in this better technology, you're doing it at a scale that's more manageable, and more cost effective."

Your savings will depend on your current system

If your current system is powered by electricity, then a heat pump is potentially going to offer some significant savings on bills, along with reducing your energy usage. However, if your current system is all natural gas, or a hybrid, understanding fuel costs is critical to determining your financial savings. Regardless, a switch to further electrify in an efficient manner will have significant greenhouse gas and carbon emission reductions. Whether a heat pump is the right choice for your company comes down to your values and priorities, along with how well it can integrate with your existing system.

Integration challenges

"Many people believe that you can just replace a boiler with a heat pump, but it's not a straightforward swap" says Cianfrone. "Historically, many heat pump installations included gas back-up systems, and when the heat pump didn't work as designed, the gas system would do most of the work, negating the heat pump benefits. Ensuring proper installation and maintenance is key."

Vladimir Mikler, a Principal with Integral Group, recommends particular caution on integrating with older hydronic-based systems: "A heat pump can't generate the capacity needed to maintain high water temperatures and so with lower temperatures, the distribution and terminal parts of the system may need upgrading too."

There are some replacement scenarios with less challenges, such as roof-top units, says Cianfrone: "While there are some different considerations for design and installation, replacement of roof top units with heat pump versions is typically more straightforward."

Other types of thermal energy transfer

If a conventional air or geo-based heat pump won't efficiently integrate with your current system, there are other options to explore. Eight years ago, Lynn Mueller realized that with four children, his household was flushing away a lot of hot water every day. He wondered if there was a way to capture and reuse that heat. Fast forward to today and Sharc Energy Systems, based in Port Coquitlam is a world leader in reusing heat from waste water and sewage. "We're 500% efficient," he says, "Sharc basically recycles the same energy day after day, so for every dollar you spend on heating, you get $5 back."

The statistics speak for themselves: In a 1,050-unit apartment complex, a Sharc system was able to save 700k tons of carbon a year. In a large hotel, recovering heat from waste washing machine water saved over $30k a year. And in a 170,000 sq ft office building, Sharc systems reduced heating costs by 85%, and cooling costs by 35%.

Are heat pumps right for your business?

"We need heat pumps. There's no question about it. But we also need to be mindful that they are a unique technology. Businesses need to ensure they're consulting with qualified personnel," says Cianfrone. "Successful applications are the ones that balance mitigation measures and heat pump technology in combination."

For new buildings, heat pumps are rapidly becoming the standard. "The market is shifting fairly quickly, with The City of Vancouver leading the transformation by changing their bylaws to focusing on carbon reduction. It's no longer optional for new building projects to consider these technologies," says Mikler.

As with all new technology, there are learning curves. So while heat pumps are definitely a huge step forwards, it's definitely worth seeking advice from an expert to ensure that the huge step you take is in the right direction.

What incentives are available?

Whether you're renovating a commercial building or building a new one, you can find the latest information on incentives for electric heat pumps (and a whole range of other energy efficient products) at EfficiencyBC.ca. It's quick and easy to configure your exact requirements and see every relevant incentive or program currently available.

Who should I talk to first?

As well as the latest incentive and program information, EfficiencyBC.ca also features an excellent FAQ section covering a wide range of topics, packed with plenty of useful resources for you to start exploring the best options for your business.