All your burning questions about heat pumps, answered

Air source heat pump installed on the exterior of a wooden house Photo by Finmiki/Shutterstock

The world of heat pumps and geothermal energy might seem confusing and daunting. How does it even work anyways? Is it cheaper than what I already have?

Jeff Hunter, the co-founder of Evolved Thermal Energy and the president of the Ontario Geothermal Association (OGA), answers some frequently asked questions about heat pumps.  This affordable, efficient, and environmentally friendly energy source might just be the future of home—and cottage—heating and cooling.

How do they work?

Heat pumps don’t generate heat like gas heating sources such as a furnace or boiler do, instead, they move heat from one environment to another. “By using an input of electrical energy, a heat pump is able to move heat from a low-grade source to a higher temperature sink, and vice-versa. So it’s reversible and can flip to send that heat in the opposite direction,” says Hunter.

This means that heat pumps can cool your cottage, as well as heat it.

The same technology that powers air source heat pumps, which draw heat from the air, has actually existed in our homes for over half a century in the form of refrigerators and air conditioners. Ground source heat pumps work in much the same way as their above-ground counterparts, only they draw heat from the earth instead.

When does it make sense to get a heat pump? Does it make more sense for people who live on a waterfront?

When choosing what kind of heat pump to install, it is important to consider the location of your cottage and the land it is situated on. “Each property owner has to assess their own situation as the technical requirements of the different systems will be the driver of the costs involved to efficiently electrify space conditioning and water heating in the home,” says Hunter. “Though heat pump systems can be installed almost anywhere,” he adds.

As many cottages are located along waterfronts, cottagers have the convenient option of installing pond or lake geothermal heating

Working in much the same way as ground source geothermal heating, cottage owners can lay a heating loop—the same one that would be buried deep underground for ground source heating—along the bottom of the body of water near their property. The perk is that extensive digging is not always required, though you do need to ensure the loop is deep enough that the water won’t freeze during the winter.

Are they better for the environment than more traditional energy sources?

“Yes, heat pumps are better for the environment,” says Hunter. This is largely because they produce zero emissions but also because they eliminate the necessity of a potentially leaky methane gas pipeline. 

They do contain refrigerants, which are toxic, but those are contained in a sealed refrigerant circuit. 

For those looking for “green” but practical cottage heating options, heat pumps provide an excellent alternative. “The commitments we have made at local, provincial, and national levels to reduce emissions are very aggressive and heat pumps are a key technology to help get us there,” says Hunter.

Are heat pumps generally cheaper than gas or electric heat sources?

“Fundamentally, heat pumps are more than 100 per cent efficient by their design,” says Hunter. Higher efficiency means lower utility costs. Ground source heat pumps, in particular, have the ability to save you up to 70 to 75 per cent on operating costs compared to fuels such as oil, propane, or conventional electric resistance systems.

Air source heat pumps and natural gas currently rack up about the same in utility costs, but if you invest in ground source or lake/pond source geothermal heat pumps, which boast up to 400 per cent efficiency or greater, you stand to pay an even lower operating cost.

At the same time, “you get what you pay for.” A low-quality air source heat pump system might not be much more efficient than a conventional electric heater or air conditioner, for example, especially in unideal conditions, such as extremely hot or cold temperatures. Additionally, the kind of heat pump you purchase can impact the life expectancy of your system. Air source heat pump systems typically last around 10 to 15 years, while ground source pumps can last 25 to 30, and in some cases even 40 years.

Prices range depending on the quality and features of the heat pump you decide to purchase, the type of heat pump, and your property’s specs, including its size, how well insulated it is, and any necessary modifications to the building’s existing systems. But once the heat pump has been installed, it provides efficient temperature regulation not subject to factors such as fluctuations in the price of oil.

What are some tips for finding a reputable company to purchase from and install?

As is the case with any big purchase, due diligence is important. “You should get to know the people you are dealing with,” says Hunter. “Ask about specific experiences with similar projects, get references, find out the associations that businesses or contractors are involved with, look into insurance, ask to talk to their suppliers, and get quotes from multiple businesses.”

Hunter advises dealing with contractors and businesses that are affiliated with credible organizations such as the Ontario Geothermal Association (OGA), the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), and the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA). 

As the sector expands and increasingly becomes key in combating global warming, Hunter also encourages consumers to consider working with smaller and newer companies as more and more emerge, as long as they are able to prove their credibility.

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