The ‘Little House” Part 3: In Search of a Net-Zero Heating and Cooling System.

After a long interlude, things are finally happening at the ‘Little House.’ Readers with good memories and a lingering interest may recall that this project was kicked off about a year ago, when the writer took the decision to retrofit and expand an aging ‘little house.’ The goal was, and continues to be, to make the ‘Little House’ a little bigger and to do it as sustainably as possible.

The house is located centrally in a small town, some distance from Orillia. I was initially concerned that ‘heritage’ might trump ‘net zero’ in the community; however, more recently I’ve seen substantive and encouraging signs of strong community support for sustainable practices that co-exist positively with both their heritage guidelines and the building code.

Speaking of which, working through the building permit process—although drawn out—was an eye-opener. As a newcomer to this process, I was impressed (and also challenged) by the number of ‘green’ requirements—all requiring professional opinions, surveys, inspections and consultations. The majority of these were related to the lot’s grading plan, stormwater runoff, etc. – providing ample material for a future article. All this took time (and money), and it’s only over the past month that excavation has gotten underway.

The energy audit conducted on the house last winter identified three priority areas for reducing emissions: the furnace (a very old and noisy relic), an uninsulated and exposed kitchen floor, and the need to verify and augment the insulation in the walls.

The kitchen wasn’t the original. It was a 1950’s addition to the rear of the house and was demolished in preparation for the new addition – quickly resolving the uninsulated floor issue. Removing the vinyl siding allowed us to check for insulation and we were delighted to see evidence that the ‘Little House’ had had insulation pumped into the exterior walls. That being said, before putting new wooden siding in place, we plan to do a deeper dive and top up the insulation that may have succumbed to gravity over the years. Ensuring a tight seal will be critical to the overall efficiency of the new heating and cooling system.

Next step is to replace the current furnace with an air-sourced heat pump (ASHP). I did some homework on why one should invest in an ASHP and can recommend the Ontario Clean Air Alliance’s study of the ‘Financial Climate benefits of Electrifying Gas-Heated Homes’ (Click Here) as a compelling document. It makes a reader-friendly case for the long-term economic and environmental benefits of switching from a fossil-fueled heat source to a heat pump. Which brings us to the next step: how to go about identifying the various options available, including the best one for your home.

My contractor was (and continues to be) very helpful in identifying both criteria and options. Criteria for selecting a Heat Pump include the following: the size required, climate performance, energy efficiency, choosing a central or zone system, the cost, reliability, and servicing. Other considerations may include compressor type, noise, ducting or no-ducting, and brand. That’s a lot to assimilate and assess. To help me get my head around what was most important and the best options for this decision, I consulted with local expert and business man, Don Shakell (Shakell Heating & Cooling Ltd.), who has been selling, installing and servicing heat pumps in this area since the eighties.

Don helped me scope out several options. Because of our colder climate, he advised choosing something over-capacity versus buying a smaller unit. He also stressed the importance of ‘variable capacity”—key to ensuring consistent comfort in the home, while boosting the overall energy efficiency of the unit itself. We reviewed industry ratings like “seasonal energy efficiency ratio” (SEER) and “heating seasonal performance factor” (HSPF). Don describes these ratings as being akin to ‘miles per gallon’ and, in both cases, the higher the number, the better the performance of your prospective unit.

And cost – well, it’s not cheap, that’s for sure – but there are grants available (Canada Greener Homes Grant – Click Here) and most homeowners can qualify for a grant of up to $5000 when they switch from fossil-fueled furnace to an air-sourced heat pump. The economic argument in favour of an ASHP is a long-term one – it takes between eight to twelve years for a return on an average-sized home; likely less if natural gas and propane costs increase dramatically during the same period. The environmental argument to reduce our individual carbon footprint is much more immediate.

Despite being a complete greenhorn in this realm, thanks to some legwork by my general contractor, some expert advice and input from Don Shakell, and my own readings, research and bias towards a sustainable solution – I am feeling confident that I can make the right decision for the ‘Little House.’

Let me close with a few general comments on the whole heat pump phenom. There has been an uptick in consumer awareness and demand for this technology, and government grants are helping drive demand to some extent. All of which is a good thing. However, despite increasing demand, incentives and improving technology, a wide-spread conversion to heat pumps can only evolve over time. Although they are a highly desirable and sustainable alternative to fossil-fueled heating systems, market penetration will continue to be impacted by the up-front cost of these units and the capacity of both manufacturers and the electrical grid for some time to come.

The capacity isn’t fully there yet, and it will take time for this market to become economically and reliably efficient. This and the three to four-month delivery times further underscore that the best time to invest in an air-sourced heat pump is when your current fossil-fueled furnace needs to be replaced.

In the meantime, market movement is afoot: the technology will continue to evolve and improve, and, as supply starts to approach demand, costs will start to come into line. The key is NOT to replace your aging furnace with another fossil-fueled unit. Commit and plan now to move to a non-fossil-fueled heating and cooling system as soon as it makes sense for you and your home.

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