Wendy’s furnace broke down in the middle of January. With temperatures well below zero and the help of numerous space heaters and long underwear, she and her partner decided to replace it – and are now happy heat pump owners.
By Wendy Lai
One cold afternoon in January, my partner called me while I was at work. He said, “I think the furnace stopped working.”
“Are you sure?” I replied. “Because if you’re sure, it’s 3pm on a Friday afternoon, so if you need to call someone, you’d better call them NOW.”
Indeed, the furnace had stopped working. Not surprising, since the air conditioner from the same era had broken for the second time the previous summer. We decided at that time not to replace it immediately and started to look into the idea of getting a heat pump instead.
But summer had turned to fall, and while we had gotten estimates from a few different installers, we hadn’t actually made a decision. We got lost in the weeds of what unit to get, how to size it, and whether it was better to work on other energy-saving investments first.
Like many 100-year-old semis in the neighbourhood, our house isn’t exactly airtight. It’s drafty. And it could be better insulated. We had gotten our energy inspection and completed some do-it-yourself draft remediation. But we hadn’t made a decision about the heat pump. Summer had ended and so there was no need for air conditioning, after all.
And then that cold day in January, the furnace decided for us.
The service person who came late on a Friday afternoon said he could order a new control panel, for the price of $1400, and that would probably fix the issue, unless, once the control panel was back on, something downstream of what it controlled also needed fixing. It seemed like a bit of a gamble. On the other hand, it was the middle of winter, and a cold one at that.
Uncertain, we called Trish from Goldfinch Energy. We had already had a few conversations with her the previous fall. This discussion, and many others that followed, were a combination of coaching, handholding, and technical advice. We needed all of those things.
We decided not to order the control panel and to proceed with switching to a cold climate electric heat pump on an accelerated schedule. We thought we could get it installed in a couple of weeks. (It ended up being five weeks.) In the meantime, we borrowed an impressive number of space heaters. We closed curtains and added more draft-blockers. We layered on long underwear, were diligent about wearing slippers, and pulled out our warmest sweaters. Toques became a fashion statement and were also functional. The dog got into a habit of parking herself on the rug directly in front of the electric fireplace, as soon as we turned it on every morning.
We got back in touch with the installers who had provided estimates the previous fall, to get updates on prices and availability of units. The Mitsubishi Zuba was expensive and still on back order. We were looking at a heat pump made by Tosot. Trish from Goldfinch Energy put us in touch with Mike at Boss Solar, who gave us a very competitive estimate on a unit we hadn’t heard of called Elios. We looked at the spec sheet and thought it looked good; when we called Trish again to walk through “here’s what we’re thinking, are we missing anything?” she agreed it was a great option.
After checking his references, we paid a deposit and Mike ordered the unit. Except, now the Elios was on back order as well, despite having been in stock just the week before. And so we were faced with looking at a Fujitsu for slightly more money that was immediately available. After looking at that spec sheet and another call to Trish – more handholding! – we agreed. It was to be shipped from western Canada. We decided to replace our water heater at the same time; now we are on an electric water heater that heats only at night when electricity prices are at their lowest. No fancy technology on this; Mike just connected it to a timer.
The whole process ended up taking five weeks because of a delay in receiving the unit. This occurred during the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests and so we joked that our heat pump might have taken a detour through Ottawa. Mike was fitting us in between the other installations he had committed to, recognizing that we needed to be able to heat our house. We bribed him with tea and cookies and he won our hearts by making friends with our dog.
Our heat pump is a horizontal unit with no floor footprint, so our “furnace room” now has more free space for storage than it did before. It is very quiet. No more clanking and coughing like when the furnace and blower intermittently turned on. With a variable fan, there is a more constant and subtle quality to the heat: you can tell it’s on only because the house is warm, not because it’s blasting warm air from the vents. The outside unit is mounted on the side of our house and is also very quiet. In the summer, you have to lean in and listen closely to know if the air conditioning is even on. Our small front garden has more space now that the old air conditioner unit is gone. The only reason we still need a gas connection is for the stove and the barbeque. (This is part of our next project.)
The project trailed on some weeks longer because we needed our second energy audit and then had to submit to the federal government for the rebate. It was a hassle, to be sure, but we received the full amount we expected.
And now, we are happy heat-pump owners. The point about our Friday-in-January moment is that there is never a really convenient time for a furnace breakdown – but it’s still important to make a choice you want to live with for the future. The other elements like draftiness and insulation are probably never really fully optimized in an old house like ours. Our five weeks without central heating were not fun. We felt like we were camping in our own home and we were correspondingly discombobulated, even in the weeks after the installation was complete, as we were cleaning up, returning our many borrowed space heaters, and getting back to normal. In retrospect, that might have been the one thing we would have done differently. If we had known it would drag on that long, the temporary fix by replacing the control panel on the old furnace might have been worth it.
But we are so happy we did get the heat pump. By switching from gas to an electrically powered heat pump we’ve done the equivalent of switching from a gas to an electric vehicle. And if we can do it, so can you!