Green Tech

Programmable Thermostats and Heat Pumps

Man's hand holding cell phone with programmable thermostat in the background.

A Reasonable Alternative

Unless you own or have access to a wood lot and are prepared to cut, split and maintain a wood stove and deal with the issues around home insurance, there really is no cheap system for heating. Electrical rates are an unknown all though right now there is an across the board night KW charge being used.  If you live in the country propane is about the only reasonable choice as maintenance and insurance costs make oil no longer as inexpensive as it once was. If you are feeling confused, you are not alone. Everywhere people, including the folks who sell HVAC equipment, are wondering where to turn.

For now, natural gas and propane, if you have a large storage capacity and buy off season, are about the best choices. Modern furnaces now reach efficiency in the 90-95% range; a fully modulating model can reach the upper levels of efficiency, I have seen them as high at 97.5 %. The other issue is cooling. Air conditioning, given the extremes in weather that we now endure, has almost become a necessity especially in urban areas.

The problems experienced by customers of Hydro One, especially in regard to smart meters and billing issues appear to be an ongoing issue. That said the difference in pricing for off-peak vs. on-peak rates per kilowatt hour is substantial. At the moment, it’s 10.7 cents KW differential, which brings me to the advantages of modern programmable thermostats. Some are very advanced, utilizing internet access and day by day/hour by hour programming.

My first suggestion for any heating and cooling system is to upgrade your thermostat to a model that allows maximum time and day temperature variations. The reason for this is that all conventional home air conditioners are electric. While weekends are all at the lowest kW rate, during the work week the peak cost period is between 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the summer, your system should be nearly shut down by the time the higher rates kick in during the day time. This is where window blinds and shades have good value; to reduce the sun’s rays and ensuing heat from entering the home. Program your system to come on after 5 p.m. at a moderate cooling and then have the system drop to the temperature you like after 7 p.m. when it is cooler anyway. In the morning, allow the temperature to climb to the mid setting from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. This will help during the peak period when you’ve programmed the system to shut down. Finding an operational balance is important because running your system so that temperatures drop dramatically wipes out most of the savings. Utilizing electricity does make sense for some, since we know in general terms its annual price over the next couple or three years, whereas oil and propane costs are market driven and even natural gas suppliers can demand price increases.

This brings me to air source heat pumps, which are worth a serious look in today’s energy situation. In my opinion, not all areas of Canada are economically viable with respect to heat pumps. While they are rapidly improving in efficiency, the far north of most provinces other than the Maritimes is questionable for operational efficiency.  If your home is electric forced air, these units can drop your heating costs by upwards of 50%. At one point, radiant electric baseboard heat did not allow for efficient air conditioning, not having a ducting system to distribute the conditioned air. You were stuck with window air conditioners and they are, for the most part, energy hogs. Today, with the advent of mini-split heat pump systems, these homes have a very viable air conditioning and heating option.  They also work well for a home with hydronic/radiant in-floor heating.

Ductless mini-split systems have really come into their own over the last 10-15 years. Their largest advantage is the small size and flexibility for room-to-room individual units and controls. I have seen them with up to four individual room units. Generally mounted over a window or exterior door, each unit is tied into a single outdoor compressor. Distance from the outdoor compressor is usually not an issue; most can be located up to 50 feet from the main unit. This allows the indoor units to be located in the most advantageous location in each area or room. Because they do not use ducting, they are more efficient, as duct work can easily account for upwards of 25% of the system loss in efficiency. The wall units were downright ugly in the beginning, but today they have been much improved. Most are less than 7 inches deep and have sleek modern cabinet covers. On the flip side, they are more expensive than some systems and I suggest you find an installer who understands the uniqueness of a mini-split system.  

 If you have a forced air duct system then an air source heat pump that sits on the ground or, preferably, on a wall bracket which is the other option.  While each home will be different, CMHC reports that a heat pump, utilizing the time cost usage as discussed earlier in this column, could have a payback on the investment of less than seven years. Since there is always heat in the air, regardless of temperature, it is important to note that both mini-split and the ducted model can provide heat to below freezing. Depending on where you live and the actual weather, the benefits of an air source heat pump are worth investigating and with the current government grants on these installations, a serious look into.



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