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Heat pumps for up here

Roy Whiten is serious about energy conservation. He is championing heat pumps, an energy efficient system of heating and cooling, in the territory. He is almost apologetic when he explains that his company, Hvactech Systems, also does conventional systems.

Roy Whiten is serious about energy conservation.

He is championing heat pumps, an energy efficient system of heating and cooling, in the territory.

He is almost apologetic when he explains that his company, Hvactech Systems, also does conventional systems.

“We have to eat, so we also do fossil fuel systems and things like that. Alternative energy seems to be a tough slog up here for some reason.”

The alternative energy branch of his company is called Green Heat.

Although heat pump technology has been slow to catch on in the North, it has been around for a while.

Whiten sold his first heat recovery system at the Icy Waters fish farm in 1987.

Since then, he has been involved in just about every successful heat pump installation in the territory, he said.

The technology works like a refrigerator or air conditioner to transfer heat between spaces.

But the flow of energy is reversible - heat pumps can take energy out of a space as easily as they put it in.

Heat pump systems are efficient because they take some energy from the environment - whether it is an air, water, or ground source.

Electric systems are 100 per cent efficient - for every kilowatt of energy you put in, you get a kilowatt of energy out.

Burning fuel is less than 100 per cent efficient because energy is lost, for example, by heat escaping out the chimney.

But with a heat pump, you can put one kilowatt of energy in and get three kilowatts out.

At the Whitehorse Rapids Fish Hatchery, for example, water is pulled up from a well, a heat pump extracts a few degrees of heat off the water, and it is then returned into the Yukon River.

The heat pulled out of the water is used to keep the space warm.

The Taku Building in Whitehorse, home to Coast Mountain Sports, uses a hybrid system.

There are oil boilers used to heat the building, but the way that heat is recycled through the space means much less fuel is used.

Heat pumps are a “no brainer” for commercial spaces, where both heating and cooling are required, said Whiten.

In a conventional system, the heating and cooling systems don’t talk to each other.

You could be running an air conditioner in the boiler room, and that heat would be released to the world, even if you were simultaneously burning fuel to heat a different part of the building.

With heat pumps, you move energy around to the places where it is needed from the places were it is not.

The sun’s energy hitting one side of the building can be captured and used to heat the other.

Inside Coast Mountain Sports, energy from lighting, computers and shoppers can be retrieved and used to heat the office space upstairs.

Ventilation systems can capture heat from air before it is exhausted from the building, instead of continually pumping in cold air, heating it and releasing it.

Terry Sherman, property manager for the Hougen Group of Companies, is a believer.

He manages both the Taku Building and the Hougen Centre next door.

Both buildings are about 36,000 square feet, and are used in similar ways.

But the Hougen Centre doesn’t have the Taku’s efficient heating and cooling system.

Over a year the Taku Building saved $36,000 in electricity and fuel costs compared to what was spent at the Hougen Centre, said Sherman.

“We were quite shocked ourselves when we actually sat down and took our utility bills and all our oil bills and added them up.”

And the system also pays back in comfort. Because the system is constantly moving energy to the places where it is needed from those where it is not, individual climate control is possible.

With conventional buildings, the most common complaint he hears is that some areas are always too cold while others are too hot. Not at the Taku.

The price tag to put in a system like that is not cheap. The upfront cost is probably 40 to 45 per cent more than a conventional system, said Sherman.

But it will eventually pay for itself in savings, and operating costs are now relatively immune to spikes in fuel prices.

People in the Yukon are starting to catch on.

Yukon Energy and Yukon Electrical company recently released a five-year plan to promote efficient use of energy in the territory.

Part of the plan is to pilot residential heat pump systems and offer incentives for installations if the pilots prove successful.

There is a common myth that heat pumps are no good in the North.

It is true that air-to-air heat pumps, the cheapest and simplest to install for residential use, become less efficient in colder temperatures.

The colder the air, the less energy can be pulled from it.

At minus 40 the systems don’t work at all, and a full backup heat system is required.

But for some the payoff is worth it.

“This woman was amazing,” said Whiten of one residential installation he did. “She had that oil tank and oil furnace ripped out before we even got there. She had her mind made up. It’s a good thing we had one in stock.”

The woman, an accountant, carefully kept track of her energy costs before and after the retrofit.

She calculated that she had saved $1,500 in the first year of operation. The installation cost just under $15,000.

As for Whiten, he uses the Yukon’s only ground-source heat pump at his Army Beach home.

He pulls energy into his home from holes drilled beneath the earth.

On a hot sunny day, when his home is collecting more energy than it needs, the excess goes back underground for future use.

He’ll never see a payback on his investment for that system, he said.

“I had to go to Texas to buy my own rig because it was cheaper than hiring the drillers up north here.”

But he simply had to prove that it would work.

“This is helping my grandson out ultimately, right? You’ve got to think of the future generations.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at