Heat pumps in Alberta may be greener, but is the weather too cold for them?

Heat pump technology is starting to gain momentum in Canada, but Alberta’s cold winters and prohibitive costs may be a roadblock to its popularity in this province. 

Government grants and zero-interest loans available for installation

Electric heat pumps have been promoted as a cheaper and greener way to heat and cool homes. (Ecotrust Canada)

Heat pump technology is starting to gain momentum in Canada, but Alberta's cold winters and prohibitive costs may be a roadblock to its popularity in this province. 

Electric heat pumps have been billed as a cheaper, greener way to heat and cool homes. 

The units use power and refrigerant to transfer heat back and forth between outside and indoors. In cooler weather, it pulls warm air into a house; in the summer, it sucks the warm air from inside and transfers it outside. 

"You're not generating the heat, but you're actually just concentrating it and moving it. It can be actually over 100 per cent efficient," said Sara Hastings-Simon, an energy transition specialist and assistant professor of physics at the University of Calgary. 

"You can put less energy in than the amount of heat you're able to move."

Installation companies say interest in heat pumps has increased tenfold in the past year. But in parts of the country like Alberta, uptake is slower. 

The cheaper models of pumps often aren't powerful enough to heat a home through an Alberta winter, so they have to be paired with a natural gas or electric furnace.

"They don't provide enough heat when it's really, really cold," said Adam Saunders, the sales manager for Canadian HVAC. 

ProSolutions Inc.'s website, another heating and cooling company, says heat pumps don't work in Alberta because of the colder climate. 

Heat pumps are more energy efficient and cheaper on utilities than traditional air conditioning units. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Hastings-Simon says the technology is available for colder weather, but access to supply and awareness can be an issue. 

"It's actually not the case that they don't work here. And I think more of the problem is that we don't have enough potential installers and things like that," she said. 

"I think the biggest roadblock there is just like it's sort of [air conditioning] being normal practice."

The average heat pump unit will cost you about double what a comparable air conditioning unit does. A standard unit can function as a heater until about 0 degrees Celsius, but can also provide cooling in the summer.

B.C. Hydro says heat pumps are up to 50 per cent more energy efficient than a window air conditioning unit. They cost anywhere from $6,000 to $18,000 for a full system. 

The federal government offers a home retrofitting grant that covers some of the cost of installing a heat pump. The devices must be installed by a professional and be on the eligible models list. For example, different kinds of units are eligible for a grant of $2,500 to $5,000. They also qualify for a zero-interest loan through the Canada Greener Homes Initiative, repayable over 10 years.

New developments in the technology have also adapted the units to make them more effective in colder climates. However, those units can cost up to five times more than an air conditioner.

"I think there's a lot of interest because they see $5,000 rebate and zero per cent interest loans, Saunders said. 

"But when homeowners actually inquire about it, there's probably more times than not they end up not going that route because of the kind of things we just talked about."

With files from Elise von Scheel


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