Do heat pumps work in Alberta? The hot air on home-heating tech

Click to play video: 'Heat pumps prove contentious in Alberta'
Heat pumps prove contentious in Alberta
WATCH: It is an increasingly hot item in a climate war, dividing our country by both geography and politics. Heat pumps are growing in popularity across the country with the federal government providing up to $5,000 in grants. But uptake is slower in the prairie provinces, with criticism suggesting they don't work in cold climates. Sarah Offin wades in to the hot air on heat pumps. – Dec 27, 2023

The humble heat pump is a fairly simple concept. And for the Bailey family, it was a fairly simple decision — all part of downsizing and reducing their environmental footprint after their kids moved out.

They had explored the idea of installing air conditioning for their new Calgary infill home, but learned, for a few thousand dollars more, a heat pump would also provide savings in colder months.

“It was clear that it was going to pay off very quickly,” said Kirk Bailey, a long-time Calgarian, now retired after a life-time career in the energy industry.

Kirk Bailey removes snow from the top of his recently installed heat pump in Calgary, Alberta. Sarah Offin, Global News

Air-to-air heat pumps are the most common type used in Alberta, especially in cities where digging into geothermal energy is generally more complicated.

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Instead, air-to-air heat pumps use thermal energy from the air, capturing it with the help of a refrigerant: compressing it for heat and expanding it to cool.

The system can reverse in the summer months — a big benefit in places where climate change is quickly turning air conditioning from a luxury item to a necessity.

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Flip flop on carbon pricing could mean free heat pumps for some homeowners

Justin Giroux, the owner of Calgary-owned HVAC company Airology, worked in Eastern Canada before moving to Calgary and had plenty of experience with installing heat pumps before moving here.

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“There’s been a big push for them in the last five years or so,” said Giroux. But the systems are much less popular on the prairies.

“In other provinces, they have both federal grants and provincial green homes grants to offset the costs of installation,” said Giroux.

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N.B. to spend more on heat pump program, but will fall short of clearing waitlist

Alberta’s premier hasn’t shared the same enthusiasm for heat pumps as other provincial leaders.

“They don’t work particularly well at below minus 25,” Danielle Smith said at the Nov. 6 premiers meeting in Halifax. “You can’t get insurance without having a backup to your heat pump.”

While there’s no universal policy on insuring them, the Insurance Bureau of Canada does recommend homeowners speak with their insurance broker to avoid surprises.

In Alberta the recommendation is to install heat pumps alongside another heating system that can provide a backup when the weather gets colder.

“The heat pumps will function down to minus 30 Celsius,” said Giroux. “But the capacity to heat a home at that temperature is reduced.”

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This is the Baileys first year testing out their new system, which is combined with a natural gas furnace.

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But by late November — during a warm Calgary fall — their furnace had only been used for about half an hour.

In the future, the family is hoping to go even greener, by installing solar panels on their roof.

“Then we’re off the grid, we’re independent, not worried about the fluctuations of power pricing,” said Bailey.

While provincial grants aren’t currently available in Alberta, the federal government’s Greener Home Grant covers up to $5,000 for green home retrofits like the installation of heat pumps.

The City of Calgary also offers low-interest flexible financing for home energy improvements. This for heat pumps, insulation, window upgrades, solar panels, high efficiency furnaces and more. New applications will be accepted in the spring.

Click to play video: 'Easy ways to make your home more energy efficient'
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