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Pump it up

Learn if a heat pump can offer your home year-round comfort

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Enticed by potential long-term savings on their energy bills, many Atlantic Canadian home owners are switching to heat pumps. Professional installers says there’s plenty to consider before deciding if a heat pump is right for your home.

There are two main types of air-source heat pumps. Ducted systems are often more expensive, and use existing forced-air ducts. Usually, you can replace an oil or electric system with a ducted system. Ductless systems, often called mini-splits, are the most popular option in our region because many newer homes don’t have pre-existing duct systems, says Daniel Goguen, president of Tradewinds Eco-Energy Solutions in Summerside, P.E.I.

Both options operate the same way. In winter, the heat pump extracts energy from the outdoor air into a coil functioning as an evaporator, heats it, and transfers it into the home with a fan. In summer, the coil acts as a refrigerant absorbing energy from the warm air inside your home and cooling it.

Ducted systems feature a central indoor unit that controls the entire house. In mini-splits, the interior component is wall mounted. Depending on the size of your home, a mini-split can be single zoned, one unit for indoors and out, or multi-zoned, typically one outdoor unit and two or more inside.

Whichever you chose, the system’s efficiency will dictate your cost savings. The heating seasonal performance factor is the key number to watch. The higher the rating, the more efficient your equipment. Most installers recommend a rating of 8.5 or higher for ducted units and 10 or higher for mini-splits. Goguen says a new oil furnace has an energy efficiency rating of of 85%, while electric heat is 94%. By contrast, a new heat pump has an efficiency rating of 350%.

The higher the rating, the higher the savings. Goguen says, “I have no problem promising a customer they will save at least 50% in their energy costs.” Goguen said houses with distinct levels are ideal for heat pumps as air flows more easily.

The cost of a mini-split with one indoor heating-cooling zone (including installation) is $3,000–$4,000, while ducted units start around $8,000. All four Atlantic provinces offer income-based rebate programs and most dealers offer financing options. Converting a 1,200-square-foot bungalow from oil to a mini-split will result in annual savings of $500 to $700, with variations throughout the region.

Richard Ross, a partner at Sunshine Renewable Energy in Dartmouth, N.S., says customers should ensure they buy a unit designed specifically for cold climates. He says don’t just go for the lowest price, because while the initial cost may be higher, a quality unit will last longer and run more efficiently. A quality heat pump typically lasts 10–15 years.

There are some steps you can take to maximize your system’s efficiency. Ross says the better insulated your home, the more efficiently your heat pump will operate. Choose an Energy Star-certified system to maximize your savings over time. Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy program that provides information on a product’s energy consumption using standardized methods and identifies more efficient models.

Heat pumps can operate efficiently in temperatures as low as -25°C, but Lisa Colwell of BG Services in Fredericton, recommends keeping your unit clean and checking it for snow and ice build-up after storms. Mini-split systems may require a back-up heating system below -25°C, Goguen says, as the outdoor temperature is too cold to extract heat efficiently.

When shopping for a new system, Colwell recommends asking for customer references who can share first-hand knowledge about the system you’re eyeing and any challenges. Make sure you understand the temperature ratings of different models to ensure you buy a unit that will keep you warm during the winter and cool during the summer.

If the unit is not installed properly, the efficiency rating will decrease, and may void your warranty. Don’t install a heat pump yourself or buy a discounted unit online.

Your heat pump’s location is key to proper function. “If you place an indoor unit in a narrow or small area in your home, air has no room to escape,” says Cowell. “That allows the sensors to believe that the air is at set temperature and it will cycle off.” Install an indoor unit in an unobstructed area of your home for best air circulation.

Place indoor units on an outside wall, approximately 10 centimetres from the ceiling, in the largest room in the house, says Gougen. Open areas like dining rooms, living rooms, and kitchens are ideal. Your installer will consider how the air flows through the room in order to evenly distribute the heat.

Colwell recommends changing the filter in the interior unit every two months and servicing the system annually. The mini-split’s design requires extra attention, especially after a summer of use. “The coil is at the top and the water drips down on the rest of the unit,” says Gougen. “If it is not cleaned properly, mold can develop.”

Gougen says many customers say they aren’t switching from oil or electric for the cost savings, but the year-round comfort. “That never ceases to blow me away,” he said. “I never would have guessed that when I got into this business a little over 10 years ago.”

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