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Heat pumps: What are the benefits amid pollution pricing debate?

As Canadians consider ways to heat their homes amid debate over government-imposed pollution pricing, some researchers suggest that heat pumps could be an affordable solution for staying warm and minimizing emissions this winter.

According to Efficiency Canada, an energy and policy tracker with Carleton University's Sustainable Energy Research Centre, heat pumps, on average, operate three times more efficiently than electric resistance or electric boiler heating.

But the benefits, researchers say, extend beyond efficiency.

"Heat pumps offer building owners and occupants many benefits, including increased comfort, often lower utility costs and access to efficient cooling increasingly essential due to climate change," Efficiency Canada says on its website, adding that heat pumps, if used instead of standard heating systems, "can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 million tonnes in 2030."

But what are heat pumps, and what do Canadians need to know about them as the months get colder?


According to the government of Canada website, heat pumps are "proven technology that have been used for decades, both in Canada and globally, to efficiently provide heating, cooling, and in some cases, hot water to buildings."

Essentially, a heat pump is an electric device that extracts heat from a low temperature space and delivers it to a high temperature space.

"Heat naturally flows from places with higher temperature to locations with lower temperatures," the government of Canada explains on its website. "A heat pump uses additional electrical energy to counter the natural flow of heat, and pump the energy available in a colder place to a warmer one."

A heat pump can work two ways: it can increase the temperature of a home by redirecting thermal energy inside, and it can reduce a home's temperature by removing thermal energy.

These two processes are rooted in the source of heat. If a heat pump depends on an "air source," the pump will draw warmth from the outside air during the heating season and then prevent it from coming indoors during the warmer cooling season.

"It may be surprising to know that even when outdoor temperatures are cold, a good deal of energy is still available that can be extracted and delivered to the building," the government of Canada says.

To illustrate this, the heat content of outside air at -18 C equates to 85 per cent of the thermal energy contained at 21 C, and the government says "this allows the heat pump to provide a good deal of heating, even during colder weather."

Another thermal source for heat pumps, although less common, can be found in the ground, where the device uses the ground, water, or both as the source of heat in the winter, and as a reservoir to reject heat in the summer.


Instead of furnaces and boilers, which heat spaces through the combustion of fuel such as natural gas or heating oil, heat pumps depend on the amount of electricity required to pump thermal energy from a source. Aside from the energy costs of using it, installing a heat pump can also come with steep costs.

According to, the cost of installing a heat pump, on average, can be anywhere from $3,500 to $15,000. This range of The cost depends on the existing ductwork of a building, and the calibre of a heat pump. Geothermal or ground-source heat pumps can add to the cost.

The size of your property is also an important factor while considering up-front costs. reports that a modern heat pump can reduce the amount of energy used by 50 per cent, particularly with electric baseboard heating.

According to the government of Canada, "the higher efficiency of the heat pump can translate into significant energy use reductions," but actual savings could depend on a number of factors. These include your local climate, the efficiency of your current heating system and the size of the heat pump.

The government also noted that heat pumps, in general, are much more expensive upfront than furnaces or electric baseboards, primarily due to the number of components that are required.


In an effort to help Canadians enduring the financial toll of pollution pricing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office announced a "new energy affordability package," which includes upfront payments for low-to-medium income households that heat their homes with oil to switch to electric heat pumps. This initiative will begin in Atlantic Canada, as a pilot project, and will offer $250 to eligible families.

Trudeau also said the government is increasing the maximum amount of funding towards the installation and purchase of a heat pump from $10,000 to 15,000.

"To be blunt, the price signal on heating oil is not resulting in enough people being able to switch to electric heat pumps, despite people wanting to move to these cleaner home heating options," Trudeau said. "As a government that is focused on evidence and data and outcomes, and that is listening to Canadians, we heard you."

Some members of Parliament insist that these funding options are not enough to lessen the financial burden of Ottawa's pollution pricing.

Last week, almost all of Canada's premiers and territorial leaders joined together for a two-day meeting in Halifax, addressing the rising cost of living and government measures to lessen financial burdens.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said that pollution pricing is "just causing unfairness and making life less affordable, and really harming our most vulnerable as we get into the winter season."

She added that, in Alberta, heating pumps "don't work particularly well below -25 C."

"You can't get insurance without having a backup to your heat pump," Smith said. "We believe very strongly that natural gas should be treated as a cleaner fuel."


Are you considering switching, or have made the switch, to a heat pump? If so, we want to hear from you. Email us at with your name, general location and phone number in case we want to follow up. Your comments may be used in a story.

With files from Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello Top Stories

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