Is a heat pump the best option? Maybe not, says engineer

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Is a heat pump the best option? Maybe not, says engineer

Maurice Alarie likes to crunch numbers.

The retired Quispamsis engineer keeps all his bills and tracks expenses on a spreadsheet.

He knows, for instance, that over the past 10 years he's paid an average 11 cents per kilowatt hour for electric heat for his 4000-square-foot ranch home near Meenans Cove.

His house is well-insulated and partially heated with a wood stove in the basement.

When Alarie decided to look into installing a pair of mini-split heat pumps he asked suppliers for both an estimate and a cost-benefit breakdown.

No one, he said, was willing to go that far.

His own calculations, however, showed installation of a heat pump made no sense, he said.

"At 11 cents a kilowatt hour your payback calculations aren't very favourable to buying these heat pumps," said Alarie.

"Are you better off just turning up your thermostat and using an extra 50 bucks worth of electricity every month through the heating months?"

A subsidy with condition

Although NB Power ended its stand-alone rebate at the beginning of October last year, it offers a $500 subsidy for a heat pump installed in combination with a major insulation upgrade.

Alarie said his current annual heating cost from electricity is $630. 

He estimated the heat pumps would reduce his bill by a little over one-third that amount if he didn't factor in the cost to pay for the units and their installation.

"Twenty bucks a month, $240 a year, unit's going to cost over $3,000 for one unit. I can't justify the payback. It's getting into 10 years for one, 20 years if I get two, if they don't break down."

Efficient way to heat

Alarie says there's no question a heat pump is more efficient. It is the cost of the system he is questioning.

He does not believe NB Power should be offering subsidies for heat-pump conversions, and suggests homeowners direct their money toward added insulation or replacing leaky windows and doors.

Heather Shuve says she's certain she made the right decision when she installed a mini-split heat pump in her west Saint John home last year.

Saint John Energy rents mini-split heat pumps to homeowners both inside and outside the city for $48.99 a month.

Shuve blames her cathedral ceilings for what had been frightening monthly bills.

"Heating could run between seven and eight hundred dollars a month through the winter — so quite expensive," said Shuve, who estimates she has reduced energy costs by $1,800 over the past year.

"Since it's been installed I have easily saved $100 a month. And that's after I've paid the $50 per month rental fee."

Jennifer Coughlan, Saint John Energy's supervisor for consumer products and business development, said cost savings depend on several factors, including insulation levels, hours that people are home, preferred level for heating and cooling and the number of occupants in the house.

"Internet research on various sites indicates that mini-split ductless heat pumps use 1 kW to heat, compared with 3 kW to heat with electric baseboard," Coughlan said.

"Thus if you are heating a similar area with a mini-split heat pump as opposed to a baseboard, you should be using less kWs."