Heating your home with fossil fuels doesn’t just keep you warm—it creates emissions that warm the planet. Home heating is Canada’s largest source of residential greenhouse gas emissions. The good news: there’s a more environmentally conscious option that can help you save energy, shrink your carbon footprint, and build Canada’s resilience to a changing climate and fluctuating fuel prices. Here’s what you need to know about switching from a gas furnace to a heat pump—and why you should consider it.
How home heating contributes to climate change
When the temperature plunges, energy use skyrockets. Here in Canada, where the winters are long and harsh, home heating accounts for 62 percent of residential energy use. And most Canadian homes are heated with fossil fuels: in 2018, 52.5 percent of Canada’s residential heating was produced by natural gas. Along with coal, propane, and heating oil, Canadians burn a lot of fossil fuels for heat.
This creates tons of emissions. In 2018, Canadian homes produced 43.3 megatonnes of CO2 from space heating. The majority of emissions—61.4 percent—came from natural gas. (The rest came from gas, oil, wood, coal, and propane.)
Why “natural” gas is a potent greenhouse gas
Despite its innocuous name, so-called natural gas is almost entirely methane (CH4): a colourless, odourless, flammable gas. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has 70 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. And it starts polluting the environment long before it reaches your furnace. Canada, along with more than 80 other countries, just signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
Canada’s major sources of methane emissions are activities that occur during upstream oil and gas production. Some methane escapes from malfunctioning equipment like leaky valves or fractured well casings, resulting in fugitive emissions. Methane is also vented intentionally, like when a pipeline is depressurized before inspection and maintenance. Flaring is the practice of burning methane that is either unsafe because of contamination, or considered uneconomical to collect and sell. (This releases methane and emits CO2.) Oil and gas facilities are responsible for nearly 44 percent of Canada’s methane emissions and 26 percent of our total GHG emissions.
“[Natural gas] is really one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada,” says Julia Langer, CEO of The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a regional climate agency that invests in low-carbon solutions for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. “And all along the chain, from fossil fuel mining to the use in your furnace and water heater, that’s a contribution to climate change.”
The emissions from your home may not be as visible as the exhaust spewing out of a tailpipe—but they’re still causing climate change.
“It isn’t the emissions we see,” says Langer, “It’s the impacts. We’re seeing more forest fires, we’re seeing more floods and extreme weather, we’re seeing the heat-related deaths. We’re seeing the impacts of using fossil fuels coming home to roost in a more visible and visceral way for the average person.”
The importance of electrification
“There’s no path to achieving our net zero targets—which is what our climate needs—without electrification,” says Langer. “That’s because you can’t use gas or coal or gasoline or diesel (the fossil fuels) without making greenhouse gases.”
Canada’s electricity, on the other hand, is relatively clean. About 80 percent of the country’s electricity is generated from low- or zero-emission sources. British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Yukon get most of their electricity from hydro. Ontario and New Brunswick generate the bulk of their electricity from nuclear and hydro. Prince Edward Island is powered by wind. So unless you live in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, or Saskatchewan—which still get the majority of their electricity from fossil fuels—you can drastically shrink your carbon footprint by switching from a gas furnace to electric heating.
When it comes to fuel switching, the City of Vancouver is paving the way. City Councillor Christine Boyle worked with staff to develop the city’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, with the goal of cutting Vancouver’s carbon pollution in half by 2030. And in Vancouver, where 54 percent of the carbon pollution comes from natural gas heating, that means electrification.
“Because in B.C. most of our electrical power is hydro,” says Boyle, “Getting off of natural gas and onto electricity in this province is a really significant move in terms of reducing those emissions.”
As of January 1, 2022, the Vancouver Building By-law will require zero-emission equipment (like stoves, heaters, and hot water heaters) for all new low-rise residential, which is more than half of Vancouver’s new residential each year. And a report is expected this May, outlining steps for building retrofits. Homeowners replacing a gas furnace will likely need to switch to electric systems by 2025. Since a gas furnace can last ten to 18 years, the changes have to happen soon if Vancouver is to electrify its buildings by 2040.
“We’re looking at best approaches in terms of requiring fuel switching,” says Boyle. “The goal is to have all of those buildings electric because that’s what we need to do to meet our emissions limits.”
What are heat pumps?
Heat pumps are named for their ability to “pump” heat from one place to another. But they do more than just heat your home—they can also cool it. Heat pumps have been around for more than 150 years, and they are widely used in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. The technology has improved a lot in the last decade, making heat pumps a viable option for the cold Canadian climate.
There are three main types of heat pumps: water source, ground source, and air source. A water source heat pump moves heat between the indoor air and an outdoor water source like a lake, river, or swimming pool. A ground source (geothermal) heat pump moves heat between the indoor air and the ground outside. The most common type of heat pump—and what most people use in their homes—is an air source heat pump, which moves heat between the indoor air and the outdoor air. These come in both ducted models and ductless.
An air source heat pump has two main components: an indoor air handler and an outdoor unit that looks much like an air conditioner. The outdoor unit contains a compressor that circulates refrigerant, a compound that readily absorbs and releases heat as it travels between the indoor and outdoor units.
To cool a space, a heat pump works like an air conditioner. A fan blows hot indoor air over an evaporator coil, transferring heat from the air to the refrigerant. The refrigerant is circulated to a condenser coil in the outdoor unit, where the heat is released as a fan blows air across the coil. As the heat is extracted from your home, the indoor temperature goes down.
To provide heat, the system works in reverse. First, the outdoor unit extracts heat from the air and transfers it to the refrigerant. Then the compressor increases the temperature of the refrigerant, causing it to flow to the indoor unit. The fan blows air over the heated refrigerant, warming the air inside. Believe it or not, even on a cold winter day, there’s still plenty of heat available outside for a heat pump to keep your home nice and cozy. A cold-climate heat pump can operate in temperatures down to -27 degrees.
Because heat pumps transfer heat rather than generate it, they are way more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems. Even a high-efficiency gas furnace operates below 100 percent, meaning not all the energy from combustion is used to heat the air. A heat pump, on the other hand, operates well above 100 percent, providing more thermal energy than the energy it uses. In ideal conditions, a heat pump can achieve efficiencies of 300–400 percent.
“It’s a heat transfer technology that’s been around for a very long time,” says Langer, “and over the past ten years, the technology has really improved, just like solar technology has improved. A lot of clean tech has gotten a lot better and a lot cheaper. Heat pumps are a way to start getting us off gas in our homes.”
Besides being super efficient, heat pumps also make your home more comfortable. Unlike a gas furnace, which scorches the air, a heat pump simply moves heat from one place to another. So it tends to heat a space more evenly and steadily. Plus a heat pump circulates naturally humid air—unlike the dry air of a furnace, which tends to dry out your skin and sinuses.
Heat pumps are also much quieter, so in the summer when they are functioning as an air conditioner, you (and your neighbours) can enjoy your outdoor space without that annoying hum. And since a heat pump runs on electricity, there’s no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or gas explosions.
Is radiant heating a climate-friendly option?
There’s no denying the comfort of a warm, cozy floor underfoot. Radiant (in-floor) heating not only feels luxurious, but it provides constant, even heating without any cold spots. And since it has fewer moving parts, it tends to require less maintenance. Radiant heating comes in two types: electric and hydronic.
Electric systems use heat cables underneath the floor, which are connected to a thermostat. If your home is powered by clean electricity, these are a low-carbon way to warm up. But they are expensive to run, so they’re typically used in small areas like basement or bathroom floors. According to Alpine Credits, electric in-floor heating costs $8 to $12 to install.
Hydronic systems pump heated water from a boiler or a water heater through plastic tubing under the floor. These are more energy efficient and cheaper to run than electric, so they are a better option if you are heating a large floor or a whole house. If they are powered by an electric water heater—or better yet, through solar power—they’re a great way to get off gas. But they are more complex and costly to install. Hydronic radiant heating costs an average of $20 per square foot.
If you’re planning (or willing) to renovate and rip up your floor, or if you are building a new home, radiant heating may be a good option—especially if you are drawing from your own solar power, which will make it much cheaper to operate. But it’s still less efficient (and more expensive to run) than a heat pump, doesn’t offer the option of cooling, and doesn’t come with rebates.
What’s the best place to start if I want a heat pump?
If you’re thinking of fuel switching, the first step is to get a home energy audit. This will help you to determine how airtight your home is and learn where your home is losing heat. You’ll then have a road map to making your home more energy efficient.
Sarah Grant is a registered energy advisor and co-founder of Goldfinch Energy, a Toronto-based organization that helps Canadians adopt clean technology. She says an energy audit takes about two hours and costs between $300 and $600 depending on the size of your home.
“Someone comes to your home and takes a lot of measurements and does an assessment to determine how efficient your home currently is,” says Grant.
The energy advisor will examine your windows to see how well they perform, and try to determine if there is insulation in the attic and walls. They’ll also do a blower door test, where a powerful fan is mounted to the frame of an exterior door. The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. This causes the higher pressure outdoor air to flow in through gaps and cracks, augmenting existing air leakages and making them super obvious. The advisor might also use an infrared camera to pinpoint where insulation is missing and air is leaking.
“I usually like to keep the fan running at the end and walk around with the homeowner and do an air leakage tour,” says Grant. “These are gaps and cracks that you might feel as drafts in the winter around a window or a door, or even a baseboard.”
Grant says that air leakages can contribute up to 50 percent of heat loss in a home. And they are the easiest and cheapest issues to address. Not only will you save on your electricity bill, but by making your home more efficient, you may be able to install a smaller and more affordable heat pump.
Your energy audit will outline the steps you need to take, and an energy advisory can recommend an HVAC professional who is knowledgeable about heat pump systems. A good company will both install and service heat pumps.
Are heat pumps affordable?
The cost of a heat pump varies depending on the size of your home, how efficient it is, and whether or not you have duct work. According to Michael Nepom, owner of Toronto-based McKinnon Heating, a whole house heat pump can range from $4,000 to $19,000, including installation. Ductless heat pumps can cost anywhere from $4,000 for a single-zone system (one indoor unit and one outdoor unit) to $19,000 for a multiple-zone system (one outdoor unit connected to multiple indoor units).
How does the price of a heat pump compare to a gas furnace and air conditioner? Since every home is unique, you won’t find side-by-side comparisons—unless you’re looking at a specific home or building. So I asked Michael Nepom to cost out the options for my own home. Since McKinnon Heating recently supplied and installed my heat pump, Nepom is familiar with my house and its energy profile.
My two-story, semi-detached home has 2,393 square feet of heated floor space. Built in 1912, it was leaky and poorly insulated, so over time we invested in various energy retrofits before getting a heat pump. We replaced the windows, insulated the attic and exterior wall, sealed some leaks, and most recently, gutted and insulated the basement. Having improved our home’s energy efficiency, here’s what the different options would cost for our house:
- Hybrid system (new heat pump with existing gas furnace): $3895
- Conventional gas furnace and A/C: $7,000 – $10,500
- Hybrid system (new heat pump and new furnace): $18,795 – $20,295 (depending on furnace)
- Cold climate heat pump only: $19,000
Operating costs also vary depending on the size and efficiency of your home, as well as the price of electricity versus natural gas where you live. The Pembina Institute ran the numbers for a single family home in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, comparing a high-efficiency gas furnace and an air source heat pump. The annual cost for running a gas furnace was $375 and the annual cost of running a heat pump was $300-$400.
What is a hybrid system?
If you can’t afford to entirely replace your furnace and A/C, or if your gas furnace hasn’t reached its end of life, a hybrid system can be a more affordable option that still reduces emissions. The heat pump provides the bulk of your heating and cooling, and the furnace only kicks in at peak times or when temperatures dip below a certain temperature.
Since my gas furnace is only three years old, I opted for a hybrid system. The air conditioner was replaced with a heat pump, which we use the majority of the year. The gas furnace only kicks in when the temperature dips below -25 degrees.
Incentives for heat pumps and energy retrofits
Although the upfront cost of a heat pump may be high, there are various incentives you can tap into. Across Canada, the Greener Homes Grant provides up to $5,000 for energy retrofits, including insulation, new windows and doors, foundation waterproofing and a cold weather heat pump. The program also provides $600 for an energy audit—which is required to get incentives. The federal government has also announced an interest-free loan program that will offer homeowners up to $40,000 to help complete deep home retrofits—including heat pumps. There are also provincial and municipal incentives that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In the City of Toronto, for example, the Home Energy Loan Program provides low-interest loans of up to $75,000 to cover the cost of home energy improvements. Homeowners can repay the loan via their property tax bill.
As demand for heat pumps goes up, the technology is likely to become even more affordable. Boyle says last summer’s deadly heat dome prompted a huge demand for heat pumps in Vancouver.
“I’m sure that means companies are getting ready and the supply chain is getting stronger because there’s increased demand,” says Boyle.
And when the demand goes up, usually prices come down.
“The cost of a number of these systems in Europe is lower than what they currently go for here,” says Boyle. “And I assume that some of that is related to how common and available they are. So I do think we’ll see reduced costs as more and more options become available for people.”
Heat pumps will likely become even more competitive as the price of natural gas rises. A number of Canadian natural gas distributors have hiked their rates.
Langer adds that natural gas should cost more, and carbon pricing is a key piece of the puzzle. A new federal carbon pricing schedule was announced in late 2020 that may nearly double the current cost of natural gas by 2030.
“We need to continue the pricing policy on carbon,” she says. “It can’t be free to pollute.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the fact that home heating is Canada’s largest source of residential greenhouse gas emissions, not the second-largest source overall.