Home Decor

What I Learned From My First Winter With A Heat Pump

Plus, tips for a smooth transition from a gas furnace to an electric heat pump.
An illustration of a house in winter with snow on the roof and driveway and trees and a city skyline in the background (Illustration: iStock)

Let me cut to the carbon-free chase: I have come to love that moment each month when Enbridge sends an email reminding me to check the gas meter and upload the number, which almost never changes these days.

Since my wife and I installed an electric heat pump and a high-efficiency electric water heater (with a tank) in the summer of 2022, we've used a total of 17 cubic metres of natural gas. By way of comparison, in March 2022 alone, we burned 357 cubic metres. It had been a cold month, and our furnace, that troll-ish contraption huddled in a dim corner of the basement, was running full out. This winter, our new electric air source heat pump, which looks like a hefty mini-split (the exterior-wall mounted heating and cooling units seen on a growing number of homes) and lives on a little platform off to the side of the front porch, did all the heavy lifting, using electrons that come mainly from Ontario's nuclear plants and Niagara Falls.

We didn't set out to install a heat pump, truth be told. After the federal Liberals announced the Greener Homes program in 2021, we signed up for an energy audit with an eye to taking advantage of retrofit grants, up to $5,000. The auditor suggested more insulation, stopping up drafts, and an electric water heater; the other retrofits seemed too costly.

Having dealt with the low-hanging fruit, we turned to the trickier fix. Replacing the gas water heater meant buying out the lease and then replacing an electrical panel that likely dated to World War II. The electrical upgrade was critical for work of this kind, and, in our case, should have been done ages ago.

a heat pump in a wooden box outside by exterior house stairs painted white The author's heat pump. John Lorinc saw his gas bill drop sharply with its installation.

The auditor recommended an installer, who suggested an electric tank water heater with a heat pump attached—it's super-efficient, the same size as our previous tank, and there's no waiting time for the water to heat up, as is the case with tankless heaters. Those three upgrades, plus the panel replacement, cost about $12,000 and yielded a $2,000 rebate from the Greener Homes program (we bought an A.O. Smith water heater for $4,000). As we did the work in the summer, our gas consumption immediately fell to zero.


Emboldened, we decided to buy the heat pump, which is a mature, widely used technology that functions on the same principle as a refrigerator. They collect and concentrate energy from the ambient outdoor air, even when it's cold outside, convert it into heat, and blow warm air into the home. In the summer, they do the opposite with warm indoor air, and therefore replace air conditioners.

For our purposes, we had two choices: a cold-weather version, which operates down to -30C and replaces the gas furnace altogether, and a so-called hybrid, which works down to about -10C, at which point it passes the heating baton to the furnace to deal with really cold days. We couldn't afford the former—the unit is expensive and would have required us to buy out the lease on our furnace. But the latter option seemed financially doable—the models we considered ranged from $6,000 to $8,000. We went with a Mits Air. The heat pump is hooked up to our Ecobee smart thermostat, as well as our five-year old high-efficiency gas furnace.

During this past winter, the heat pump worked well and mostly predictably. I say “mostly” because it actually tried to keep heating well below its advertised minimum temperature, but didn’t manage to consistently keep the temperature at our usual setting (21 degrees). We had to tinker with the thermostat on those days to keep the heat at the desired level. The gas furnace did kick in on a few occasions, but only on a handful of extremely cold days in January and March.

As for the operating costs, our bimonthly gas bill has dropped sharply at a time when gas rates have been skyrocketing, although we still have to pay a minimum for the hook up and the furnace rental (we pay about $150 every other month for these two fees). The electricity bill during the winter months came in at about 1.5 to 2.5 times the pre-heat pump monthly average, but those amounts will drop back down to their normal levels for most of the rest of the year (we never racked up summer hydro bills because we rarely used the A/C thanks to the shade from several big trees). We haven't owned the two appliances long enough to precisely determine whether the year-over-year savings on the gas will exceed the extra cost of the hydro. But the trend to date suggests we'll be paying less for all our energy than we did before.


However, there's been a far more edifying pay off. In March 2022, our home emitted almost 700 kg of carbon by operating a gas furnace and a gas water heater. By striking contrast, in the three-quarters of a year that elapsed between July 2022, and March 2023, our emissions were just a shade over 13 kg—a 98 percent reduction. Not quite net zero, but encouragingly close.

What to look for if you're thinking of buying a heat pump

    • Don't wait until your gas furnace dies. Janssen says it's important to begin planning a few years in advance so you're not forced to make a decision in a crisis.
    • Do your due diligence on installers and make sure they’ve worked with heat pumps previously. While the technology is well established, not all contractors understand all the technical nuances.
    • Make sure you're buying a heat pump that’s the right size for your home, and also take the time to make sure your ducts can accommodate the necessary air flow.
    • Pay attention to sound on the spec sheet of the models you're considering. Because they've got large fans, heat pumps hum more loudly than gas furnaces, so the location of the pump—remember, like an air conditioner, heat pumps will be outside, not in your basement—and its proximity to your neighbours' homes, is relevant.
    • Take advantage of the incentives on offer. Janssen says the incentives from all three orders of government, as well as those offered by gas utilities or energy services firms like Enercare, are becoming increasingly attractive. The rebates make the math, as well as the climate considerations, work. "It's not just for environmentally minded people any more."

    Correction: The make of the heat pump the author purchased has been updated—it was Mits Air, not Mitsubishi.

    More ways to fight the climate crisis


    Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.

    By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.