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Life with a heat pump in a time of heat domes, big chills

Winter view of a heat pump on the side of a rural home
Heat pumps are sometimes placed on elevated platforms to keep them free of snow in colder parts of B.C. They provide cooling in the summer, and some models can operate efficiently at temperatures as low as-25°C in winter.

British Columbians lean on heat pumps for efficiency and year-round comfort

For years, Barbara MacDonald had come to rely on breezes from a nearby lake to cool her Victoria home. But then the infamous heat dome of late June 2021 hit, and she discovered that the only places she could stay cool were in movie theatres or in the homes of others.

And those other homes were cooled by heat pumps.

"I have three friends who have had heat pumps installed, and they all love them," says MacDonald. "And during the heat dome I visited another home with a heat pump and the house was nice and cool. I thought 'Ooh, this is awesome!'. It was time to invest in a heat pump, because this is the way of the future."

By August, MacDonald had done her homework and, using the same HVAC contractor her friends had raved about, had a ductless heat pump installed in her home. Most of the work was done in a day, with the contractor returning for an hour or two the following day to complete the install.

"The outdoor unit is just out on my balcony, and the installer was able to run the lines a short distance to where the inside head is located," says MacDonald. "It took just one little hole in the wall, and it all looks tidy. It looks neat. I didn't need all this stuff running around the outside of the house."

Upfront costs made more affordable with available rebates

For electrically-heated homes looking to install a heat pump, combined BC Hydro and federal rebates of up to $7,000 are available. MacDonald had a relatively straightforward heat pump installation with just a single vent (head) inside the home. The final cost? Just $4,000 after rebates were factored in. 

Factors affecting cost include the type of heat pump, the size and air tightness of a home, and the number of heads required.

On average, a mini-split ductless system can cost between $6,000 and $10,000. Costs increase as more indoor heads are installed to meet your home’s heating needs, which typically depends on the size of your home. You can expect to pay around $14,000 for a variable speed central system and between $15,000 and $20,000 for a cold climate heat pump. However, costs can vary depending on the size and design of your home, any upgrades needed to existing ducting, or electric service upgrades to meet your heating needs.

For those who are switching from fossil fuel heating (oil, propane, or natural gas) to an electric heat pump, the combined CleanBC, BC Hydro and federal rebates can add up to as much as $11,000. Being powered by clean hydroelectricity means heat pumps produce 97% less greenhouse gas emissions than a high-efficiency natural gas furnace.

A 2018 Capital Regional District study done on oil furnace-to-heat pump conversions in the Victoria area found that the average cost was $12,000 before rebates. That same survey also found that 97% of those customers said they'd buy a heat pump again, and 81% were satisfied or happy with their energy bills after a heat pump was installed.

Did you know? Unlike other heating and cooling systems, which convert fuel or electricity directly into heat, a heat pump moves heat from one place to another. That makes heat pumps up to 300% efficient, which means they can produce three times more thermal energy than the amount of energy required to operate them. That makes them up to three times as efficient as electric baseboards, and more than three times as efficient as high-efficiency natural gas furnaces.

Learn about our Heat Pump 101 livestream event and the 2-for-1 BC Home + Garden Show offer.

Heat pump was more than a match for an icy December

The year 2021 turned out to be the ultimate test of home comfort for British Columbians, with record highs set during the late-June heat dome and record lows set only a few months later in December. MacDonald found that during the coldest days of December, at temperatures as low as -8°C, her heat pump more than kept up. And she was surprised that her bedroom – located farthest away from the heat pump head on the 1,400-square foot main floor – was warm throughout the cold snap.

"Even on the coldest day, it stayed comfortable in here," she says. "I had it set for a while at 21 degrees, but it was actually too hot for my liking, so I lowered it to 20°C and was really happy with it. With the doors left open, both bathrooms stayed warm too.

MacDonald had heard that some heat pump owners, mainly those with older models, had some concerns around the noise levels of the units. So she worked with the contractor to find the quietest possible option, selecting one with a low decibel (dB) rating.

"The first few times it turned on, I noticed it, but I don't notice it at all anymore," she says.

What kind of heat pump is right for your home?

One thing we should get out of the way is the myth that many areas of B.C. are too cold for heat pumps to run efficiently. The truth is that you can get heat pumps in B.C. that operate in temperatures as low as -25°C. These heat pumps have a higher HSPF (Heating Season Performance Factor), which is how heat pump efficiency is measured. If you live in an area that frequently gets below -15°C, your contractor may recommend having a supplementary heating system.

We also have a variety of resources that cover the basics of heat pumps:

Which incentives are available for you? Use the guide

Our new calculator can give you an idea of which rebates are available for your home type and the heat pump that works best for your situation.

See our heat pump incentive guide

Heat pump experts will help you get it done right

For years BC Hydro has educated contractors on industry best practices for insulation and heat pump installation. They’re called Program Registered Contractors and they know all there is to know about installing heat pumps and ensuring your upgrades meet the Home Renovation Rebate Program requirements.

2-for-1 tickets to BC Home + Garden Show, plus a livestream event

BC Hydro's community teams will be on hand to help answer your questions about heat pumps and more during a March 24 Heat Pump 101 livestream event. And you can also chat with them at a variety of home and garden shows around B.C.

Get your 2-for-1 tickets to the BC Home + Garden Show in Vancouver.

Here's the list of home and garden shows across B.C. where you can chat to BC Hydro community team members: