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Should you be pumped about heat pumps?

Technology being heavily promoted as a way to improve energy efficiency into northern B.C. homes

A heat pump in every home?

Whether that will happen will depend on how warmly households respond to the efforts of not only BC Hydro but the provincial and federal governments to adopt the technology.

By now you have probably seen Dave and Jacklyn, otherwise known as the faces of the BC Hydro's campaign in support of all things energy efficient and more environmentally friendly.

But they are only part of the promotion.

As an incentive, the Crown corporation is offering up to $3,000 in rebates for switching from a fossil fuel based system, which can be combined with provincial and federal rebates for a total savings of up to $11,000 on cost and installation. Up to $2,000 in rebates are available for customers switching from electric baseboard heating.

In its most-recent budget, meanwhile, the B.C. government exempted heat pumps from the provincial sales tax while also increasing the PST on fossil fuel heating equipment to 12 per cent, effective April 1.

The intention, according to a Ministry of Finance backgrounder is to help "fund the cost of a new incentive to make heat pumps more affordable for rural and northern communities." 

In a statement emailed to The Citizen, the B.C. Ministry of Environment further says the PST exemption will translate into as much as a $500 reduction in the cost of the equipment, "making heat pumps a more affordable heating and cooling option."

Moreover, the most-recent provincial budget includes $16 million over three years for additional incentives for northern and rural heat pump installations, the ministry says.

Nonetheless, the move has sparked an outcry in some quarters that the provincial government has once again introduced a policy that may work well in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island but is impractical for anyone "living beyond Hope."

After all, while heat pumps might be effective in the summer and Hydro is promoting them as a viable alternative to air conditioning, but what about in the winter, particularly when the temperature drops to -40 C, making a reliable home heating system essential?

In the opinion of Prince George-based energy advisor Rod Croome that concern is a bit overblown. 

"That is kind of a valid statement, although I've been involved in several projects that use cold climate heat pumps," said Croome, who has owned and operated Prince George-based Hometech Energy Solutions Inc. since 2007. "A cold climate heat pump will efficiently generate down to -30 so in those homes, they do need some electric backup for those short periods that it might be -40."

Perhaps the bigger concern is finding someone qualified to retrofit an existing home with the system. Starting July 1, the work must be done by contractor who has met the standards set out by the Home Performance Stakeholder Council for a homeowner to qualify for the rebates.

At present, nothing for the Prince George and Fort St. John region pops up in the "find a contractor" feature of the HPSC website. But there still is time yet and, according to HSPC spokesperson Tanya Ratzlaff, four companies who have indicated they service Prince George are in the registration process "and we have ongoing outreach efforts to increase this number." 

As it stands, it appears the biggest emphasis is being put on new homes. Heat pumps are already a common sight at the Aboriginal Housing Society of Prince George development off the corner of 17th Avenue and Winnipeg Street and will be a key feature in more projects going forward.

A key driver will be the so-called BC Energy step code, a graduated process that by the end of 2032 will see new homes be 80-per-cent more efficient than those that were built to the 2018 B.C. Building Code.

Leading up to that date, the threshold will be 20 per cent (dubbed step three) by the end of this year, rising to 40 per cent by the end of 2027 (step four).

Northern contractors are already easily meeting the 20-per-cent target, according to Terri McConnachie, executive officer at Canadian Home Builders' Association of Northern B.C., simply by building "tighter homes" and adding "minor tweaks" like triple-paned windows.

"In northern B.C., we're already building more efficient, more airtight homes so to meet the deadline at the end of this year is not going to be problematic in the new home industry," McConnachie said.

She said heat pumps and other types of technology will come into play as the deadline for 80-per-cent nears. Homes that meet that standard will also have the capacity to handle solar panels, considered the final step towards achieving "net zero" where it "produces all the energy it uses," McConnachie says.

Meanwhile, a growing number of home builders around the Central Interior are in the process of achieving "net zero" certification as part of the annual process of maintaining their qualifications.

Natural gas provider FortisBC is well aware of what's going on and does not want to be left out in the cold.

With roughly 95 per cent of homes in Prince George relying on the fuel, FortisBC is working to reach a provincially-mandated goal of securing 15 per cent of its supply from renewable sources, such as methane emitted by landfills, by 2030.

And while heat pumps are currently  powered by an electricity-only item, Jas Baweja, a corporate communications specialist at FortisBC said the company is "exploring opportunity for gas fired heat pumps" that could possibly replace natural gas-powered furnaces and hot water systems with "one item that uses almost half the energy."

So what exactly is a heat pump and how does it work? 

In an online video, Dave of BC Hydro, explains it this way: The systems are made up of an outside and inside unit connected by a refrigerant line.

In the winter, the outdoor unit pulls in air from outside the home.

"Yes, believe it or not, even in the winter when it's cold, outside air still contains a certain amount of heat," he comments. "The warm air then goes through a refrigerant coolant that is compressed to increase the temperature even more."

The indoor unit, in turn, pushes the warm air into the home.  

In the summer, the process is reversed so that the heat pump absorbs the warm air inside the home and transfer it outside.

There are two basic types of systems.

Central systems connect to existing ducting are typically used on homes that rely on natural gas or an electric furnace while with mini-splits, an indoor unit mounted on a wall is used to deliver warm air into a home from the outside unit. They're best for homes without existing ducting but with electric baseboards or in-floor heating and are also "a great choice for open-plan homes or smaller spaces," says Dave.

Croome marvels at the technology and at the progress that has been made in the last few years.

"It comes down to the refrigeration cycle, it's so amazing that they can do that," he said.

According to a provincial government inventory, in 2019 residential activity accounted for six per cent or 4.1 megatonnes, out of a total of 68.6 megatonnes of greenhouse gases emitted in B.C.

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