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Heat pumps now a viable alternative in Alberta, says home heating expert

Cold climates are seeing a resurgent attention on heat pumps, due in part to technological advances that have finally allowed them to perform in cold temperatures.
Recent presentation in Cochrane discussed the viability and affordability of heat pumps.

The debate over the pros and cons of heat pumps has many similarities to the one over electric cars, at least if the tenor of discussions sponsored by the Cochrane Ecological Action Committee (CEAC) is any indication.

Matthew Kramer of Calgary’s Horizon Heating Ltd. provided an informative presentation on heat pumps at the Franks Wills Hall last Saturday.

Heat pump technology has been around for almost 200 years, in fact all of us use a heat pump every single day – refrigerators are the most common example. 

Simply put, heat pumps are lauded as being efficient for the basic reason that they don’t create heat (or cold) – they move it from one location to another.

One of the reasons for a sustained interest in the product is the technology has improved dramatically over the last 10 years, Kramer said.

A heat pump extracts heat from the cold outside air and transfers it inside the home. To this end, a compressor inside the device uses electricity to increase the temperature of the heat extracted from the outside air. The heat pump can also provide cooling by transferring warm indoor air to the outside.


Will the technology work in Alberta?


There has been much debate about whether or not heat pumps are appropriate for Alberta, especially during cold snaps.

Cold climates are seeing a resurgent attention on heat pumps, due in part to technological advances that have finally allowed them to perform in cold temperatures. The key feature allowing sub-freezing performance is an advance in variable speed inverter-driven compressor technology, which wasn’t available in mainstream offerings just 10 years ago.

“This winter has been a great example of perfect conditions for a heat pump,” Kramer said.

A typical cutoff point (where the heat pump kicks out and the furnace takes over) is in the minus 10 degree C range, he said.

For both electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps, the technology keeps changing. Technology is like that.

What that means is that once may have been true (costs, reliability, etc.) 10 years ago may not be exactly as relevant today.

Every year, the average range of EVs is going up and initial costs are coming down.

Another aspect shared in the debates over EVs and heat pumps is the broad breakdown of opponents vs. proponents – those who are more open to a discussion of the value of environmentally-friendly technology and those who are wary of change.

Opponents of EVs and heat pumps are quick to emphasize – and cling to – anecdotal ‘evidence’ to critique advantages of the green systems based on something they read in the news years ago.

Put differently, those against EVs and heat pumps will remain against them, even in the face of new facts, improving technology and reduction in costs.

It’s such a commonly-recognized mindset researchers have given it a name. It’s known as confirmation bias.

The second group of people involved in exploring green options are interested enough to come out on a Saturday afternoon to listen to what’s new and decide if it’s worth the investment or perhaps more investigation.

And the third group – common to both debates – is what’s known as “early adopters.” They want the latest in enviro-friendly equipment despite costs that make others wince.

The term originates from the academic literature on innovation dating back to the 60s.

Early adopters willingly expose themselves to the problems, risks, costs and annoyances common to new technology. Turns out not only is it not easy being green, it’s not cheap either.


It's not easy being green


At the CEAC talk on EVs in 2022, a Tesla owner in the crowd described how he incorporates solar panels into his home system. He referred to himself as an early adopter. And a heat pump owner at last Saturday’s meeting used the same term to describe himself.

It’s a point of pride for a certain segment of the enviro-friendly crowd – cost is not the point. Being first is what matters.

One member of the audience pointed out that there were only two heat pump-powered water heaters (very new technology) in Cochrane, and he had one of them.

Kramer said an average heat pump system, installed, will run somewhere in the $18,000 range.

One of the advantages of heat pumps is higher overall comfort levels, as the equipment is more closely matched to the house’s load requirements, Kramer said. They also offer higher comfort in cooling mode as the heat pump is variable output.

The Sylvan Lake hockey arena uses the lake as a heat source for their heat pumps.

The most common residential installation is one with a with heat pump and gas furnace. The heat pump provides the primary heating with cut-off temperature determined by consultation with homeowner.

As electric utilities across North America continue to decarbonize by adding renewable energy sources to their grids, heat pumps have gained popularity as an effective, low-carbon heating solution. These systems use electricity to harness energy from the surrounding air and pump that energy indoors in the form of heat—much like an air conditioner in reverse.

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, these systems can achieve efficiencies three to six times higher than conventional heating technologies.

RMI is self-described as “an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit that transforms global energy systems through market-driven solutions to align with a 1.5°C future and secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all.” 


Improvements in technology


But despite the efficiency and carbon benefits, air source heat pumps have historically been relegated to more moderate climates, such as the Southeastern United States. One reason is that models from the 1980s struggled to operate efficiently (or operate at all) in sub-freezing temperatures.

Variable speed inverter drive units are more efficient and much different than standard heat pumps (and much more advanced than basic AC units).

The most common style of heat pump is the Air Source design – uses outdoor air for heat exchange. Ground Source pumps uses ground loops or water as a heat sink. 

There is a movement afoot in the U.S. to promote conversions to heat pumps as evidence of state governments’ commitment to lowering reliance on fossil fuels.

Maine set a target of 245,000 homes (48 per cent of the housing stock) with heat pumps installed by 2030. Massachusetts’ target is to convert one million homes (40 per cent of the housing stock) to heat pumps by 2030. And Colorado is targeting a 60 per cent market share for heat pumps by 2030 and suggests 200,000 homes (12 per cent of the housing stock) could be converted by that time.

Canada is following suit, with some good news and bad news for those considering making the switch to a heat pump.

The good news is there is some cheap financing available in the form of interest-free loans from the federal government. The bad news is the grant program was so successful it ran out of money and is coming to an end, although the federal government, through the minister of natural resources, is hinting that a new heat pump incentive program is in the works.


Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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