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How heat pumps measure up against cold climates in B.C.

Dave chats with Todd Bedry, Residential Technical Advisor for Mitsubishi, about how heat pumps work, how heat pump technology is improving, and how they're able to heat even in cold climates.

Year-round comfort offered by systems designed for colder temperatures

We get a lot of questions about the practicality of heat pumps in colder areas of the province. Here's some basic information about the technology, along with some things to consider if you're in a cold part of B.C. and wondering whether now is the time – with heat pump rebates available – to make the switch.

Not all heat pumps are designed for extreme cold

A heat pump is an efficient way of heating and cooling your home, powered by electricity. It takes heat from the air outside your home and moves it indoors, and in summer,  it works like an air conditioner to pump heat out of your home.

While typical heat pumps are efficient to lows of -8°C, there are models that can work in temperatures down to -30°C. Recent advances in technology have created the ability for these cold climate heat pumps to be effective in all but a few of the chilliest days in some of the coldest areas of B.C.

Did you know? If you currently have a gas furnace, switching to an electric heat pump powered by clean electricity will lower your greenhouse gas emissions by around two tonnes per year.

Learn more about how heat pumps work

Today's heat pumps work in colder temperatures

It may seem counterintuitive, but there's heat in the air even as winter sets in and temperatures plummet to -10°C and below. The knock on heat pumps is that earlier versions often worked efficiently only in milder climates. But technology improvements have changed that.

Today's cold climate heat pumps are designed to be efficient in temperatures as low as -30°C . In fact, a study by the Yukon's Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources found some systems were capable of 200% efficiency at -18°C.

Extreme cold? Supplemental heating is a must

We're often asked how homeowners with cold climate heat pumps can survive periods of intense cold below temperatures of -25°C to -30°C. In those temperatures, heat pumps may need to be backed up by a supplemental heat source.

One supplemental option is an all-electric set-up in which a heat pump is backed up by electric heaters within the system and/or with electric baseboards. This type of set up will keep your home comfortable on the coldest days and your greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum.

In really cold temperatures, how costly is a heat pump?

In most locations and circumstances in B.C., a properly sized and installed heat pump will save you money on your year-round home energy bills compared to electric baseboard, propane, or fuel oil systems. Even if costs spike during a period of extremely low temperatures where supplemental electric heat is needed, the savings for the balance of the year should outweigh any additional costs for that period.

If you've switched from a gas furnace to a cold climate heat pump, expect that your monthly electricity bills will be higher than they used to be. But you'll no longer have a gas heating bill, and your home's fossil fuel emissions will be dramatically cut.

Your heat pump is also a system for all seasons that provides efficient summer cooling.

Use our heat pump incentives guide to learn about available rebates and emissions savings for switching to a heat pump in your home.

Heat pumps are far more efficient than the most efficient gas furnace

Today's heat pumps are generally 250% to 400% efficient with each unit of electricity that goes into the system's operation producing 2.5 to four times the amount for heating. Compare this to natural gas furnaces which range from about 50% efficiency to 98% for the most efficient models and produce just one unit of heat per unit of energy.

The overall efficiency with which heat is transferred by a heat pump is called its Coefficient of Performance (COP) or Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER). Both terms mean essentially the same thing and reflect the ratio of useful heating or cooling provided by the input power. For example, if a heat pump used 1 kW of electrical energy to transfer 3 kW of heat, the COP would be 3.

Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) and Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) are terms used to rate a heat pump's heating and cooling efficiency over a season and don't generally apply to the coldest areas of B.C. The higher a heat pump's HSPF rating – typically based on climate zone 4 (Lower Mainland, southern Vancouver Island) – the more efficient it is at heating. The higher a SEER rating – which is based on regions with an average summer temperature of 28°C – the more efficient it is at cooling. This means that cold climate units which typically have a high HSPF will operate very efficiently in all climate regions of B.C., resulting in lower heating costs even when temperatures are more mild.

Ducted or ductless? It depends on your home

A central ducted heat pump distributes heat and cool air through ductwork connected to vents in each room, similar to how a furnace distributes heated air. Those ducts can be part of a new home build, can be pre-existing in homes heated by gas or electric furnaces, or can be part of a renovation.

Ductless mini-split and multi-split heat pumps distribute heat without using ducting. Wall-mounted indoor heads provide zonal heating to the rooms in which the heads are installed.

Which one is for you? Use a qualified heat pump specialist to assess options – preferably a Program Registered Contractor – to provide you with the most effective heat pump for your home. In general, ductless systems often suit small homes and/or homes built without ducting.

Central ducted systems tend to be more expensive to install than ductless mini-split systems. On average, you can expect to pay around $6,000 for a single head heat pump, $10,000 for a multi-head unit, and $14,000 for a variable speed central system. Cold climate heat pumps cost more, with central ducted systems typically costing between $15,000 to $20,000.

And remember, those costs can be cut considerably when you choose heat pumps that qualify for rebates in B.C. Learn more about available rebates of up to $11,000 for homes switching from fossil fuel heating to a heat pump, or up to $7,000 for those switching from electric baseboards when combined with the federal Greener Homes program.

Not convinced? Heat pumps are big in northern Europe

You may know Norway as the country where electric cars are more popular than in any other country. But government incentives – similar to rebates offered in B.C. – have helped make heat pumps a popular option for home space heating and cooling in Norway.

In fact, there are 604 heat pumps for every 1,000 households in Norway. Average mid-winter low temperatures in the country's three largest cities hover between 0°C and -7°C, and cold snaps can send temperatures to -10°C to -20°C.

While those Norwegian cities are generally colder than Vancouver and Victoria, they're comparable in temperature to several B.C. Interior cities such as Kamloops and Revelstoke. Mid-winter lows in B.C. cities including Kamloops and Prince George, however, can dip below -20°C and occasionally – such as this record-setting past winter – to -30°C or colder. It's in communities like these that cold climate heat pumps with backup electric heat are required to guard against days where heat pumps can no longer operate efficiently.

The transition to heat pumps in Norway couldn't have happened without technology upgrades that make heat pumps more effective in lower temperatures. And while Norway's heat pump adoption rate is the highest of any country, the four other countries with the highest adoption rates in Europe – Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Estonia – are also all in northern Europe.