Earth Day question: could you save money with a heat pump?

By Contributor
April 19th, 2020

The City of Rossland Sustainability Commission invites you to virtually celebrate Earth Day. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day we will be providing information, ideas and virtual activities from April 20th through April 25th.

Visit www.rosslandsustainability.com or find “Rossland Sustainability Commission” on Facebook to stay up to date with this event and see new information year-round.

Below is an article written by Andrew Bennett about an interview with Dave Nutini,  talking about Nutini’s experience and opinions after upgrading his home heating system with a heat pump.  Because every house is different, the Energy Task Force of the Sustainability Commission suggests you contact your local installer to discuss the benefits of adding a heat pump to your home, as well as the potential payback period.  This article also appears on the Sustainability Commission’s website:

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Dave Nutini was crooning when he switched out his 70’s era baseboard blowers for a slim pair of heat pumps. Straight up, this was money for nothin’ and heat for free!

“I’m saving $200 per month at least,” Nutini said. “We installed the heat pumps ourselves and had them paid off in just two years. Even if we’d hired a pro, the payback would only have been four years.”

Here’s the magic: In typical Rossland winter conditions, Nutini gets threetimes more heat energy out of his system as electrical energy supplied. Whoa there, you might say, that’s crazy. But it’s true! A typical baseboard is 100% efficient, which means you get an equal amount of heat energy as electrical input. . But on a minus 5°C day, Nutini’s heat pump is 300% efficient, and in spring and fall the efficiency is even better. If this all sounds impossible, we’ll get there…

Dire Straits had just released their 1985 classic “Money for Nothing” when Dave and Marjorie Nutini bought their poorly insulated house in upper Rossland. With four-inch walls and six-inch ceilings stuffed with fibreglass, they found themselves spinning the meter to keep warm. The most practical and cost-effective changes came first, plugging drafts and adding insulation all over the house, especially in the ceiling.

That helped, but they weren’t happy with their vintage wall-unit blowers. First one and then another would rattle away, blasting dry heat. They considered central heating, but the hassle and expense to install ducts seemed unreasonable. “We’d have had to rip the whole place apart,” Nutini explained.

So, in the early 90’s, they opted to install ceiling vents and an electric forced air system into the uninsulated attic. “That hot thing sitting up there was a bad deal,” Nutini said. It left the basement cold and was awfully inefficient, melting the roof all winter long.

Finally, six year ago, Nutini struck gold: A “mini-split heat pump” that’s easy to install in virtually any situation. A retired math and science teacher, Nutini takes pride in calculated decisions, but also in boldly trying new technologies. This new heat pump was a perfect fit for him, their house, and for Rossland.

It’s deceptively simple to look at. Outside, a small, three-foot cube houses a quiet fan and compressor that are connected by some wires and pipes to an elegant indoor unit that blows heat gently and quietly into the room. It’s a “mini-split” because the two small components can each be mounted separately in a convenient spot.

But hang on, what is a heat pump? Like the coils on the back of a refrigerator (but in reverse) a heat pump literally extracts heat from the cold outside air and pumps it indoors. Yes, even in really cold air, heat energy is there for the taking.

The key is a refrigerant that boils at a very low temperature. Outside in the cold air, liquid refrigerant under high pressure expands inside fins like those in a car’s radiator. The liquid boils as the  cold air blows over them absorbing the heat.. The hot air is pumped indoors where it condenses to release its heat, and then is pumped back outside. In the summer, most heat pumps can also be run in reverse to cool a room.

Heat pumps are especially appropriate for Rossland’s relatively mild winters. Efficiency drops as temperatures get really cold. While it still “doesn’t skip a beat” at -20°C, Nutini said, the heat pump is not much more efficient than a baseboard heater in that kind of cold, running at one-to-one heat out for energy in. Three-to-one efficiency is reached at outside temperatures of about -5°C. And when the weather hovers at or above freezing during the shoulder seasons, efficiency gets even better.   Heat pumps can even replace any type of electric heat.  Anyone currently heating their home with electric baseboard heaters or an electric furnace should seriously look into replacing their existing units to a heat pump.

Dave and Marjorie agree, living with a heat pump is great. Since installing two mini-splits six years ago, they’ve never had to use any other source of heat, even on the coldest nights. The fans are quiet, gentle, and easy to program, and the unit automatically ramps up or down according to the need. Maintenance is minimal—almost non-existent—and in Marjorie’s words, “it’s a comfortable heat.”

Nutini is unstoppable; he’s talking about adding solar panels, solar hot water, and more to keep their electricity bill and ecological footprint low. He gets dreamy as he envisions modern homes with tight, highly insulated envelopes that a heat pump could keep warm “for pennies.” But perhaps he’s done one better than perfection, demonstrating how a simple retrofit to any old home in Rossland can save money and energy.

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