A new online calculator shows how much money households in Canada’s largest cities could save by transitioning their homes from gas heat and air conditioning to a heat pump.

Released Thursday by the Canadian Climate Institute, the interactive calculator looks at five cities across the country: Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Nearly half of all households in Canada use natural gas, a planet-warming fossil fuel, as their main heating source, followed by electricity at 37 per cent.

The calculator is accompanied by a report, which found that the lifetime cost of a standard heat pump using an electric backup system is 13 per cent lower than a gas system with air conditioning.

“We crunched the numbers and found that heat pumps are a lower-cost option than gas heating with air conditioning for most Canadians across the country,” explained Sarah Miller, research lead on adaptation at the Canadian Climate Institute.

“Heat pumps are a cost-effective way to stay warm in winter and cool in summer, all while lowering harmful emissions.”

Heat pumps, which act as heaters in the winter and air conditioners in the summer, are becoming an increasingly popular swap for homes running on natural gas and oil. Heating systems that use fossil fuels can reach up to 98 per cent efficiency, while heat pumps can be 200 to 540 per cent efficient because they transfer heat rather than generate it. Since they use much less electricity and don’t run on fossil fuels, they are a way to limit emissions, especially as Canada moves towards its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, which is when any greenhouse gas emissions produced in the country are offset.

The calculator allows you to start by choosing from one of the five cities they studied or see results based on an average of all five if you live elsewhere. Then you choose what type of building you live in and the approximate year it was built. The results show the cost differences between a year of electricity bills with gas heat and air conditioning, compared to a standard heat pump or a cold climate heat pump. The heat pump options include the price of the unit spread out over its expected lifetime. You can look at a more detailed breakdown, which shows the carbon emissions from each energy scenario.

The analysis didn’t assume that energy-efficiency upgrades took place before heat pump installations.

A new calculator from @ClimateInstit shows how much money households in Canada’s largest cities could save by transitioning their homes from gas heat and air conditioning to a heat pump.
The results from the Canadian Climate Institute's calculator using Toronto as a city, townhouse as the home type and 1940 as the year built. Screenshot of heatpumpcalculator.ca

Costs vary between cities largely depending on regional energy prices and climate conditions: in colder parts of the country, heat pumps may have to rely more on backup energy sources. The report notes Halifax and Montreal as having relatively lower electricity costs, and Vancouver and Halifax as having relatively temperate climates.

“In contrast, Edmonton’s low gas prices and cold climate contribute to making heat pumps less cost competitive, though heat pumps become more cost competitive under high gas and low electricity cost assumptions,” notes the report.

While the calculator doesn’t have an option for other sources of heat — such as electricity or home heating oil — Kate Harland, research lead on mitigation at the Canadian Climate Institute, explained they narrowed in on gas because there is misinformation around the fossil fuel and a general information gap on how well they tee up cost-wise compared to heat pumps.

If someone is in Halifax, where oil accounts for 36 per cent of home heating, Harland said the case for heat pumps is even stronger because of the price of home heating oil.

The report stresses there are roadblocks for many people who would like to install heat pumps: upfront costs not covered by rebates or that aren’t returned until after installation; confusing or inconvenient rebate programs (authors note the required home energy audit that people must pay for before they know if they qualify for the Greener Homes grant); and a lack of access for renters.

To encourage people to switch and benefit from cost savings from heat pumps, various levels of government should maintain current rebate programs while making them easier to access, implement maximum temperature limits and require new buildings to install non-polluting and efficient heating and cooling systems, says the report.

“Heat pumps offer a lower-cost way to heat and cool most homes in Canada — beating out gas and air conditioning dollar-for-dollar,” said Rick Smith, president of the Canadian Climate Institute.

“Canada has an incredible opportunity to help people save on energy bills, reduce climate pollution and provide life-saving cooling in extreme heat like we saw this summer.”

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I'm curious as to how one gets to "500% efficiency." When I studied physics, almost a lifetime ago, 100% efficiency was the max possible. Maybe physics has changed, but I doubt it.
And then there's the nasty little piece about having to use an ozone-destroying substance in the pump, and to top it up at intervals. If there are pumps available with non-harmful coolants, please say who produces them, and who sells them.
While there have been references to the "lifetime" of both gas furnaces and heat pumps, there's been silence on how what that "lifetime" is considered to be. Neither was anything said about topping up the coolant: apparently there's some unavoidable leakage.
There are all kinds of reasons, good reasons, and very good reasons, to switch to a heat pump. But my own calculations, for me and my house, with my limited budget, make it clear it would be financially a very, very bad move for me, unless and until there's help installing solar panels and battery storage, to make the operation remotely affordable.
Ditto for the gas hot water tank, which is the only thing between me and freezing to death when a storm knocks out the electricity: partly because our little street is one of the last areas for power to be restored. But that has to enter into decision making, too. On top of that, while the water tank pays for itself in a small number of years, the on demand system never pays for itself.
You folks who can afford it, please convert ASAP ... and do it AFTER installing solar panels so my electricity rates can stop going up with demand-based pricing. And up and up and up. Except as demand decreases, the shareholders of Toronto Hydro will charge more and more, to maintain their dividends.
There doesn't seem to be a Goldilocks point: only ever-increasing costs, above any rate of inflation.
I'm not a luddite -- far from it. I just want *real* numbers for *actual*, *real* prices, and still be able to eat twice a day.
There are all kinds of reasons to convert, and I would do it in a heartbeat if (a) I had the money, and (b) environmentally sound refrigerants were used.
I'd note also that there is no calculation possible for semi-detached homes, an egregious omission when considering Toronto buildings, given that they are the most common form of housing in much of Toronto, while townhouses are relatively rare ... and one wonders at the choice of a 1940-built townhouse: that was *during* WW2, well before any building initiatives to house returning soldiers ready to marry and have children. In addition, a 20-unit building *is* an apartment building ... unless it's a housing row/townhouse.
In addition, the houses and semis around here were built c. 1920: to house returning WW1 soldiers. I'd be shocked if that weren't the case in other cities, as well. The suburbs are a different case.
I'd like to know what's considered to be low-mid-high prices for electricity, and note that with the furnace on, and maintaining the same other electricity use habits, the furnace uses $15/month of electricity while in operation.
I.e., lots is missing, and the gas costs seem to be high-balled while the electricity costs lower than actual. I'd encourage the Institute to fill in the usefulness of the calculator, rather than cherry-picking and doubling up housing types.
I'd like to have information as to what actual values were used. It's not hard for me to figure out my own usage, and to translate that to what it would cost to obtain the same amount of heating/cooling from the expensive-to-install heat pump. In the meantime, the calculator is completely inapplicable to my home and usage. And many other Torontonians, as well.

The seemingly impossible efficiency numbers come from the fact that the measure is based upon heat; that is, the heat that is added to, or removed from, (transferred between, if you prefer) an interior space and and exterior space.

It is, for example, more efficient (in terms of energy put into the process) to transfer existing heat that is already present (even in cool outside air) than to, say, run an electrical resistance heater to obtain the same amount of heat.

Having a lot of power outages is certainly a good reason to think hard before moving to electrical solutions like heat pumps. And it seems in Ontario the Liberals and Conservatives have practically conspired together to create a situation of very high electricity rates, first one messing it up, then the other.

A lot of the rest of what you're saying isn't really that relevant to the basic point. In the end, a given dwelling requires X much heat to be added to it (or subtracted from it) in order to be livable. The calculator thing gives an idea of savings for a little X, a medium X and a biggish X--and if there are savings for all those sizes, then there should be savings for sizes in between; the details of what one's dwelling is like aren't that important.

One thing I noticed is that in my case, when (and it's basically when, not if) I move to a heat pump, I expect to switch over the water heater at the same time and stop connecting to the gas company entirely. But the calculator makes the reasonable assumption that I would still be paying an annual connection fee of $165 for natural gas, so my real savings would be higher than it predicts. I mean, technically, I wouldn't be paying that connection fee FOR THE FURNACE, so it wouldn't really be part of my home heating bill, so leaving it in is bending over backward to be fair, really.

In Vancouver, I also really don't think I'd need to have electrical backup for in case it gets too cold for the heat pump, 'cause, like, it won't. So that's another savings relative to their quite careful scenario.

While I appreciate attempts to facilitate the energy transition, I’d like to explain why this calculator (and aspects of the report) are, IMO, more face plant than godsend.
I’m assuming that maybe the report authors may scan these comments.

Concern 1
Right off the top, the example cities on offer will, I posit, cause the vast expanse of readers across the country to immediately ignore it, for two reasons.

First, they will not see their city listed.

Second, they will also not see an obvious proxy (which is what I immediately looked for, and didn’t find – for Ottawa; colder than Toronto, pricier electricity than Montreal).

For example, Vancouver could be a proxy for, at a stretch, the Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast, the island, and maybe (?) Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii. Once you get inland, past the first mountain range, however, forget it. Edmonton is likely a good proxy for the prairies, (maybe including the BC interior and Northern BC?), except for what I assume is a range of electricity rates (looking at you, Manitoba).

So, why were there not more cities added which would have offered clearly understandable and agreeable (climate) proxies for, say, 90-95% of the population, including the mid- (Whitehorse, Yellowknife) and far- (Iqaluit) north, if only to recognize they, too, are a part of the country?

Here’s my list of additions:
Prince George, Yellowknife, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Saguenay, St John’s.



Concern 2
As to the report itself, let me say I like pictures. And charts. Understandable charts.
Unfortunately, several figures in the report left me scratching my head. And I’m pretty darned conversant with this broad topic.

For example, figure 2 (Annualized cost…). What does “Comparator gas heating with AC” mean? I saw no comparison to status quo.

For example, figure 5. I have absolutely no idea what this chart tells me, and I can’t be bothered to puzzle it out.

Concern 3
I don’t like black boxes, unless I trust and/or understand what is hidden from me. This skepticism is especially warranted with regards to energy; contemporary reportage regarding energy is so dubious as to make the absurd claims of a certain former American president seem, comparatively, scholarly! In the case of the (black box) heat pump calculator, I have no idea of the mechanisms and calculations that are hidden from me, so – please don’t believe I think the report’s authors are less trustworthy than 45 -- I don’t trust it.



Policy suggestion
Up-front costs are rightfully highlighted as an issue. Ideally, I would say, the amortized monthly expenditures to a homeowner wouldn’t be drastically different from what they could expect by remaining on fossil fuels. So, what about that capital cost?

A mortgage could cover the entire cost (up to a max based on a sufficiently sized residence; no McMansion subsidies) of the heat pump conversion. The funds are sourced from the gov’t. The mortgage stays with the property, not the homeowner. Monthly payments are made to the gov’t until if is paid off. The mortgage stays with the property and is not discharged upon sale.

Consideration must be given to low-income homeowners. Should they necessarily be forced/ not forced to move if payments to condition their interior air exceed their capacity to pay? (This is, of course, a broader question regarding all costs related to housing)

Yeah, I agree with you about this stuff. Certainly I was looking at the annualized cost for equipment and thinking "Oh yeah? At what interest rate? What expected lifespan for the stuff? How do I know if this reflects reasonable assumptions?"
I mean, I think probably it does. But . . .

On which cities are in the calculator--you do realize that the majority of people in Canada actually live in the cities in the calculator or their suburbs, right? Like, sure, there's a big expanse of BC past the Lower Mainland + Victoria, but that big expanse contains like 20% of the people.
Better to keep the thing simple.

Yes, I am aware. And, sure, I know that providing info specifically for several million people around western Lake Ontario will have a bigger payback for one set of data than, say, a set of data for the Northern BC interior.

However, I'm also aware that people living outside of the few large metro areas also deserve attention and assistance with this. At a minimum, by ignoring them, it risks exacerbating the urban/ rural divide, unnecessarily, not to mention increasing opposition to the entire notion of an energy transition.

Have another read through what I wrote about proxies.

Recommendation for those truly interested in energy solutions:

With regards to energy, particularly as it relates to our built environment, I highly recommend a webinar series, out of Europe, that I've been attending (on-line) for more than, I think, 15 years.

It has been, and continues to be, incredibly useful for background on energy, broadly, but particularly with regards to current technologies and policy solutions.

I can't recommend it highly enough.

For example, there is an upcoming Oct 5 webinar entitled "Minimum standards, maximum impact: How to design fair and effective minimum energy performance standards?" presented by the "Head of Berlin office at the Buildings Performance Institute Europe".

In other words, how should building codes be amended to reduce energy needs?

Start from this link, look for artifacts related to previous sessions, subscribe to future webinar announcements, and click 'yes' to receive notices from related organizations.