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Pumping the Heat

JMaxApril 11, 2024 home

I just want to sing a bit of praise for our heatpump.

The big heat exchanger fan under our stairs

In spring of 2022 we decided to take the plunge: our 60yr-old house had its original gas furnace (in a lovely two-tone green), and our big old hot water tank was well into its second decade. That, with my rising consciousness of the problems of methane (er, ‘natural gas’) made us take this seriously: let’s just get rid of the furnace and the water tank and go electric. It didn’t hurt that the various levels of government here offered thousands of dollars of rebates to help offset the costs.

The old gas furnace, kicked to the curb.

We brought in one of these newfangled heat/plumbing/gasfitter/hvac/electrical combo companies, and they quoted us a rather large figure (more than $20k) to do it, but that would be installed and all-in. They also promised us all the audits and whatnot that would be required to qualify for the rebate programs. On a grey day in May, they showed up with two vans’ worth of gear, spread everything out in our back yard – the gear and their tools took up the entire yard (my favourite was the sheet-metal fabbing stuff). Three days later they left, and it was done. Completely. All in, all cleaned up, all good.

So much stuff in the back yard!

And it just works. We ended up with an American Standard system… a big heat exchanger that sits under our back deck’s staircase, and a stack of “air handler” components that takes the place of our old furnace. Plus a smart thermostat (with an app, naturally) that provides stats and schedules and programming options. They tied the system into our existing ducting and floor-mount heat registers.

In the end, they talked us into an on-demand water heater that runs on natural gas (the argument being that electrical hot water isn’t/wasn’t ready for prime time), a relatively tiny box that hangs on the wall in the furnace room and is no doubt much more efficient than the tank was. At some point that will go too and we’ll be free of the gas company entirely.

But as I say, it just works. It chugs along, summer and winter (and not all that much in Vancouver’s fall and spring), and it just works. The heat comes on more subtly than the hot blast of furnace first thing in the morning, but it works just the same: keeps the house at the right temperature. And in the summer, it pumps cold air in; my one caveat is that floor-mounted registers kind of suck at circulating cold air, for obvious reasons. Those high, wall-mounted ‘heads’ would deliver AC more efficiently. But it still makes a difference, even through our old ducts!

And we’ve had some extremes. In the summer of 2022 we had heat in the high 30s here, and in January this year it went down to -12º, and the pump just did its thing, no worries. I wondered about cold snaps, but it did fine.

It’s interesting to ask about the costs. We did get something approaching three-quarters of the purchase/installation price back in rebates (eventually). The cost of running the system is overall pretty close to what we were paying for gas, but it’s also apples/oranges because our furnace wasn’t trying to cool us in the summer months. And I sleep better knowing we’re electric – which in BC at least is almost entirely hydro.

Here’s a graph of the past year:

Graph of heat pump usage over the past year.