A condo building balcony with a heat pump. Image created using DALL·E.

Clean Condo Life: Getting Heat Pumps For Buildings Without A/C

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As a condo dweller in a building constructed without the foresight of central air conditioning, I’ve been feeling the effects of climate change more acutely than ever, as have my neighbors. Every summer seems to bring new temperature records, transforming my once comfortable urban haven into a sweltering hotbox. What was once a luxury, air conditioning, is fast becoming a necessity in this changing climate.

Climate change is just one of the megatrends of the past and coming decades. Longer running megatrends are population growth and urbanization. With massive automation of agriculture and resource extraction over the past century, the number of people living in rural areas has dropped globally, while the number living in cities has skyrocketed.

While North American TV shows and movies might make it seem as if the world lives in detached homes in the suburbs, the reality is that only about 1% of the world lives that way. Even in those sprawling American suburbs, 20% of the residents live in multi-unit residential buildings. Outside of Australia, every country in the world lives much more in flats, condos, townhomes, and terraces. In Asia, 90% of the populace lives in apartment or condo buildings.

And the further you get from the equator either north or south, the greater the likelihood that multi-unit residential buildings don’t have air conditioning. The further you get from the equator, the faster the temperature is rising in fact, with Canada seeing twice the average heating as places further south. As I’m experiencing here in Vancouver, living without air conditioning is not really viable any more. And if you’re a condo owner, it can be a problem for resale of your unit. As one of my favorite real estate agents, the one who helped me find this place a few years ago when we finally settled down again after our decade of trotting around the world with my roles in Latin America and Asia, told me recently, a condo not having built-in air conditioning is a hard no for an increasing number of buyers. It’s not a point of negotiation, it’s a show-stopper. They won’t even look at the unit. Portable AC units don’t count, it has to be built in.

Another big factor in this is that the city where I live is requiring new homes and residential buildings finished in 2025 and later to be built with heat pumps. It’s a public health issue in part, as despite our very temperate climate here in southern British Columbia, people are starting to die from the heat, 619 in the province in a week in 2021 and another 16 the following year in another hot week. Virtually all hyperthermia deaths occur indoors and unsurprisingly mostly in the places where most people live, the Lower Mainland. But it’s also a climate change and electricity supply strategy, as heat pumps obviously don’t burn natural gas in the winter to keep people toasty, but also use a third of the electricity as baseboard heaters do, helping substantially with the province’s and cities’ efforts to be part of the solution without overloading the grid.

What that means is that the condos in our building will suddenly start being compared not to the vast majority of suites that don’t have air conditioning, but to a rapidly growing number of new buildings that have it built in from day one. That’s a recipe for condo value differentiation, and not in our favor.

What to do, what to do?

Well, I’ve been living this and driving through a solution for my building, so I’m going to share my findings to date to assist others in my size 11 shoes.

What’s A Heat Pump Again?

In simple terms, heat pumps are devices that move heat from the outside to the inside, or from the inside to the outside. They are an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners. The beauty of a heat pump is that it can cool your home in the summer and warm it in the winter, making it an all-season solution.

You get about three times as much energy in the form of heat or cold as the electricity used to run them, something referred to as the coefficient of performance (COP), because you are just moving heat around, not creating it by burning gas or heating up electrical coils. That means that heating bills are about a third what they would cost with baseboard heaters, and in my country with an increasing carbon price, cheaper than burning natural gas by 2027 or so in most of our provinces. Air conditioners are one-way heat pumps, so there aren’t any electricity savings in the summer time.

Heat pumps are just two-way air conditioning, but there are some things to think about.

Can You Get Central Heat Pumps For The Building?

It’s entirely possible to retrofit the HVAC system for most multi-unit residential buildings with heat pumps. A building on the other side of the water from me where I know someone is considering a retrofit with Sanden CO2 (more on refrigerants later) heat pumps for hot water, heating, and cooling. Sanden is one of the major vendors and focuses on water, which is why Harvest Thermal, whose CEO and founder Jane Melia I talked to a few months ago, uses its product with her solution for homes.

In my 233-unit, 19-story building with an 8-story podium, we could get roof-mounted air source heat pumps, plumb refrigerant lines down to each floor’s utility closets and from there into suites where air-exchange units inside the condo would blow hot or cold depending on the season. But that’s a very big job, expensive, requires a lot of prep and planning, weighty planning permit documents, city approvals, and the like.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get full central heat pumps through strata council and the AGM, and as I’m the president of my strata council, I’m reasonably well positioned to judge. I suspect it’s not something our owners would agree to a special levy on, especially as I’m pushing through EV charging readiness for our 330-stall, four-level parkade and actively investigating tying the building hot water system into the local district heating grid (I’ll write those up in separate condo life pieces), two initiatives with lots of engineering questions, AGM approvals, and the like.

That said, I’ll be sharing full central heat pumps as an option next week with council, and they may surprise me.

Choosing The Right Heat Pump For A Suite

There are three main types of heat pumps that can be added to individual flats or town homes as permanent and hence sales price enhancing fixtures. The first is a mini-split. It has a unit that goes outside on a balcony, patio, or brackets on the wall, and a unit on the inside of the suite, typically mounted on a wall, which heats or cools the air it blows around in the suite. A thin conduit runs between them carrying tubes of gas and liquid as well as a power line. In the summer, heat is taken out of the suite to the unit on the outside, which lets the heat escape to the open air. In the winter time, the outside unit captures heat from the open air and sends it through the tubes to the inside unit, which pushes it into the condo’s air. There’s a multi-zone variant of this where you have one outside unit and two or three inside units attached to it.

The second type puts both parts inside the suite, but drills two 20 cm (8-inch) holes through the wall into the outside. There are a couple of types of this one, with the Olimpia Splendid Maestro (the entire space has naming and branding problems, as many have pointed out) having a single inside unit that mounts on a wall that is next to the outside, and another, the ELFO Multi-split (see what I mean about naming?) having a unit that can hide in a closet or cupboard that has a wall that backs onto the wall of building where the big holes are drilled, and then the same kind of thin power, gas, and liquid conduit running to one or more slender wall-mounted units.

Finally, there’s that hot-water heater version. Like Melia’s Harvest Thermal, it can replace the hot water heater, furnace, and air conditioning. And it works with radiant underfloor heating systems that run water through tubes under the floor as well, making it a really interesting choice for people who have that in their suites. Generally speaking, only townhomes in multi-unit residential complexes are likely to have their own hot water heaters and furnaces, as a good friend and frequent collaborator who lives a few kilometers away from me and a good friend in Ontario does. Anytime one of those components is approaching end of life, typified by starting to need more emergency repairs when it fails, is a good time to look at replacing everything with a heat pump that does hot water, heating, and cooling.

There used to be another option on the market, but in most places it’s dead in the water. There are very useful heat pumps that work off of building loops of water, with typically geothermal loops or drilled holes for the heat exchange. That’s clearly a major project, drilling like that only occurs at construction of buildings, and is unlikely to be viable during a retrofit. Lots of building plumbing too, of course. The variant of that in question used to be a practice of running heat pumps off of the hot and cold water systems of buildings. However, that could see 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of fresh, potable water per day flushed down the drain, something that’s not appropriate in the vast majority of places, and certainly not in Vancouver’s increasingly dry summers, another climate change impact.

Heat pumps come with different heating and cooling capacities. Typically, a single unit is sufficient for about 90 square meters (1,000 square feet) of a single-level, open-plan condo. For our building, that’s going to be sufficient for all but some bigger suites on the top two floors and the townhomes. For the top floor suites, two will likely suffice, and putting one in the master bedroom makes sense. For the townhomes, one per floor starts to make sense, although the basement is a question mark. Apparently getting two units will cost the same per unit as getting one unit, but the third unit is half the price, so some may opt for that.

Refrigerants Matter

Refrigerants play a crucial role in the operation of heat pumps, as they are the working fluid that circulates within the units to absorb and release heat. However, traditional refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) such as the very common R410A have a high global warming potential (GWP). That means that R410a has a warming effect 2,088 times greater than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, despite degrading quickly. Due to that short persistence period, it has a 20-year GWP of 4,340, and many organizations consider that to be more important. Both are terrible. The environmental impact of these refrigerants has become a significant concern.

In response to the HFC refrigerants problem, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was adopted in 2016, which aims to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs worldwide. The Montreal Protocol, as a reminder, was created because CFCs were destroying the ozone layer, and HFCs didn’t. As I’ve noted elsewhere a few times, HFCs were lower GWP than CFCs, but still were really bad, and I’m sure somebody pointed this out at the time but was ignored. The goal is to reduce the projected production and consumption of HFCs by more than 80% over the next 30 years.

This international agreement is expected to avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century. It’s also #1 with a bullet on Project Drawdown’s cost benefit ranked list of climate actions, because replacing refrigerants is relatively cheap and easy (and there isn’t a lot of dark money fighting it tooth and nail). One of my local grocery stores recently replaced the refrigerants in its cheese counter with CO2, for example.

This is happening somewhat invisibly all around you in much of the world, as pretty much every country including China and the USA have ratified the Kigali amendment.

Consequently, there has been a global shift towards the use of lower GWP refrigerants in heat pumps. For instance, R290 (propane) and CO2 (R744) are both available in many units. R290 has a GWP of 0.02 over 100 years, with IPCC 6 studies finding that its previously understood GWP of 3 was overstated, while CO2 obviously has a GWP of 1, making them far less detrimental to the environment.

However, heat pumps are commodity appliances, which means that they are only changed when absolutely necessary. The Maestro and ELFO, for example, both still ship with R410a with its very high GWP, as do Mitsubishi and Daikin of the vendors I looked at. Mitsubishi introduced an R290 heat pump this year, but not in a form factor suitable for condo retrofits, which it asserts is due to R290 being propane, and hence a risk in residential settings. Given that we burn natural gas in homes all over the world for heating and cooking, I think that not using R290 in closed systems with no fire risk is a bit precious, personally.

This all matters, as the average leakage for HVAC refrigerants is 2-4% per year. Most of the units have 1-1.5 kg (2-3 pounds) of refrigerant. 3% of 1.5 kg times a 20 year GWP of 4,340 means the equivalent of 195 kg of CO2 per unit per year. That’s two tons per unit over a decade. If there are a hundred of them in a building, that’s potentially 200 tons of CO2e a year.

From Vancouver Economic Commission November 2022 BC heat pump technology attraction strategy
From Vancouver Economic Commission November 2022 BC heat pump technology attraction strategy

Of course, there’s a problem here, as highlighted by the prevalence of high-GWP R410a in all the mini-split heat pumps available locally that I looked at, and shown in the above table from a report on heat pump technology in the market and what to do about it. Look for the column for in-room ductless mini-splits, and follow it down to the row for low-GWP refrigerants. Yeah, as of the time this report was authored some time last year, there was a market gap locally that doesn’t exist globally. Multiple products that use R290 from multiple vendors from multiple countries are available in Europe. But that doesn’t mean they exist in the relatively small if forward-looking BC market. Being a pocket of the future in a continent that on energy issues is often an oil reservoir from the past can be problematic.

It likely doesn’t help that the US EPA had banned R290 among all hydrocarbon refrigerants for certain classes of refrigeration and only recently de-listed it.

When you are talking with vendors and installers, try not to settle for products which haven’t made the switch to low-GWP refrigerants, although you don’t have to be as nerdy as I am about the subject. Do push them on it, and create market pressure for manufacturers to respond to. If you get heat pumps that aren’t perfect, but they make it possible for  you and your family to live comfortably and safely in your home and you’ve pressured the market to make low-GWP products available, that might be the compromise you have to accept. It’s certainly not the one I want to accept, and I’ll be wording the request for proposal strongly to indicate that we’ll be strongly preferring ones that offer low-GWP products.

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You Will Be Warm Enough With Heat Pumps

One of the many pieces of anti-heat pump FUD that the usual suspects spout is that they don’t work in colder climates. That’s not really a concern for Vancouver, where it rarely gets below freezing, and at worst gets down to around -10° Celsius (14° F). Older heat pumps used to struggle, and so there’s a grain of truth amid the nonsense. And yes, heat pumps get less efficient the colder it gets outside, so you are using more electricity for the same heat.

But modern heat pumps that are designed for cold climates work just fine. Heck, Manitoba promotes them, and its capital is known as Winterpeg for a reason. Half of all pictures of Canadians doing things in absurdly cold conditions while bundled up to the point where it was unclear if there was a human inside the parka and snowmobile boots were taken in Manitoba. As the page notes, cold climate heat pumps still produce heat down to −25° C or −30° C (-13° F or -22° F). And they can be efficient when it’s cold too. A study by the Yukon’s Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources found some systems were capable of 200% efficiency at -18°C (0.4° F).

According to International Energy Agency, 60% of Norway’s buildings are fitted with a heat pump, followed closely by Sweden at 43% and Finland at 41%. Those countries aren’t exactly known for being balmy. They are, however, known for having well-insulated buildings. Your local contractors are deeply unlikely to be offering you heat pumps that aren’t aligned with your local climate anymore.

If you are replacing baseboard heaters, however, there is a simple hack. Don’t rip the heaters out. Leave them in for a couple of years until you’ve made it through a cold spell. If you haven’t needed them, then rip them out. If you have, then leave them in and use them for the coldest nights of the year to stay toasty.

In a follow-up article I’ll deal with picking and negotiating with contractors, wall penetration concerns, noise concerns, permitting, costs, and more. If there’s any interest, I’ll also publish the request for proposal I’ve drafted to use with contractors to get proposals.

If you and your neighbors are suffering from increasing heat in your building and are making do with armies of fans and crappy portable air conditioners and their annoying hoses as we have been, there’s hope. Heat pumps are added to condos all the time, increase the sales value, can save you a bit of money in the wintertime and will give you blessed comfort on hot days in the summer.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 728 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard