Post #3136: On heat pumps and home systems


Last weekend I went to workshop on composting toilets and alternative water systems at our local community hall, where Gordon Baird of Eco-sense gave a pretty comprehensive run down of various options. In four hours he managed to cover the basics of composting toilets, greywater, rainwater harvesting, and alternatives to water use (permaculture principles basically) and I came away with a lot of new information (including the tidbit that hostas are edible – which I was surprised to discover).

I’ve been thinking about house systems a lot lately – both at our residence and the cabin – and as I’ve learned more about each component (water, septic, home heating), my opinions have really shifted. (Note: if you come here for the sewing – the rest of this might be a bit boring).

First of all, I decided this summer that it was time to get a working heating solution for our home on Gabriola. The electric forced air furnace was broken when we moved in and we’ve been heating with wood as a result. At first I thought we would stick with wood heat but a number of factors have become apparent during our two year trial:

  • our wood stove insert isn’t an efficient way to heat our house
  • wood is now selling for $300-$350 a cord on our island, making it more expensive per kj than electric heat
  • we are lucky if the guys selling wood ever return our calls
  • we don’t have enough sustainable wood resource on our property to use that and there are no appreciable crown land resources to get wood from (which is what I did when I lived on the Sunshine Coast)
  • there are downdrafts/inversions on this island pretty often which push woodsmoke down and create a pollution hazard (literally, blue air)
  • it’s a lot of work to haul wood all the time, and when slippery and freezing out it’s dangerous

So, I thought – we’ll investigate fixing the furnace – probably straight forward. It took me three months to find someone who would come and take a look (the local guys only work for the rich in the summertime). Finally, a retired electrician came and scoped it out in September – he told me that all four elements were fried and that the furnace wasn’t worth saving. He did this in exchange for a bottle of wine – so at least we didn’t have to pay for that bad news.

My next thought was – okay, we’ll probably look at going down the road towards a heat pump. People on this island are heat pump *crazy* – you cannot go to someone’s house without hearing about the virtues of the heat pump. (For those of you in colder climates – this is a form of heating very specific to temperate climates that rarely get below zero). I started calling around to see who would even service Gabriola Island or give me a quote. During that time I spoke with a great many people about heat pumps and this is what I learned:

  • not everyone loves them – people who formerly heated with baseboard heaters do because they are cheaper to operate, but other people told me they are noisy and not as cheap to operate as advertised
  • below four degrees, they no longer function as heat pumps, but as glorified space heaters – so the electricity cost is no different during those times than if you were using an efficient electric furnace
  • everyone I know who uses one for heating, also copped to using them to cool their homes during the summer – that means that any energy savings on heat is negated by air conditioning use
  • the average heat pump lasts 15 years compared to the 25 years a standard electric furnace lasts – a furnace is also much easier to repair
  • the price of putting a ducted heat pump system into my house – with the required electrical upgrade? $18,000 (versus $2300 for a replacement forced air furnace)

So. While BCHydro would have given me an $800 rebate for switching to a heat pump – I was still looking at a close to $20,000 price tag to “do the right thing”. But this “right thing” it turns out – often doesn’t result in overall reduced energy costs because instead of turning their heating system off from May-October, people often just switch it over to a cooling system and run it year round for optimal temperatures. BCHydro even includes this in their online info – it’s not something I just made up. 

Additionally – the annual savings with a heat pump over 15-20 years come nowhere near the $15,000 difference between the heat pump cost and the furnace cost. 

So in the end, I did what I didn’t expect to do – but instead went ahead with an electric furnace (after much calling around because first I had to find a company who was willing to work on our island – and also one who installs electric furnaces which very few companies will do anymore because there is way more money for them in heat pumps). 

The whole experience left me frustrated and confused. So confused – that I kept thinking I must be missing something. There is a clear imperative to reduce energy usage and relieve pressure on the dams in our province – not to mention the need for carbon offsets around the LNG plants (which are baloney – but that’s a post for a different day) plus climate change – so why:

  • are heat pumps not better subsidized, particularly in retrofit situations where additional costs such as electrical upgrades might exist?
  • is there no consumer campaign to emphasize that there will be little energy savings if the heat pump is run year round for heating, cooling, and overall conditioning (filtering) of the air?
  • is there no program for lower-income people to get additional rebates on heat pump technology – particularly as industry is re-tooling to only offer this option in the future?

Upshot is – I spent a month learning about heating systems and in the end came away with the old tech rather than the new (greener) tech – and that makes me all kinds of unhappy. On the other hand, we have central heat and that feels pretty fantastic right about now (since the wood delivery guy has not called me back despite repeated calls for the past two months). Also – I bought a system I could afford which means we aren’t incurring interest on a $15,000 loan which is what a heat pump system would have meant for us. 

If we were doing a new build, or had a smaller home (that could handle a single wall unit) – then I would consider a heat pump more strongly – and might even discount the initial installation price in making my calculations. What’s another $10k when you’re already spending $300k? But as a homeowner trying to fix a problem, an electric furnace was our best option. 

This post has really ballooned so I’m going to save my thoughts on toilet technology and rainwater harvesting for another post – because hell, it turns out I’ve got a lot to say on this stuff. 

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