Canadian Heat Pump Myth Buster
Policy Research Associate, Clean Heat
August 1, 2023
Blogs | Clean Heat | News
- Heat pumps can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 million tonnes in 2030.
- On average, heat pumps operate three times more efficiently than electric resistance or electric boiler heating.
- To date, over 840,000 heat pumps have been installed in Canadian homes.
Buildings are the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Space and water heating account for most building emissions, both residential and commercial. Electrifying buildings will be essential to meet 2050 net-zero emissions targets. Heat pumps are an integral part of this solution, as they use electricity efficiently to heat and cool buildings while replacing fossil fuels. An air conditioner absorbs heat from inside your house into a refrigerant and rejects it outside. With the addition of a small component, a heat pump does the same thing in reverse to bring heat inside. By moving heat in both directions, it effectively both cools and heats.
Heat pumps offer building owners and occupants many benefits including increased comfort, often lower utility costs and access to efficient cooling — increasingly essential due to climate change.
Types of heat pumps
Air-Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs): ASHPs can reduce electricity consumption for space heating by at least 50% compared to electric resistance heating.
Ground-Source Heat Pumps (GSHPs): Since underground temperatures are warmer and more stable than air temperatures in the winter (cooler in the summer), ground-source heat pumps operate more efficiently at lower temperatures than ASHPs.
Air-to-Water Heat Pumps: A subcategory of ASHPs, air-to-water heat pumps absorb heat from the outside air throughout the colder months, similarly to the air-source heat pump, but instead of transferring that heat to the indoor air, it’s transferred to the building’s hydronic circuit.
Supplementary Systems: In climates where the temperature drops below what the installed heat pump is rated to, a supplementary heating system is required. Some examples of supplementary systems are electric resistance built into the heat pump, electric baseboards, or an existing gas system.
Share the myths on social media by using the hashtag #HeatPumpMyths
Myth: Heat pumps are a new and untested technology.
Fact: Heat pumps have a long history of successful use — the underlying technology dates back to the 18th century.
- A heat pump transfers heat using the same technology as refrigerators and air conditioners, with more recent technology advancements enabling them to work in colder climates.
- Artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated in 1850, and the first documented heat pump followed shortly after in 1856. Heat pumps have been used in Canada since at least 1948.
- What makes modern heat pumps different is their ability to maintain capacity and heat during cold outdoor temperatures.
Myth: Canada would be alone if requirements for cleaner and more efficient heating were introduced.
Fact: Many countries in Europe are eliminating fossil fuel-based heating systems. Several jurisdictions in the US are regulating fossil fuel-based heating systems, too.
- Austria, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Norway all have bans on oil and gas boiler installation in new buildings by 2023.
- New York State legislature recently approved a state budget prohibiting natural gas and other fossil fuel heating and cooking equipment in new buildings shorter than seven stories by 2026 and by 2029 for taller buildings.
- San Francisco will require all new water heaters and furnaces to have zero emissions of nitrogen oxides, effectively banning fossil fuels in buildings, excluding cooking appliances.
Myth: Canada is too cold for heat pumps.
Fact: Heat pumps are a proven technology in cold climates.
- Cold Climate Air Source Heat Pump (CC-ASHP) technology is specifically designed for northern climates, with the newest prototypes heating down to –31 °C.
- Heat pumps alone can heat more than 90 per cent of the time in Canada’s coldest cities.
- Heat pump technology is continuing to improve substantially.
Myth: A heat pump is more expensive than a fossil-fuel-based heating system.
Fact: A heat pump is less expensive over the lifespan of the equipment in almost every scenario due to higher efficiency. There are also federal, provincial, and municipal incentive programs to help lower the upfront costs.
- Homeowners switching from an oil furnace to a CC-ASHP could expect to save $1000-$3500 in annual utility costs.
- Switching from electric resistance heating to a CC-ASHP generated $700-1900 in savings, depending on electricity rates and the climate they were operated in.
- Savings from switching from natural gas ranged from $50-150 per year in most regions of Canada, including the fixed natural gas charges ($150-300/year) eliminated by going fully electric.
Myth: Electric grids don’t have the capacity for heat pumps.
Fact: Electricity grid operators can manage the transition to electric heat through various strategies, including more energy efficiency, more innovative timing of electricity demands, and backup fuels.
- Electrification will not occur “all at once” but over time, giving electricity system planners the ability to plan ahead and respond.
- Some regions of Canada use a lot of electric heat, and heat pumps will save electricity by replacing less efficient electric heating systems.
- Peak demand during extreme cold periods can be managed with better building envelopes, smart demand side management, and hybrid heating.
Myth: In provinces with dirty grids, heat pumps don’t lower emissions.
Fact: Heat pumps can lower emissions even on dirty grids because they are so energy efficient.
- All Canadian provinces have clean enough electricity grids for heat pumps to lower emissions.
- Coupling heat pumps with other renewable energies or strategic use of fuels can shift away from peak demand.
- With the federal government targeting net-zero emissions electricity by 2035, the emissions savings achieved by heat pumps will continue to improve as the grid becomes increasingly cleaner.
Myth: Heat pumps are not climate friendly because of their refrigerants.
Fact: While most heat pumps in Canada currently contain higher global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, emissions savings are still positive and low GWP refrigerants are gaining traction. Refrigerants do not provide a reason for slowing down heat pump adoption.
- Even with today’s refrigerants, emissions are reduced by 20-80 per cent compared to fossil fuel heating systems.
- Heat pumps are already a net benefit in terms of emissions, but building codes need to be updated to allow heat pumps with lower GWP-refrigerants, already available in Europe and the United States, into more Canadian buildings.
- Good maintenance and installation practices reduce refrigerant leaks.
- Installing the correct system size can also reduce the likelihood of refrigerant leaks.
Myth: A gas furnace can still heat if there is an electrical power outage.
Fact: Natural gas furnaces need electricity to operate.
- Improved building envelopes are a better way to promote resilience when faced with power outages.
- Smart home electrification systems can introduce the ability to use electric vehicle batteries during emergencies and heat pumps can increase resilience to extreme heat through air conditioning.
- Power outages underscore the importance of a high-performing building envelope, as indoor temperatures would drop more slowly, increasing the amount of time occupants have safe temperatures.
Myth: Heat pumps will not work in old homes without extensive upgrades.
Fact: Heat pumps work in almost all buildings, yet they work better when the heat can stay inside for longer. Heat pumps can work in older homes and should be chosen over stand-alone fossil fuel systems even with minimal existing insulation and air sealing, with plans for future envelope upgrades considered when sizing the heat pump.
- Heat pumps are an excellent choice in home retrofit projects, as there are many different types that work with different existing HVAC designs.
- Policies and programs should aim to coordinate building envelope upgrades with heat pumps as much as possible.
- Promoting longer-term energy plans, instead of emergency replacements, is the best way to optimize building envelope and heat system upgrades.
Myth: HVAC contractors do not support heat pumps.
Fact: Contractor associations support heat pumps. It means better work and better customer experiences.
- Associations that represent HVAC contractors have written in support of the transition to net-zero emissions.
- Heat pumps present a new business opportunity for HVAC contractors and can attract those looking for environmentally friendly jobs within the trades.
- Lists of the many certified heat pump installers are available from heat pump manufacturers’ websites.