Heat pumps, induction burners and other (free) ways to make your home more green

·6 min read
This heat pump was installed at a home in Prince Edward Island. They can act as a replacement for a furnace and/or air conditioner. While the upfront cost may be more money, climate change consultant Heather McDiarmid says operating costs are much lower and a heat pump is better for the environment. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)
This heat pump was installed at a home in Prince Edward Island. They can act as a replacement for a furnace and/or air conditioner. While the upfront cost may be more money, climate change consultant Heather McDiarmid says operating costs are much lower and a heat pump is better for the environment. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)

About two years ago, Heather McDiarmid replaced her furnace and air conditioner with a heat pump.

She says there were a few motivations to make the switch. One was that home heating was the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for her family.

"As a climate change professional, I know that there is an urgent need to take deep cuts to emissions and I want to do everything that I can," McDiarmid, who runs a climate change consulting firm in Waterloo region, told CBC News.

Many people, from scientists to residents in Waterloo region, are concerned about the impacts of climate change and are looking for ways to curb their own use of energy to help the environment.

Statistics Canada reported that in 2019, almost one-quarter of the energy used in the country was by households, and homes were responsible for 18.4 per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions, "mainly because of the large share of household energy coming from electricity."

In Ontario, household greenhouse gas emissions were 3.8 tonnes per person, per year, which was on par with the national average.

But Evan Ferrari, executive director of Emerge Guelph, says many people don't want to make changes if it's going to cost money.

"Unfortunately, when it comes to the environment, one of the first things that people ask is: Is it economically worth it?" he said.

"I would argue, do you want your children to continue breathing? How economically worth is that for you to make decisions that ultimately are going to prolong the problems of climate change?"

For the McDiarmid family, a heat pump cost more to install than another gas furnace, but in the long run it saved them money.

Heather McDiarmid/LinkedIn
Heather McDiarmid/LinkedIn

"It's cheaper to operate than our gas system and air conditioner ... and we're going to save back the extra upfront cost," she said.

The McDiarmid family isn't alone in making the switch to a heat pump and seeing the benefits.

Reep Green Solutions, an environmental charity based in Waterloo region, posted a blog post on Wednesday about a Kitchener couple who renovated their home using the Canada greener homes grant. They upgraded the air sealing and insulation in the home and replaced the gas furnace with a heat pump and have lowered their energy consumption by 55 per cent.

How a heat pump works

The Canadian government touts heat pumps as a "proven and reliable technology" that works year-round, including the most humid days of summer and coldest days of winter.

Simply put, "a heat pump is an electrically driven device that extracts heat from a low temperature place and delivers it to a higher temperature place," according to Natural Resources Canada's website.

McDiarmid explains, in the summer, the heat pump takes the hot air inside a house and pumps it outside.

In winter, it extracts heat from the cold air outside and transfers it inside.

"Your home is overall warmer and more comfortable," McDiarmid says of the winter months.

She said she has heard from people who have talked to HVAC installers who have tried to dissuade them from getting a heat pump and she worries there's a lot of misinformation being provided to customers. She says while older heat pumps may have been noisy, didn't work well in winter and cost a lot of money, that's no longer the case.

"Some people are concerned that it may not be able to provide enough heat in the winter time," she added.

"This is a point where heat pumps have improved significantly in the last 10, 20 years and particularly they are much better able to provide heat in really cold temperatures and they're able to do so very efficiently."

Free ways to save on energy

Emerge Guelph is an organization that helps people reduce energy and water use. Ferrari says for those still unsure about doling out cash, there are some free things people can do to bring down their energy bills and help the environment.

Emerge Guelph/Facebook
Emerge Guelph/Facebook

"People don't operate their homes properly to avoid or to reduce air conditioning," he said.

"A perfect example is, we're about to get into a serious heat later this week … A simple thing for people to do is only open the windows when it's cooler outside," he said.

That often means opening windows overnight and closing them during the day and, if you can, pull the curtains or blinds shut, too.

Ferrari said people also need to understand off-peak hours for electricity and that it's about more than saving money on the hydro bill.

"During peak demand, we burn the dirtiest of fuel to generate electricity," he said.

He will go on the Independent Electricity System Operator website to look at the power data and see what sources Ontario is using for its power at a particular time.

The province largely uses nuclear and hydro power, but also uses wind, solar, natural gas and biofuel. The use of natural gas will increase as demand goes up, such as during heat waves.

If at 9 p.m. he notices the province is still using what he feels is a lot of natural gas, he may wait to run the dishwasher, setting the time for 2 a.m. instead.

Independent Electricity System Operator/ieso.ca
Independent Electricity System Operator/ieso.ca

Another tip: Plan ahead and defrost your food in the fridge.

"If you put it in there in the refrigerator the night before, the energy that you've used to freeze it in the first place goes into the refrigerator. So the refrigerator works less," he said. "When you take it out, it winds up being at refrigerator temperature as opposed to frozen."

He added people make their homes hot by cooking inside on hot days. He suggested people could get a single burner and boil water outside on a patio or back deck.

McDiarmid agrees with using an external burner and recommends people consider an induction burner.

"It uses far less energy than my electric coil cooktop does. It boils water way faster and compared to a gas, it has the same ability to go up and down in temperature really quickly, but I'm not burning gas in my home and therefore I get far better indoor air quality than I could ever get with gas," she said.

McDiarmid says people who have to replace their hot water tank may also want to look into a heat pump water tank. It looks similar to an electric one, and they often have an electric back-up in case the house needs a lot of hot water all at once, but it uses less energy to operate day-to-day.

Both Ferrari and McDiarmid suggest talking to people who have heat pumps or other green technology to get a better sense of how it works for them.

Groups like Reep Green Solutions or Emerge Guelph have information on their websites and they say by doing a little research, it will help people understand what's right for their home and their pocketbook.

WATCH | Reep Green Solutions posted this video to YouTube explaining how heat pumps work to heat and cool a home:

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