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What’s a heat pump and how does it work?

A heat pump is an energy-efficient alternative to other types of home heating systems, such as a natural gas furnace or electric baseboards. Plus, a heat pump can provide both efficient heating and cooling to help keep your home comfortable year-round.

This page is your one stop shop for all things heat pumps, including:

How a heat pump works

A heat pump uses electricity to move heat from one place to another. In the winter, it pulls warm air from outside and moves it indoors to heat your home. In the summer, it acts like an air conditioner by moving warm air outside while circulating cool air inside your home. 

Dave and Jaclyn explain the different types of air-source heat pumps and which one might be right for you based on your housing type

Benefits of a heat pump

They heat and cool: This means you can get efficient heating and cooling in one and eliminate the need for portable or central air conditioning. 

They’re powered by water: Heat pumps are a great option in B.C. because they’re powered by clean, hydroelectricity. This means that if you currently rely on fossil fuels (natural gas, propane or oil) for heating and switch to a heat pump, you’ll be reducing your household’s environmental footprint.

You can set it and forget it: Unlike other heating systems, a heat pump works best if you don’t adjust the temperature. See our tips for using and maintaining a heat pump. 

They’re more efficient than electric baseboards: Because heat pumps don’t actually generate heat  – rather, they move warm and cool air around – they’re up to 300% more efficient than electric baseboards. They’re also up to 50% more energy efficient for cooling compared to a typical window AC unit. 

You can save with rebates: If you currently have fossil-fuel heating (natural gas, propane or oil) and make the switch to an electric heat pump, you could be eligible for rebates from BC Hydro, CleanBC and the federal government.

If you currently have electric heat, rebates are available from our Home Renovation Rebate program, in partnership with CleanBC.

Which heat pump is right for you?

So, you want to get a heat pump but aren’t sure which type is best to go with. In B.C., an air-source heat pump (ASHP) is the best option. These take heat from the outside air and move it indoors. 

But do you go with a mini-split or a central system? Watch Dave and Jaclyn explain the difference and which is best for certain housing types. We recommend contacting a program registered contractor who can help you make your final selection and determine if any upgrades to your home are required before installation.

Dave and Jaclyn explain the different types of air-source heat pumps and which one might be right for you based on your housing type.

Learn more about the types of air-source heat pumps below. 

  •  A mini-split heat pump system is good alternative to electric baseboards as they’re simple to install and don’t require ducting. 
  • 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.
  • Temperature is normally controlled using a remote control for each head, though a traditional thermostat can be installed for some systems.
  • A central heat pump system that uses your existing ducting is a good option for you, just note that your ducting may require some modification. 
  • A heat loss calculation will help determine the right unit size heat pump for your home.
  • Temperature control is via a single central thermostat.
  • A ductless system could also be an option for smaller homes and may provide higher energy savings as these units are often more efficient.

Learn more about the types of air source heat pumps below. 

Types of air-source heat pumps 

  • Mini-split heat pump: Mini-split heat pumps (also known as ductless heat pumps) don’t require ducting. They feature an outdoor unit that gathers heat from the air and transfers it via refrigerant lines to one or more heads mounted inside, offering multi-zone heating or cooling. Mini split systems are easy to install but can become less efficient with each head that you add.
  • Central heat pump: A central heat pump has an outdoor unit connected to an indoor unit and uses ducts to move warm or cool air throughout the home. 
  • Ducted mini-split heat pump: Ducted mini-split heat pumps work in the same way as mini-splits except that they also feature a hidden head (usually in the attic) with ducting running to vents in two or more rooms.

Other things to consider when getting a heat pump

Your heating load is the amount of heating that your home needs - largely based on your home’s size - in order to maintain the indoor temperature at established levels. If you’re buying and installing a heat pump in B.C., and you want to be eligible for a rebate, it needs to be your primary heating system, with the capacity to heat a minimum of 50% of your home to 21ºC for the entire heating season.

To decide which system would be most suitable, ask your contractor to do a heat load analysis of your home. They can also help you to select a heat pump from our list of rebate-eligible products.

If you’ve read about different types of heat pumps, you’ll also want to consider how efficient your heat pump needs to be - especially to be eligible for a rebate.

There are multiple factors that can affect efficiency, such as:

  • Your heat pump’s HSPF rating (higher is more efficient at heating)
  • Your heat pump’s SEER rating (higher is more efficient at cooling)
  • How well insulated your home is
  • How air-tight and correctly sized your ducting is (if you’re considering a central heat pump)
  • How well you maintain your heat pump and how often you adjust the setting
  • How well your system has been installed

You’ll also need to choose which type of compressor you want. Heat pumps with variable speed compressors are more efficient than those with single-speed or two-speed compressors.

While you’ll typically pay a higher upfront cost for a heat pump with a variable speed compressor, the higher efficiency means it’ll use less electricity and cost less to run than a less efficient single-speed or two-speed model.

To be eligible for a rebate from BC Hydro and CleanBC, your heat pump can be either a mini split or central unit, but it must have a variable speed compressor. 

Like any heating system, the more insulated your home is, the more efficient your heat pump will be. If you live in an older home, you also may want to consider upgrading your home’s insulation to help you get the most out of your new heat pump.

If you’re going to perform insulation upgrades, do this before getting your heat load analysis so you can accurately determine the size of the heat pump you need. Proper insulation may even enable you to install a smaller, less expensive system.

If you’re looking to install a central heat pump and have a home with existing ducting, your contractor will be able to determine if it’ll work with a heat pump, or if changes are required.

If you live in an area outside the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island, you should consider a cold climate-rated heat pump, designed to operate in temperatures as low as -30°C.

Like efficiency, the cost of buying and installing a heat pump can vary greatly, depending on the size of your home and the variable speed system you choose.

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 typically cost between $15,000-$18,000. Heat pump rebates are available from BC Hydro, CleanBC and the federal government.

A Home Performance Contractor Network (HPCN) member can help you understand the best options for your heat pump installation. Start early, as it may take some time to connect with a contractor due to the growing popularity of heat pumps. Not sure what to ask them? Take a look at our list of questions.