Everything you wanted to know about heat pumps but were afraid to ask

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As everyone’s getting their most recent winter home heating bill, you might be asking yourself if there’s a better option. Luckily there is, and that option is an air-source heat pump.

A heat pump is a device that transfers heat from one location to another. It works by using a small amount of energy to move heat from a cool space to a warm space. For the most part, it’s a drop-in replacement for your existing furnace air handler and air conditioning unit. And if you don’t currently have an air conditioner, with a heat pump you get both heating and cooling.

You probably don’t realize it yet but you already have a type of heat pump in your home already: your fridge. Your fridge extracts heat from the freezer and dumps that heat out the back of the fridge. The biggest difference between your fridge and a heat pump for your home (other than the size of the compressor) is that the home-sized heat pump can also operate in reverse, switching between cooling and heating – moving heat from the outside into your home in winter, and extracting heat from inside your home in summer (AC). An air conditioner is in fact a one-way heat pump.


In terms of home heating and cooling, there are two main types of heat pumps: air-source and ground-source.

An air-source heat pump uses a refrigerant to absorb heat from the air outside and transfer it inside. In the winter, this process warms the air inside a building. In the summer, the process can be reversed to cool the air inside. This is usually what most people are referring to when they casually refer to heat pumps.

A ground-source heat pump uses a fluid, such as water or antifreeze, that is circulated through underground pipes to absorb heat from the ground. This heat can then be transferred inside to warm the building in the winter. In the summer, the process can be reversed to cool the building.

Both types of heat pumps are extremely efficient and are a great choice for heating and cooling buildings, even in cold climates like Ottawa. Even when outdoor temperatures are cold, there’s still a lot of heat that can be extracted and delivered to your home.

Heat pumps are important in terms of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for a few reasons:

  1. Efficiency: Heat pumps are super energy efficient because they use a small amount of electricity to move heat from one location to another rather than generating heat through combustion, as in traditional heating systems.
  2. Renewable energy: Heat pumps can be powered by renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, further reducing their carbon footprint. Lucky for us, Ontario has a pretty low-carbon electrical grid.
  3. Reduced dependence on fossil fuels: Heat pumps can reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, which are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Reduced energy consumption: By using heat pumps, buildings can reduce their energy consumption, which helps to reduce overall carbon emissions.

While heat pumps are up to 200-300% efficient and fossil-fuel free, perhaps the only downside of a heat pump is that they cost more up front than a gas furnace.  To this end, there are various incentive programs available to you. In the nation capital region you have:

As heat pumps are still relatively new to a lot of HVAC contractors (though increasingly a larger portion of their work), make sure you get multiple quotes and references from heat pump clients. You can also get advice from a growing number of electrification consultants or from our growing community of Ottawa homeowners that have already electrified at Electrify613.ca

If you’re not quite ready to replace your furnace yet, the best thing you can do today is to make sure you have a plan for when you do need to replace your furnace. 87% of heating and cooling systems are replaced on an emergency basis, and it may be harder to get the unit you need on short notice—whereas if you can do a bit of research ahead of time, you (and your chosen contractor) will be much better positioned to leave your gas furnace behind. 

Chris Taggart is the founder of Electrify613, a platform devoted to helping people electrify their homes. The image above is from FreshEnergy.

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