Pure energy—How to cut the cord of fossil fuels
Shortly after moving into his new home, Dylan Trebels knew he wanted to free himself from fossil fuels--the question was how?
I grew up on the CFB Rockcliffe air force base. We were one of the last families to move out in 2006. When the opportunity came up to live right down the street from where I grew up in a brand-new home, I jumped at it.
A few months after getting the keys and settling in, guilt started gnawing at me. Every time I turned on the hot water or heard the furnace start up my brain screamed, “You’re burning fossil fuels!”
I’ve always been energy conscious. Trying to turn the lights off when I leave a room. Keeping showers short. But for the first time in my life, I wasn’t living with my parents or renting. I was in control of the equipment that kept me comfortable and gave me hot water and I didn’t like what I owned. I knew there were a few thousand dollars in rebates available, but it was all a bit confusing.
My first step was learning about heat pumps.
What is a heat pump?
I had heard about heat pumps. Heat pumps don’t create heat, they extract it from the air. They are like air-conditioners that work in reverse. Using a small amount of electricity, they run a compressor which moves heat from one place to another. In the winter it brings heat into the house. In the summer, it pulls heat out of the house.
Your refrigerator works similarly. It pulls heat from inside the fridge and dumps it into your kitchen. Even in super cold air, there’s still some heat. After all, -25 C is warmer than -50 C.
Modern heat pumps can perform well even at -25 C. According to a scientific paper published in Nature magazine in September 2022, in Norway, which isn’t known for being warm, two out of every three homes now have a heat pump! And their emissions from home heating have fallen by 80 percent since 1990.
So getting rid of the house’s fossil fuels altogether was in reach. At a high level the process looked like this:
- “Pre-retrofit” energy audit.
- Decide how to finance it.
- Work with contractors to select and install equipment.
- “Post-retrofit” energy audit.
- Submit paperwork and receive rebates/funding.
- Call the gas utility to have the line capped.
My energy audit showed that the house was a bit leakier than expected, and it used 93 gigajoules (GJ) of energy per year—58 GJ from natural gas and 35 GJ from electricity.
After the audit, I had seven different HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) contractors come to the house. Some tried to sell me a hybrid system which uses a gas furnace backup when the heat pump can’t provide all the heat. I knew I wanted an electric heat back-up. I narrowed it down to three contractors who had experience with cold climate heat pumps and getting homes off of gas.
To finance the new cold climate heat pump and electric water heater ,I used the City of Ottawa’s Better Homes Loan program. The program offers low-interest, 20-year loans of up to $125,000 (or 10 percent of the current value assessment of the home, whichever is less) to cover the cost of home energy improvements. They gave me 30 per cent up front for deposits after I provided quotes.
The installation happened in November, followed by the post-retrofit audit and paperwork. I received a $5,000 rebate, but amounts went up to $6,500 in January! I also got $600 back to offset the cost of the two energy audits.
The post-retrofit audit shows that electricity use doubled, but total energy consumption decreased by 29 percent from 93 GJ to 66 GJ per year. Carbon emissions also dropped 81 percent from 3.3 to 0.6 tons per year!
It’s not all rainbows though. Heat pumps are cheap to run. Pure electric back-up heat is not. In January, the heat pump stopped working due to a defective part. It was back-ordered so the house ran on the electric back-up heat for three weeks. Since fixing that, it’s been smooth sailing!
The electric bill is higher, but total utility bills are down about 15 percent. I didn’t experience the huge gas price increase that everyone felt this winter, either. Heat pumps are way more efficient than gas furnaces, but I also no longer pay $265 per year just to have a gas account.
Look for the flat “customer charge” on your monthly gas bill.
The house is far more comfortable with the heat pump than it was with our gas furnace. It keeps the house warm, even in Ottawa’s winter climate.
As an added bonus it’s more efficient than the air conditioner it replaced. So cooling the house this summer should be cheaper!
The cherry on top of all this is I no longer feel the gnawing sense of guilt every time the heat comes on!