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A heated conversation on heat pumps

There’s nothing quite like a Canadian winter. Majestic scenery, fun outdoor activities, and brutally cold days that cause your heating bill to skyrocket. Scientists and engineers at Natural Resources Canada believe a promising technology can help reduce your energy consumption, the heat pump. What are heat pumps? How do they work? Why is everyone talking about them? Are they right for you? Listen to find out.


Episode 42 – Heat Pumps

Joel Houle: There's nothing quite like a Canadian winter.

Barb Ustina: The majestic scenery when the trees are weighed down after a fresh blanket of snow.

Joel: The joy of heading outside for super-fun winter activities with your friends and family.

Barb: Those brutally cold days with bright blue skies, brisk winds and squeaky snow.

Joel: What about the cold sweat you break in when you open that heating bill?

Barb: It's no wonder many of us feel the chill when we talk about heating costs. Did you know that close to two-thirds of the energy consumed in Canadian homes is used for heating and cooling?

Joel: That's right, but there might be a warm light at the end of that cold dark tunnel. Scientists and engineers at Natural Resources Canada believe a promising technology can help reduce your energy consumption, the heat pump.

Barb: What are heat pumps? How do they work? Why is everyone talking about them? Are they right for you? Stay tuned to find out.


Joel: Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science, the podcast that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts at Natural Resources Canada are doing. My name is Joel Houle.

Barb: I'm Barb Ustina. Welcome, everyone. We have a really interesting episode for you today. We'll be talking about two things that are near and dear to my heart; staying warm and saving energy.

Joel: Well, that brings up a really interesting question, Barb, how do you stay warm? What kind of heating system do you have in your home?

Barb: Well, you know what? I'm not 100 percent sure, and that's pretty terrible because I should know these things, but we have two giant metal boxes outside and one big old furnace inside. I'm going to say natural gas. What about you?

Joel: Well, you have a really interesting setup there. For us, we have a natural gas furnace at home.

Barb: Have you ever thought about getting a heat pump?

Joel: Oh, that's a good question. To be honest, I don't fully understand heat pumps. Every time I try to do some research on it, it seems like I have more questions than answers. It's one of the reasons why I thought maybe doing a podcast on that subject would be a good idea.

Barb: Yes. We have just the right person today. She really knows her heat pumps. Someone tried to explain it to me years ago by saying a heat pump simply grabs cold air from the outside and brings it in to heat your house. That was years ago, and I'm still confused. I'm sure our guests will do a much better job of explaining things.

Joel: Well, she's going to have fun dealing with our confusion, that's for sure. I'm really looking forward to speaking with our guest. Should we bring her out?

Barb: Yes, let's do it.


Joel: Joining us today is Sneha Bernard. She is the project lead for the LEEP team. Sneha, welcome.

Sneha Bernard: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

Joel: Perfect. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and maybe what a LEEP team is?

Sneha: Sure. I can do that. My name is Sneha Bernard. As you mentioned, I'm a project lead on the Local Energy Efficiency Partnerships team here at NRCan. That's what LEEP stands for. LEEP is a really small team that works in this tech-to-market or innovation adoption space. We help new technologies make it from the lab into the hands of industry. In turn, we bring back industry needs to the lab that helps to guide future research.

Part of our work over the next few years, part of my work is building knowledge tools, resources and guides that facilitate the adoption of heat pumps across Canada and help Canadians transition off fossil fuel space heating for their homes. We try to make sure the industry has the best products and the tools available that they need to size, select and install cost-effective systems and help people stay comfortable in their homes.

My personal background is in engineering. Throughout my career, I've worked in utilities, I've worked in consulting, and designing incentive programs for energy-efficient technology across Ontario. Now I'm at NRCan.

Barb: I'm so glad that you're here with us today because I think many people across the country have questions about heat pumps. We've been talking about them, we've seen them mentioned in the media, but we don't — I'm speaking for myself here now — I don't know a lot about them. Can we just start with the basics a little bit? Can you describe to me maybe a bit about what a heat pump looks like? How does it work?

Sneha: Sure. Yes. I can start with the basics of what a heat pump is. Simply put, a heat pump is a device that transfers heat from one location to another. I think it's a lot easier for people to understand when you think about how your refrigerator or your air conditioner operates, a heat pump really works on very similar principles. In the heating mode, it extracts heat from the outdoor air, what we call the source, and it pumps it into your home, which is what we call the sink, to heat your living space. In the cooling mode, the reverse happens, where the heat pump extracts heat from inside your home and it pumps it to the outside environment, cooling your indoor living space.

In a nutshell, that's how it operates. There's an indoor unit and then there's the outdoor unit typically and there's various different configurations that we can talk more about as well. Heat pumps are definitely much more efficient than traditional furnaces. There are several reasons for that. I think it is most fundamental, it's because you can't capture 100 percent of the energy when you're combusting a fuel for space heating, but heat pumps use energy, so typically electricity to transfer heat from one location to another. For every unit of electrical energy that you're using, the heat output or the heat equivalent can be about two to four times as much. They're much more efficient than traditional furnaces in some ways.

The most common type of heat pump in Canada tends to be air-source heat pumps. I think there's almost 800,000 installs across the country. That's the last stats that I checked. Ground-source heat pumps, commonly called geothermal heat pumps, can also be viable in certain applications. There are many different configurations of heat pumps. There can be the centrally ducted systems that go in your furnace room alternative to a standard forced air furnace, and they connect to your ductwork. There's many splits that condition individual zones or individual rooms and aren't connected to your ductwork.

If you have radiant or in-floor heating, air-to-water systems can be an option too. There's really a lot of configurations and it really depends on the best application for your home and for your needs.

Joel: There seems to be a lot of options when it comes to heat pumps. In what situation is a heat pump right for a certain individual?

Sneha: That's a great question. I think there can be a good choice for really a wide range of homes and regions. The most important thing is to choose a system that's well suited for your specific home and for your specific needs. A lot of people are looking at heat pumps at the end of their existing HVAC system's life. Your furnace may be on its last legs or your air conditioner breaks down and that's the time that you're considering an upgrade.

We're also seeing a lot of people who are considering the long-term savings potential, especially with the rising fuel prices and the increase in utility bill costs, especially if you're on oil, propane, or electric resistance heat, there is the potential of saving money on your utility bills and that's obviously a big appeal for a lot of people. Some people also consider a heat pump not to fully offset their existing furnace or their existing heating system, but just to partially offset their heating or cooling loads. Sometimes you may not have AC, but you put in a heat pump just to meet that air conditioner load and use it for a little bit of heat in the winter as well.

Then another popular choice, and especially when you're doing new additions to your home or adding a new conditioned space to your home, mini-splits can be a great option here if you're just looking for a smaller and more isolated space. I think there's lots of scenarios where a heat pump can be a good choice for you.

Barb: Very interesting. I think you did mention the energy savings that people can look forward to. We'll get to that in a minute. Talking about the different configurations of heat pumps, I didn't realize that they could come in so many different configurations. I'm wondering, what are some of the factors a person should be considering when they're shopping for or purchasing and installing a heat pump?

Sneha: It's definitely important to do your homework before getting your system installed or before you make any purchases. We recommend the first thing you should do is complete an energy audit of your home, and that provides a lot of valuable information to you. An energy audit helps determine your home's heating load and helps you identify ways to bring that load down maybe by things like weatherstripping or re-insulation or upgrading your building envelope. Your home's heating load is definitely one of the most important determining factors in what size and what type of heat pump you ultimately get.

You can determine if you want your new system to meet the full heating load or just partial load. Some people just choose to offset that cooling load for their air conditioner with a heat pump when it's time for an upgrade. You can also consider what configuration of system is right for you. Some people may opt for a wall-mounted system that's not connected to your home central ductwork. Others may opt for a centrally ducted system if your air distribution system can handle it.

You may also want to consider what your backup heat source will be. Some people choose to leave their furnace in place, and this is called a hybrid system. Others may opt for a fully electric system with electric backup heat as well. There's really a lot of choices here. I think a hybrid system with a gas furnace could be a good choice if your ductwork is too small for the heat pump to meet the full heating load.

When you're making this selection, it's also really important to work with our contractor who can explain these various costs and these options to you. It translates some of that more complex technical material so that it's easier for you to digest. If you're applying for any sort of rebate or incentive program, just make sure you meet all the eligibility requirements and complete all of the paperwork that's required.

I think there's a misconception that heat pump systems are wildly more expensive than furnaces, but it really helps to think of it in terms of the cost of replacing both your furnace and the AC, because realistically, a heat pump does both, it provides cooling in the summer and heating in the winter as well. When you also factor in things like rebates and incentive program, this goes a long way to bringing down their capital costs and really makes the system much more affordable and much more of a viable choice for a lot of Canadians.

I just want to reiterate, I think the most important thing is to really start planning early and talk to an energy advisor or talk to a contractor. Don't wait until that winter storm furnace break down emergency replacement scenario, where you have to take whatever is available. That might not necessarily be the most cost-effective or comfortable option.

Joel: When we talk about energy savings, are we talking about reducing the amount of energy consumption or are we talking about energy savings from a monetary standpoint?

Sneha: It can be both. The energy savings from a monetary standpoint depends a lot on what your current heating system is and also the grid in your jurisdiction and what the current fuel costs are. I think there's a lot of scenarios, especially people are heating their homes with oil, propane or electric resistance heat, where you will see savings on your utility bills, which can be a big benefit for some people. Like I mentioned, heat pumps are also just a more efficient technology than a lot of these systems. Even compared to an existing electric system, like an electric furnace or electric resistance heat, they are more efficient and you do see those cost savings.

Joel: Good to know. One of the reasons, really, we wanted to do a podcast on heat pumps is that it's a very popular topic right now in the media as well as the government environment that we find ourselves in on our end. I'm just curious, why do you think it's popular right now?

Sneha: I think part of it is that we've all just spent a lot more time in our homes in the last couple of years. People are starting to demand better comfort and better performance from all of their systems, and their heating system is definitely one of those. We're also thinking more about all of the integrated systems that make up our home. I definitely find from talking to friends and family that people are really starting to think more about the energy use of their carbon emissions of their home. The reality is space heating is a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions across Canada. I think it's something like 50 to 60 percent of the energy consumption of your home is in space heating.

If you're looking to find efficiencies in that area, space heating is really the biggest bang for your buck. Upgrading to a more efficient space heating source is really a good opportunity to bring down some of those greenhouse gas emissions. Like I mentioned, again, with rising fuel prices, I think heat pumps are also becoming more of an interest, people are trying to find ways to manage some of those costs in the long term. I think there's lots of scenarios where it can be a great choice for your home.

Barb: It's really great to see everybody talking about heat pumps all of a sudden like this, but it seems like there are still a lot of common misconceptions about heat pumps out there. Can you explain a few of those for us?

Sneha: Yes, absolutely. Heat pump technology has come a long way in the last few years. I think it's going to continue to advance and it's going to become more mainstream as more and more people adopt it. There's definitely still a lot of lingering misconceptions. A lot of people think it can't keep up in our cold Canadian winters. This is something for maybe the more temperate and the more mild climates. We do find that the modern new cold climate heat pump technology can comfortably heat your home when outdoor temperatures are as low as minus 25 degrees. Ground source and geothermal systems can operate comfortably at even lower temperatures.

There's also this misconception that this is still brand new cutting-edge technology that nobody will know how to install or you're not going to find a contractor to do this. We are seeing more and more adoption of heat pumps, and contractors, a lot of them are happy to sing their praises. I think a lot of people are starting to promote this. Again, it's just about doing your homework and finding a contractor that’s comfortable and knows how to select a system that's the right fit for your home.

Even once the system is installed, we do hear from people that because the air temperature coming out of your registers can be lower than for a furnace, people think that's sort of an indication that the system's not working or it's not operating the way your furnace did, but it's actually a lower and more steady heat as opposed to the cycling of a furnace, where it turns on and it turns off. That is a heat pump working as intended, it's not a broken system or anything like that. Just wanted to explain that one as well.

Barb: That's interesting. You won't have that variation in temperatures?

Sneha: Yes, that's correct. That's part of the efficiency mechanism as well, where you have a lower and more steady heat.

Joel: Sneha, you provided us with a wealth of information, a lot of information, actually. If our listeners are like myself and maybe they want to dive more into this, are there any resources online on heat pumps that you would recommend either from Natural Resources Canada or other trusted sources?

Sneha: Yes, absolutely. For a basic primer, I definitely recommend the NRCan heating and cooling with a heat pump guide. It's a really great document. It has lots of visuals, and a good intro to the basics of how heat pumps work, and the selection criteria that you may want to consider. There's also lots of videos and tutorials on the NRCan website as well that you can definitely take a look at. Your local utility or energy company likely has some great information and steps you should take before purchasing and installing your system. Definitely important to start there.

For resources closer to home, for me, the Sustainable Technologies Evaluation Program that's based out of Toronto has a really great library catalog of case studies and features with real homeowners who've installed the system talking about their experiences. I like looking through that as well. I think this is a growing conversation and I think there's lots of organizations that are really keen to share their wealth of knowledge.

Joel: Perfect. We'll make sure to add those links in the description of the podcast so people listening can just check them out and just click on them directly and head over to all those wonderful resources. Sneha, thank you so much for taking the time to come and chat with us today.

Barb: Thank you for the great conversation. I think I'm ready to go out and do some research of my own and maybe do some shopping now. Thanks to you.

Sneha: Great to hear. Thank you so much for having me.


Joel: That was a lot of information. I guess there really is a lot to consider when it comes to heat pumps.

Barb: That is for sure. It's a good thing Sneha shared those resources with us. For those interested, we'll link to them in the episode description.

Joel: You can also leave a review or share this episode. If you share over Twitter, make sure to tag us at NRCanscience.

Barb: Remember, Simply Science also has a website and a YouTube channel which you should check out. We have in-depth articles of interest, videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada, and you can find those links and all our social media channels listed in the episode description as well.

Joel: Thank you, Barb. Thank you so much everyone for listening. We'll see you in the next episode.

Barb: Bye for now.

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