The benefits of heat pumps in an era of climate change

Jan McQuay shows off her new heat pump.

by Jan McQuay

It’s January, when temperatures rarely creep above zero, and the heating season is in full swing. Most people on Manitoulin are keeping their homes warm by burning fossil fuels, either oil or propane, but with the escalating climate crisis, people are now looking for ways to reduce their home’s carbon footprint. 

I have an oil furnace. Last spring, I looked at my oil bills and calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that goes up my own chimney into the atmosphere. It’s about six tonnes every year, just for heating my house. I wanted to do something about that, but replacing my entire heating system was out of the question. In this province, hydro is one option to reduce carbon emissions, but electric baseboard heating is inefficient and costly. Besides, I already had a good furnace. In the end I chose an air-source heat pump system, not to replace my furnace, but to provide heat most of the year while keeping the oil furnace for the really cold weather. 

Heat pumps come with two main parts, an outside unit that looks a lot like an air conditioner, and a unit that fits right into the top of the furnace in the house. So, in July, a landscaper removed some bushes behind my home near Mindemoya and made a nice smooth area there for the outside unit. Then the installers came to set up the two components of the heat pump system.

As with all new things, I wondered if it would really work, but when the cool nights of September arrived the heat pump automatically started up. It kept my home warm right into November, even when the outdoor temperatures dipped to -7°Celsius. Later in the month the furnace sometimes kicked in too. The way they work together is a bit complicated. Raising the thermostat generally triggers the furnace to heat the house up more quickly, but once the house has reached the desired temperature, the heat pump starts up again and maintains the temperature for some time. So even in January the furnace is needed less often.

Others on Manitoulin have had air-source heat pumps much longer than me. Brad and Anya Wright, who live in Gore Bay, bought one seven years ago to connect with their propane furnace. In winter their furnace kicks in when needed, and he figures the heat pump has easily paid for itself already. They only need to fill up the propane tanks once a year. 

People don’t hear much about air-source heat pumps. Geothermal heat pump systems get more publicity. They work without a back-up because pipes, buried five or six feet underground where the temperature is fairly constant, pick up the heat. Ted Kilpatrick and his wife Sandy installed a geothermal heating system when they built their house in Kagawong in 2010. In-floor heating provides them with a constant heat. Their house has other energy-saving features such as lots of insulation as well, and they figure the geothermal heating costs them less than $1,000 per year. Their carbon footprint for home heating is minimal.

Retrofitting an existing home with an air-source heat pump is a more affordable way to “go green.” The world is already experiencing the wilder weather that greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are causing. Increasingly dangerous fires, heavy rainfall causing floods, and summer droughts hit the headlines almost daily. Since early November, catastrophic bushfires in Australia have incinerated 100,000 square kilometres, the equivalent of the land mass of 75 Manitoulin Islands. In Newfoundland, record snowfalls paralyzed St. John’s this month. Closer to home, the Parry Sound fire that started July 18, 2018 raged until August 5, burning 113 square kilometres, and causing evacuations in Henvy Inlet. We could smell the smoke on Manitoulin. 

Experts warn this extreme weather is not even the “new normal,” it’s just the beginning. A year ago, the United Nations gave us only 12 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, to avoid much worse devastation. Last November, 11,000 scientists from around the world warned of “untold suffering” and that the planet is facing a climate emergency.

Fossil fuels are the main cause. One litre of oil produces more than five pounds of carbon dioxide that goes up the chimney. We can’t see carbon dioxide, but, like air, it has weight. It’s easier to think of carbon dioxide having weight by considering trees, which take carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis, and store it in wood. Anyone who has carried an armful of firewood knows it is heavy. About half of the weight of dry firewood is carbon.

When choosing my heat pump, I looked especially for efficiency. A government-run labelling program makes finding the most efficient products easy for consumers. Just look for the blue Energy Star. Products with an Energy Star label will use less energy and cost less to run. For heat pumps, you can also look at the HSPF rating, which reflects overall efficiency over an entire heating season. A heat pump with an HSPF rating of 10 is more efficient than 8.5, even though both qualify for the Energy Star. I chose a model with a 9.6 rating. 

There is a significant up-front cost. The highly efficient unit I chose cost $6,674 plus tax, plus electrical inspection. From a strictly financial standpoint for the homeowner, the payback for an investment like this depends on the savings per year, and that depends on the future prices of oil and electricity, among other things. 

Today one litre of oil costs about $1.08. I figure my heat pump can provide the same amount of heat as a litre of oil, for around 40 cents. Most of the literature says people can cut in half the amount of oil they currently use. If so, a bill of $2,000 per year for oil will be reduced to $1000 for oil plus $400 for electricity. As for future prices, oil will likely become more expensive, because the carbon dioxide pollution from burning oil is no longer completely free, and as the carbon-tax-and-rebate ramps up, the cost of oil will rise, making electricity more attractive. 

Nobody has a crystal ball, but scientists predicted the extreme weather from global warming 30 years ago. In order to avoid the untold suffering that 11,000 scientists warned us about again last November, we must drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. My furnace emitted about six tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, but I hope to cut that in half. The up-front cost is significant, and government incentives are sorely lacking. But the stakes are high. At stake is life on earth as we know it.