Considering a heat pump? Info and tips

Heat pump explanation graphic

Heating our homes accounts for the most energy use on our utility bills and more people are looking for cooling options than ever before. Heat pumps can be very efficient at heating and cooling.

Before you make the choice to install a heat pump, take a look at this information to help determine if it's the best choice for your home.

Also, print out this list of questions [PDF, 39 KB] to ensure you're asking your contractor for the right information before you purchase.

A heat pump is an efficient form of heating and cooling powered by electricity that moves heat from one place to another. Heat pumps can also have a backup electric or gas heating system that will activate under when it's very cold outside.

Heat pumps are a great option in B.C. if you’re hoping to reduce your GHG or carbon footprint. BC Hydro generates clean electricity, so it can be a way to reduce your reliance on fossil fuels.

There are two main types of heat pumps:

Air-source heat pump Ground source heat pump
An air source heat pump (ASHP) takes heat from the outside air and moves it indoors. Even at a low temperature there's enough ambient heat in the outside air to allow the heat pump to work efficiently.

However, at lower temperatures, the backup heating system may be used, making the heat pump significantly less efficient.
A ground source heat pump (GSHP) uses fluid which is pumped through pipes in the ground to recover or reject the heat from outside. Using the ground as the heat source is beneficial as the temperature is very constant throughout the year. However, a ground source heat pump requires much higher up-front costs to install.

Consult your contractor when determining the right system for installation in your home.


If you're considering an air-source heat pump, there are different types, each offering different benefits depending on your home and your needs:

  • Ductless: A ductless or mini-split heat pump is comprised of an outdoor compressor and one or more heads typically mounted inside near the ceiling of larger rooms and connected to the compressor by a hidden refrigerant line. While one outdoor compressor can service more than one head and hence more of your home, the system efficiency typically goes down with each additional head added to a compressor.
  • Central: A central heat pump has an outdoor compressor connected to an indoor unit such as a furnace and uses ducts to move warm or cool air throughout the home. The existing ductwork in a home is typically not sized for the air temperature produced by a heat pump, which is normally not as hot as the air produced by a furnace. Ducting may therefore require some modification if possible to ensure best possible heat pump operation.
  • Mini-ducted: A mini-ducted heat pump essentially uses ductless technology with an outside compressor connected to one or more indoor heads by a refrigerant line. Some ducts are then installed and connected to a hidden head, usually in the attic that run to small vents in two or more rooms.

The more efficient the system, the more electricity you'll save over time. Systems with a variable speed compressor are more efficient and a higher HSPF rating is better. Cold climate units are the most efficient and perform great in more mild climates of B.C.

Heating

Because heat pumps are efficient, they can be a great choice for improved heating and comfort. But there's a few things you should consider.

  • If temperatures in your region are consistently below -7° Celsius, your heat pump's electric or gas backup heating system will likely be activated to keep your home warm. This typically means higher heating costs.
  • Before selecting a heat pump, consider whether you should undergo any renovations such as insulation upgrades that will affect your heating and cooling needs. Improvements to your insulation, windows and draftproofing will reduce how much heat your home requires, and that means you may be able to select a smaller heat pump to meet your needs.

Cooling

With the exception of a few hot spots, most places in B.C. don't require much in the way of home cooling. Prioritize your heating needs instead, and your system will be more than capable of meeting your cooling needs.

  • Using your heat pump for cooling purposes can increase your electricity use. If you don't currently use an air conditioning unit or central air, adding a heat pump that operates to keep things cool could significantly increase your electricity costs.

Saving money

Other considerations:

  • Think about your existing heating system. If you have a gas furnace, and you switch to an electrically-operated heat pump, your gas bill may decrease, but your electricity bill will go up.
  • If you currently heat with gas or oil, you may require an electrical system upgrade to allow for the electrical load of the heat pump. That means your up-front installation costs may be higher.

If your home is currently:

Heated by electric baseboards

  • A ductless or mini-split system is probably the best solution for you.
  • The size and configuration of your home will determine how much of your heating needs can be met by the heat pump, but a high efficiency unit can often meet 70% or more of a home’s heating needs.
  • Smaller homes with more open designs will normally see the best results.

Heated by a central gas, oil or electric furnace

  • A central system that uses existing ducts would be better for you for convenience, however remember existing ductwork may need to be modified. A ductless system could also be an option for smaller homes and may provide higher energy savings as these units are often more efficient.
  • If you're switching from gas or oil heat, your electric bill will go up significantly while your gas or oil bill will decrease. While fuel prices vary, gas is typically cheaper than electricity per unit of heat produced, while oil is typically more expensive. The more efficient the heat pump you install, the less electricity it will use.

Depending on what's most important to you, you'll need to consider different types of heat pumps.

I want to…to minimize upfront costs

  • Consider a central ducted system, which is typically integrated with a gas or electric furnace for back up heat if required.
  • The existing ductwork in a home is typically not sized for the air temperature produced by a heat pump, which is normally not as hot as the air produced by a furnace. Ducting may require some modification if possible to ensure best possible operation.
  • Temperature control is via a single central thermostat.

I want to… control the heat in each room separately

  • If this is your main criteria, you'll need to look at a ductless system.
  • Temperature is normally controlled through a remote control for each head, though a traditional thermostat can be installed for some systems.
  • Smaller homes with open floor plans are ideal for these systems.
  • Depending on the size and configuration of your house, a ductless heat pump may not be able to meet all of your home's heating needs, requiring baseboard heaters as a back-up or ancillary heat source.

I need to… operate in colder climates and cooler outdoor temperatures

  • If you live in a colder part of B.C., you'll want to look at a ductless system and consider a cold climate heat pump. They can operate from -5°C to -25°C, depending on the model and manufacturer.

Congratulations on installing a heat pump. It's important to ensure your system is maintained well so that it performs efficiently.

Here are some tips to help you upkeep your unit.