As a resident of a condo without central air conditioning, I’ve been feeling the harsh effects of climate change, particularly during the sweltering summers. With climate change, population growth, and urbanization being the key megatrends, it’s clear that air conditioning is transitioning from a luxury to a necessity. For instance, in my Vancouver condo, the lack of built-in air conditioning is becoming a deterrent for potential buyers, as the city’s temperatures rise due to climate change.
In the first of these clean condo life articles, I wrote about the basics of heat pumps, which my city has mandated for all HVAC retrofits already and all new residential buildings from 2025 onward. Heat pumps, energy-efficient devices that transfer heat from cooler to warmer areas, are a viable solution to the heating and cooling challenges in condos like mine. They can reduce heating bills by about a third, offering substantial financial and environmental benefits. However, retrofitting a condo building with heat pumps is a complex and costly task that can require city approvals and careful planning.
There are three main options that could work for individual flats, townhomes, and condos. First is the mini-split, which has both an indoor and an outdoor unit connected by a thin conduit. It’s a viable option if you have a balcony, patio, or wall space for the external unit.
Second, there’s a type that fits entirely inside the suite, but requires drilling two 20 cm (8-inch) wide holes through an external wall. This can work well for smaller suites without outdoor space. There are variations within this type, some with a single indoor unit mounted on a wall, and others that can be discreetly tucked into a closet or cupboard with slender, wall-mounted units in other rooms.
Finally, for townhomes that typically have their own water heaters and furnaces, a heat pump that replaces the hot water heater, furnace, and air conditioning could be a compelling option. This is particularly true when any of these components are reaching the end of their useful life. It’s also compatible with underfloor heating systems, providing an all-in-one solution.
In the search for the right heat pump, it’s important to consider the type of pump, its capacity, and the environmental impact of its refrigerant. Traditional heat pumps use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as refrigerants, which have a high global warming potential (GWP). The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 2016, aims to phase down the use of HFCs, prompting a shift towards lower GWP refrigerants. However, many heat pump manufacturers still use HFCs in their products, so it’s crucial to choose one that uses a low-GWP refrigerant.
And now, onto installation, contractor and other concerns.
Suite & Rent Value Impacts
As I noted in the first clean condo life article, not having air conditioning in Vancouver is now a showstopper for many buyers. They won’t even look at suites without it. Nothing diminishes sales price more than fewer people walking through the door. The same real estate agent who shared this tidbit with me, the local agent who helped me find this downtown condo and sells a lot of condos here, said that air conditioning upgrades are well within the two-thirds value rule of thumb for renovations. Good renovations are done partly for personal comfort and enjoyment and typically don’t fully pay for themselves with increased condo value. But air conditioning is in the class that increases value by two-thirds of the expenditure.
It’s trickier for tenanted long-term rental suites. BC’s residential tenancy act says that landlords can’t unilaterally install a heat pump or air conditioning and charge more, but that if the landlord and tenant agree about the installation and an increased rate for the added amenity or cost of electricity, then it’s completely fine.
For landlords who have higher turnover suites, with months- or year-long tenancies, it likely makes sense to opt for installing it immediately, and assuming that they can charge higher rents for the greater amenity to the next tenants. Oddly, given the focus on air conditioning after the heat dome events of 2021 and 2022, I wasn’t able to find any statistical analysis of the value of air conditioning in the Vancouver market, but Zillow found an average C$55 (US$40) rental increase for built-in air conditioning in the United States across all property values.
It’s much higher in major cities, with New York with high rents seeing 11% or C$375 (US$275), on top of that city’s 91% more expensive than Vancouver’s rents. If the owner is paying for utilities and passing those costs through in rent, they can have a winter upside of reduced baseboard heating costs of two-thirds or so as well, so there is another $60-$80 that they might be able to pick up here in Vancouver, and a lot more in cities with colder winters.
In a lot of cases in Vancouver, rental suites are investment properties where the rent pays for the expenses as the property appreciates, so a bit of investment in appreciation of the value might be in line. It will be interesting to see how the owners who rent suites they own in the building.
Cost Of Installation & Rebates
The cost of installing heat pumps can vary depending on the complexity of the installation and the number of heat pump units inside. For instance, an indicative quote I received had costs of C$9,000-$11,000 (US$6,600-$8,000) for one heat pump unit, around C$20,000 (US$15,000) for two units, and C$24,000-$25,000 (US$18,000-$19,000) for three units as standard prices.
As I pointed out in the first article, these are one-off installations, and I’m working toward getting a bulk order with better rates. All but a few suites in the top floors and the townhomes should require only a single unit, and we should be able to stay below these numbers even when factoring in envelope engineering and electrician charges for wiring to the breaker panel, something I’m going to negotiate into the contractor’s scope of work if at all possible.
Please note that these are over-the-phone indicative numbers from one of the primary condo heat pump contractors in my city, not a formal quote, so understand that any numbers might be wrong. However, I’m very pleased, as I was pretty sure it was going to be closer to C$15,000 before doing some investigation.
As for rebates, BC has incentives for lots of heat pump installations, but not for ones that serve a single condo unit. If our strata chooses to do a complete building heat pump installation for every unit, we could defray the costs with significant rebates, but as it is, no rebates for the individual condo owners who will be footing the bill for this.
Choose A Single Contractor & Limited Heat Pump Menu To Save Money
A hypothesis I had was that getting a bunch of owners to put in a bulk order would be something heat pump installation firms would love. And I was right. Doing a bunch of suites means that they get a lot more money with a lot less annoying haggling, and they’ll share some of the savings with you if you negotiate with them. Given that a condo heat pump installation is in the range of C$10,000 (US$7,500) per heat pump, you can save a bunch of owners a bunch of money by negotiating in bulk. I’ve seen quotes online for the city that were lower than the $9,000 to $11,000 range I was given as a ballpark, but have no provenance for them, and of course some DIY types install their own, something that we certainly aren’t going to allow in our condo building.
Getting a single approved installer and heat pumps means the strata has a lot more control over quality and risks, which is important. We’ll be able to ensure that envelope engineering is overseen, and our superintendent (who I’ve been working with closely on this, another good practice) can coordinate suite access and keep an eye on things. Consider going for HPCN registered contractors. They are experts in the field and offer at least a standard one-year construction/retrofit warranty.
Google for ‘heat pumps condos <name of your city>’ and you’ll find out fairly rapidly which installers have experience with multi-unit residential installations. Some firms do more of them, and it matters.
Installers tend to have preferred products, and often for good reasons. Milani Plumbing, here in Vancouver, likes Mitsubishi heat pumps. They’ve installed one of virtually every manufacturer’s product at one point or another, but almost entirely stick with Mitsubishi because it has a parts depot in the city, which makes emergency repairs a lot faster. But their preferred mini-split uses R410a with its GWP of 2,088, so I’ve sent them back to the drawing board on product choice. Mitsubishi is fully aware of HFCs and the Kigali Amendment, but unlike Sanden it isn’t accelerating into the future, and apparently it’s going to be 2-3 years before the company updates its product line with low-GWP refrigerants.
As the heat pump choices for different types of suites above shows, one size doesn’t fit all in more complex buildings, so you’ll be spending some time on this. Give your installer clear guidance on the type of suites, their sizes, numbers, heat pump unit preferences, and refrigerants, and they’ll come back with something aligned with your building’s needs.
When installing a heat pump, wall penetration is inevitable. The key is to do it correctly and to ensure the penetration is properly sealed. A building envelope consultant can guide you through this process, ensuring that the installation doesn’t compromise the integrity of the building.
For the mini-splits, only a single small hole is required for power and the gas and fluid tubes that carry heat. It’s very low risk if it’s done under an overhang like the balcony above you or the building roof soffit. It gets sealed with injected silicon, too.
For the units like the Maestro and ELFO, two 20 cm (8-inch) holes need to be drilled side-by-side from the interior wall of the suite through to the exterior wall of the building. I’m just going to say that this isn’t a wonderful option if it can be avoided, especially in rainy places like Vancouver where leaky condos were a huge thing.
For our building, this is a major reason we’re very likely to go with mini-splits wherever possible. As we have roughly 190 suites with balconies or patios suitable for the exterior unit, that’s pretty easy. We’re going to debate whether the 40 suites that only have Juliet balconies or not even that pretense of a balcony will be allowed to have something like the ELFO or Maestro installed.
And get your installer to bring the envelope engineer with the package, while retaining the right to have the strata hire one to double-check. Are we paranoid about our building envelopes in Vancouver? Yes, yes we are. If you are curious why, Google ‘Vancouver leaky condos’.
One of the common concerns about heat pumps is noise. However, modern heat pumps are surprisingly quiet. In fact, modern heat pumps are quieter than a refrigerator or traffic noise. The vast majority of multi-unit residential buildings are swamped in noise, with typical streets seeing 60 dB volumes and lots of low frequency noise. Heat pump noise won’t register.
This is, of course, not a concern for the suites that have heat pumps. When the heat pump is working, the outside part will be making a bit of noise like a fan, but the windows will be closed. It’s the neighbors who don’t have heat pumps who will have the concern, so be sure to communicate to everyone in the building that the installations are under way and that noise isn’t an issue.
Drainage of Condensate
Heat pumps work by compressing and decompressing the refrigerants. They get hot and cold. And moisture from the atmosphere condenses onto the coils. In the summer time, it’s on the indoor unit, but they deal with it so that it’s not dripping. In the winter time, it’s on the outdoor unit, and that’s dealt with in three or four potentials ways.
Why do you have to deal with it? Well, constant water dripping down the sides of buildings 24/7 for months of the year is a good way to cause damage to the envelope of the building. Rain is fine, but year in, year out, 24/7 water in the same place causes problems. In a building my superintendent has dealt with, it caused a $13,000 problem. Obviously we’re going to address this better than that building.
Only a few suites in a building might have drainage on their balconies or patios. For instance, in the case of my 11-year-old, 233-suite condo building, only 10 suites have drains like that. Those are no-brainers, but what about the roughly 180 balconies that don’t? A typical approach is to put a simple tray under the unit on the balcony and expect owners to empty every time it gets full. Often they come with float valves that shut the unit off when the tray is full, but get clogged with leaves or ice up. Sometimes they are installed at an angle and leak water the opposite corner from a float valve if it exists. Some contractors always use wet valves. Regardless of the technology, it can fail. Besides, all of these are things that turn the heating off, and who wants to wake up frozen stiff because their heat pump tray was full at 1 AM?
Guess what the building with the $13,000 repair bill for the envelope had. Simple trays. That’s not viable for us. As I like to point out, any solution that requires human nature to change to work well is not a solution at all. People are lazy and forgetful.
But there are evaporation pans that are fit for purpose and used by contractors. They are actually powered devices with a simple resistance coil to warm the water so that it evaporates. Well below boiling temperatures, and a bit more power draw for the heat pump. They need to be sized to the expected water volumes, but a quick vendor scan found units that can manage 50 liters a day, and I can’t imagine a balcony unit putting out more than a fraction of that, although I could easily be wrong. These cost $250-$300, but plumping a condensate drainage line into the condo and under a sink would cost at least $800, so they are the cost-effective, building-safe choice. One of the contractors I spoke to told me that they use them when requested, and we’re going to make them mandatory, unless one of the contractors can convince us that wet switches are adequate.
But what about suites without balconies? Well, that’s where the indoor-only units that require two 20 cm (8-inch) holes in the walls come in. The 40 suites in our building might be given the option of having those, or we might decide, at least for now, to not permit those suites to install air conditioning. It would be a lot cheaper to put a rooftop unit or two and plumb connectors down to internal units for 40 suites than to 233, but it would still be a big, expensive job and many of the smallest suites are long-term rentals where the owners might be most resistant to investment.
In a lot of cities, any HVAC changes that occur on any building require City Hall mechanical and electrical permitting approval. That means submissions processes, waiting, and the like. However, my city, Vancouver, voted in 2019 to declare a climate emergency and enact a bunch of measures based on it. One was accelerated permitting for heat pumps. That’s turned into some good news for the heat pump installation I’m working toward for my building, as now if a heat pump is being installed to cool a single condo suite, it no longer requires a building and development permit. It does, however, still require mechanical and electrical permits. I’ll be trying to get those included in the contractor’s fees and have them manage it end to end.
The strata council meeting is this week. I’ll be sharing my findings and making my recommendations. If the council agrees, I’ll send out a request for proposal to three contracting firms and see what comes back. The superintendent and I will deal with discussions and negotiations. Then strata will send out a survey to the building to see which owners want to take advantage of the bulk rates this year.
If you’re considering getting a heat pump for your condo or town home, hopefully this helps. Do your research, especially about what’s available locally, consider your unique needs and constraints, and seek advice from experts.
In the end, remember that installing a heat pump is not just about improving your comfort; it’s also a step towards a more sustainable future. By choosing an energy-efficient heating and cooling solution, you’re contributing to global efforts to reduce energy consumption and mitigate climate change.
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