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Cool choice: Heat pumps vs. air conditioners

Summers in B.C. are definitely getting warmer. Where 20 years ago we might have been able to keep cool with one or two well-placed fans, a lot more of us are now considering adding air conditioning to our homes.

But before you run out and buy an air conditioner, consider what an air source heat pump can do for you. It's the most efficient way to deliver year-round comfort, and while it's called a "heat" pump, it's a superstar when it comes to cooling your home.

How a heat pump cools your home

The heat pump is designed to do a seasonal switcheroo. In the cold months, it works by extracting warmth from cold air outside – yes, there's still warmth in that cold air – and through a cycle of compression and expansion of a refrigerant, pumps warm air into your home.

Switched to cooling mode, a heat pump reverses its cycle, moves the warm air out of your home, delivering it to the great outdoors. It does this with a refrigerant that absorbs heat on the indoor side of the unit, flows to the outside, then releases heat. Now cooled, it's ready to flow back into the home to pick up more heat, repeating the cycle until your home is nice and cool.

If this sounds familiar, that's because this is basically how an air conditioner works, too.

Why a heat pump over an air conditioner?

The heat pump is a system for all seasons – there's no need to have separate heating and cooling systems. It's also wonderfully efficient and eco-friendly, running on the power of water – BC Hydro’s hydroelectricity – to offer a clean and renewable alternative to heating with natural gas, propane or oil.

Most heat pumps produce 97% less greenhouse gas emissions than a high-efficiency natural gas furnace.

One more thing. Heat pumps can be great for indoor air quality. They can dehumidify your home while also providing the air flow and filtering to clean air of dust, pollens and other allergens. As B.C. faces more summers plagued by forest fires and smoky air blowing around the province, a heat pump's filtration system can also act to clean that air before it enters your home.

So, are you ready for a heat pump? Four things to consider.

1. The math on cost has changed

Only a few years ago, the up-front costs of heat pumps were enough to scare away most homeowners. But that math is changing because of a few key developments:

  • Installation expertise: HVAC contractors are gaining from experience in installing heat pumps, and BC Hydro recommends using a registered contractor to assess your needs and install a heat pump that's correctly sized for your home. These contractors have completed additional training on heat pump installation best practices and building science fundamentals.

  • Popularity and competition: As heat pumps have become more popular, there are more suppliers and greater choice. It's easier today to find a system that matches both your needs and your budget.

  • The rise of rebates: In B.C., combining CleanBC, BC Hydro and federal rebates can add up to as much as $11,000 for those switching from natural gas, propane and oil to an electric heat pump, and up to $7,000 in combined rebates for switching from electric baseboards or an electric furnace to a heat pump.

  • Energy savings: If you currently rely on electric baseboards to heat your home, you’ll see significant savings in your electricity use – and even more if you currently have central or portable air conditioning as well.

Use our heat pump incentive guide to learn about available rebates, potential savings and other benefits of installing a heat pump in your home.

2. What sort of heat pump is right for you?

Rebates are available for air-source heat pumps, but not all heat pumps are the same. Here are the key differences:

  • Ductless mini-split or multi-split heat pumps (also known as ductless heat pumps) don't require ducting, feature an outdoor unit, and either one indoor head (vent), or multiple heads to offer single or multi-zone heating and air conditioning.

  • Central ducted heat pumps have an outdoor compressor that transfers heat to an indoor furnace or air handler, which uses a ducting system to carry the air around the house.

  • Ducted mini-split heat pumps work in the same way as mini-split heat pumps, except that they feature an indoor unit in a concealed space (usually in the attic) with short ducts running to vents in two or more rooms.

Like any product, not all heat pumps are created equal. Apart from being less efficient, many cheaper models are also very noisy, so look for a low decibel (dB) rating and invest in a reputable brand that you can rely on for the next 10-15 years. Learn more about choosing and installing a heat pump.

3. Modern heat pumps are better equipped for the cold

It used to be that if you lived in a really cold part of B.C., heat pumps were not an option. But if you live in an area outside the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island, you now have the option of installing a cold climate rated heat pump, designed to operate in temperatures as low as -25°C.

4. Should you upgrade your insulation first?

Absolutely. Like any heating system, the more insulated your home is, the more efficient your heat pump will be. So if you live in an older home, you may also want to consider upgrading your insulation to help you get the most out of your new heat pump.

Get those insulation upgrades before your heat pump installation. Contractors will do a heat load analysis that, in a home with better insulation, can produce a smaller, less expensive heat pump system as an option.

And you guessed it. We offer insulation rebates, too.