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What is a Heat Pump?

As the world continues to shift towards sustainable energy practices, many Canadians are turning to heat pumps as a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional heating and cooling systems. In this blog, we’ll cover what is a heat pump, how it works, which is better: heat pump vs furnace, and government incentives for installing them.

What is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is a heating and cooling technology that works by transferring heat from one location to another. Unlike traditional heating systems that generate heat, heat pumps move heat from the outside air or ground into your home.
what is a heat pump

Heat pumps are a good alternative to provide both heating and cooling. Depending on your home’s insulation and airtight levels you may also need supplemental heat in the winter. You can retain the gas heating portion of your furnace; some municipalities won’t allow this in a rush to phase out heating fuels.

You can also add an electric heat strip and HRV system for supplemental heat If you’re considering having a heat pump system installed, make sure to consult a licensed electrician in BC to determine if you’ll be exceeding your electrical service size. It’s generally a quick calculation we can often do over the phone.

Heat Pump vs. Furnace

Heat pumps are often misunderstood or not understood at all. Because of this, you may not realize that there may be a better heating and cooling option than a furnace or air conditioner. A heat pump is an efficient method of cooling your home in the summer and warming it in the winter.

For climates with moderate heating and cooling needs, such as British Columbia, heat pumps can be a cost-effective alternative to furnaces and air conditioners. More often they’re used as a supplement to a gas furnace. Because a heat pump will generally reduce energy use, there are significant rebates offered by both the Federal and Provincial governments totaling $800-$2000 depending on your existing system.

This is as of October 2013. The rebates change frequently, your heat pump installer will be up to date on the current heat pump rebates offered if you decide to upgrade your system. With electricity rates increasing (Spring 2015) you may want to set your heat pump to “EM heat”. Gas only is used for heating, use your heat pump for air conditioning in the summer.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

Although heat pumps are new to many people, they have been around for over three decades. Although its name is a little misleading, a heat pump is an efficient method of heating a home during the cold winter months and cooling it during the hot summer months. Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to power a compressor which compresses a refrigerant gas. This process produces both heating and cooling. A heat pump looks like an air conditioner, but that’s only the outside appearance. It actually has two functions based on the same principles for both. In warm weather situations, the heat pump works as a normal air conditioner. It extracts heat from inside the home and transfers it to the outdoor air.

In colder weather, however, the process reverses, collecting heat from the outdoor air and transferring it inside your home. Even when the air outside feels extremely cold, the air still contains some heat. The heat pump pulls the heat from this cold outdoor air and sends it inside to warm your home. While many people find the winter operation of a heat pump the most difficult to understand, it is during the heating cycle that the heat pump produces the most savings. Unlike a furnace that turns fossil fuel or electricity into heat, the heat pump collects heat that already exists in the outdoor air by means of its refrigeration cycle. Consequently, a heat pump will produce up to four times more heat than the energy it uses.

In addition, a heat pump can be an effective add-on option to use in conjunction with an existing gas furnace. Heating/Cooling coils are installed at the furnace output ducting. Usually, a variable-speed motor is installed as well. With a dual-fuel system, the two systems share the heating load but never function at the same time. Each system operates when it is the most cost-effective. The heat pump will be the primary heating and cooling system. However, when the temperature drops below the heat pump’s ability to operate as efficiently as the gas furnace, the gas furnace will take over until the temperature rises enough for the heat pump to operate more efficiently.

Ductless Heat Pumps

For homes without ducts, air-source heat pumps are also available in a ductless version called a mini-split heat pump. In addition, a special type of air-source heat pump called a “reverse cycle chiller” generates hot and cold water rather than air, allowing it to be used with radiant floor heating systems in heating mode.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Higher efficiencies are achieved with geothermal (ground-source or water-source) heat pumps, which transfer heat between your house and the ground or a nearby water source. Although they cost more to install, geothermal heat pumps have low operating costs because they take advantage of relatively constant ground or water temperatures. However, the installation depends on the size of your lot, the subsoil and the landscape. Ground-source or water-source heat pumps can be used in more extreme climatic conditions than air-source heat pumps.

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