Design & DIY

Will a heat pump solve your cold cottage woes?

An illustration of a heat pump Illustration by Natalie Franke

On glorious summer days, the thought wafted through Blair Mahaffy’s mind like a cooling breeze off Manitoba’s West Hawk Lake: why not just hole up in the cottage forever? Sure, there’s always winter, but how bad can it be? 

When the pandemic came, Blair finally found out. And spoiler alert, it was a little like Doctor Zhivago.

Despite a 1980s upgrade to the cottage Blair’s grandparents originally built in 1934, winter drafts barged in without knocking. Miniature glaciers grew across the windows. Even with the woodstove stoked and the baseboards heaters cranked to “rotisserie,” “you couldn’t leave clothes on the floor without the risk of them getting damp due to condensation,” Blair says. 

Fast-forward two years, and the cedar-sided structure has been transformed. There are new, well-sealed windows and patio doors, more insulation, a winterized water system, and, perhaps most importantly, a high-efficiency air-source heat pump. “Now you’re not worried about keeping your feet warm,” Blair adds. 

On frosty winter nights, “I can hear the heat pump running out there,” he says. “I find it comforting to know it’s doing its work.”

Adding a new heating and cooling appliance to the cottage is more comforting when you plan ahead. “One of the things I always tell people is don’t wait until an emergency to start thinking about installing a heat pump,” says Erik Janssen, a research scientist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Sustainable Technologies Evaluation Program

Either way, expect to hear more of the heat pump’s whir and hum, says Gord Cooke, a Lake Huron cottager and the president of Building Knowledge Canada. These days “it doesn’t make any sense not to do a heat pump because propane, oil, and electric heat are so expensive.” 

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After installing heat pumps in his home, cottage, and a multi-family cottage near Southampton, Ont., Cooke’s sold on the technology. “The most efficient gas furnace you can buy is 98 per cent, but heat pumps can be up to 300 to 400 per cent efficient,” he says. “They can put out three or four times more heat than the energy they use to do it.” In many cottage situations, “the time to think about heat pump installation was five years ago.” 

Think of heat pumps as the Labrador retrievers of the HVAC world. Other appliances generate heat by burning fuels or riling up electrons. The pump sniffs out heat in the outside air, fetches it, and galumphs back into the cottage (mercifully leaving other “gifts,” such as chewed sticks and slobbery toys, behind). When the dog days of summer settle in, the pump reverses direction, panting and drooling the cottage’s excess heat outside. (What a good boy.) The approach works, Janssen adds, because “it takes a lot less energy to move heat than a conventional system takes to generate it.” 

Heat pump technology is proof you can teach an old dog—or appliance—new tricks. Like your freezer, the heat pump uses a compressor and arrays of tubing called “coils” to drive a chemical refrigerant through a series of pressure and temperature changes. When the refrigerant is in its cold, liquid state, it absorbs warmth from the environment. The use of super-cold refrigerants help the system extract heat even from chilly winter air or the inside of your freezer. By the end of the circuit, the refrigerant has become a hot, high-pressure vapour, ready to release its heat as it runs through a coil. The bonus is heat pumps also have a reversing valve, allowing the unit to pivot in the summer and pull excess heat and humidity from the cottage.

The concept may be simple, but settling on the best heat pump for your cottage is not. There are options that draw heat from the ground, lake, or air and transfer it to forced-air or hydronic systems, and then there are ones that fit in windows, handle just a portion of the cottage, or replace central ducted furnace/AC systems. That’s why it’s important to find an experienced contractor with good references and, ideally, manufacturer’s training. 

“Especially if you’re retrofitting a pump into an existing cottage, you need to ask your contractor lots of questions,” says Jorden Bennet of Murray’s Services in Kenora, Ont. Bennet, who’s been working in refrigeration since the ’90s, says reliable 200-amp electrical service is a must, and a tight, well-insulated cottage helps the unit do its job. “If you’ve got a really leaky, old place, even if you have an air-source pump that works when the temperature goes down to minus 30 Celsius, it just won’t be able to keep up,” he adds. 

Duct sizing for central units is a key consideration. To draw warmth from the coil, heat pumps move air for longer periods at milder temperatures than your old oil furnace. If you’re used to the dragon’s-breath slug of heat from the oil burner, the more temperate output from a heat pump definitely feels different. Janssen likens the sensation to “washing the room with warm air.” Noise can become an issue with the long runtimes, so consider reducing vibration by mounting a unit on the ground rather than on the side of the cottage. 

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At the premium end of the spectrum, “ground-source” or “geothermal” systems are suitable for large, year-round cottages. They boast the best efficiencies (400 per cent) and the lowest annual operating costs. But reaching that heat normally requires laying coolant lines in deep wells or extensive trench systems, driving costs on lots with good digging towards $30,000. 

For most cottagers, air-source heat pumps offer a cheaper, nearly-as-good option. Ranging from about $4,000 for a single-room unit to $15,000 or more for centrally ducted units or multi-split systems with electric or propane backup, air-source heat pumps deliver decent efficiency (typically in the range of 250 per cent over the heating season in Ontario), with costs that aren’t that far off natural gas, especially in provinces with relatively low-cost electricity. Expect the pump to last 15 years, with improved technology waiting in the wings by the time your existing unit shuffles off its refrigerant coil. 

“Ground-source heat pumps will always outperform air-source because the ground is a more stable temperature,” says Jeremy Sager, an HVAC research engineer with Natural Resources Canada. “That said, air-source heat pumps have improved pretty dramatically, and they’ve closed some of the gap.” Conventional air-source heat pumps are now capable of pulling heat out of the air (albeit with diminishing returns) down to the -10°C to -15°C range. The new generation of cold climate air-source heat pumps functions down to -30°C. 

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The beauty of air-source heat pumps is their flexibility. When P.E.I.’s Kevin Andrews tired of paying for electric baseboard heat, he added a $3,400 air-source pump to his 800-sq.-ft. oceanfront cottage on the Northumberland Strait. Called a “ductless mini-split,” the unit flows heat from the outdoor coil and compressor through to an inner coil mounted on the wall, without the need for ducts. 

The pump “extended our season by a month and a half in spring and a good month in the fall,” he says. “The big advantage is the comfort that comes with it. The bonus is on hot, muggy days, we turn on the dehumidification.” Despite the longer season, “we’re spending less on electricity now than before we put it in.”

Jeremy Sager’s uncle achieved similar gains with a $20,000 ductless multi-split (one outside unit serving multiple indoor heat outlets) near Haliburton, Ont. Installed to augment a propane fireplace and baseboard heat, the cold climate air-source heat pump saves him between $2,000–$2,500 in propane and electricity bills per year. “For people on oil, propane, and electric heat right now, adding a heat pump is a no-brainer,” Sager says, pointing to a recent federal survey that tallied up to $700–$1,900 in savings for homes switching off electric heat, and $3,500 a year for oil-burners. While natural gas remains competitive, Sager argues adding a heat pump will “future-proof” a gas-heated cottage.

The cost to run a heat pump depends on local utility rates, your cottage’s size, and its ability to retain heat. Utilities and governments in at least four provinces—British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador—offer online calculators, but for a ballpark figure in a low-cost jurisdiction, Manitoba Hydro estimates $619 over winter to heat an “average single-family residence” with a ground-source pump, $1,032 for a cold climate air-source heat pump, and $1,290 for a conventional air-source heat pump. Based on Hydro-Québec’s 2022 survey, customers in Quebec could expect to pay a little less, and customers in B.C. and Ontario should budget 10 to 30 per cent more. 

The economics of heat pumps could be further sweetened by a range of government and industry incentives, but most of those are targeted at homes. The Canada Greener Homes Initiative, for example, offers grants up to $5,000 for both air- and ground-source heat pumps installed in “primary residences.” Even so, “it’s possible that some homeowners live full time or primarily at their cottages, which would make them potentially eligible,” Natural Resources Canada’s Laura Thomas said in an email.  

In one notable exception, P.E.I. cottagers can receive a $1,200 rebate on heat pumps. (To see the full range of programs, check Natural Resources Canada’s searchable database of “Energy Efficiency Programs for Homes.”) 

Back at West Hawk Lake, Blair opted for a $20,000 central unit, hanging his own ducts to link the heat pump and its electric backup heat to the cottage’s eight rooms. “We took a structure that was definitely a cottage, where you had to worry about coming in at minus 20 Celsius, and now you’re not worried,” he says. “Even if we’d had the ability to get natural gas, I probably would have gone with a heat pump. We need alternatives that aren’t burning fossil fuels.”

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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