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The year of the heat pump?

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By Adam Freill

Now that Mother Nature has (hopefully) put away her winter wear, consumers, both commercial and residential, will be thinking about the cooling side of their HVAC matrix.

The latest crop of products continues to march forward on peak efficiency levels, and are offering more connectivity options than every before, but one of the fastest growing segments of the heating and cooling sector is heat pump technology.

These ducted split, ductless mini-split and geothermal offerings have been the focus of a number of recent government and utility incentive programs, which could provide a growth spurt in their market share this summer, a summer that many are hoping will be much stronger for cooling system sales than last year.

”Given that we had a really cool summer last year in Quebec and Ontario, I think that there’s probably some pent-up demand, so if we see some heat early in the season, it should be a pretty good year from a demand side,” suggests Bill Davis, vice-president of Daikin Canada.

A split market


The limited cooling season in Canada and significant jump in efficiency level requirements to qualify for certain rebates and incentives have resulted in a movement back to the minimum for many consumers in the market for a new residential ducted split air conditioner.

”In previous years there had been incentives for 16-plus SEER systems,” explains Davis, ”but last year we saw a shift back to 13 SEER systems, and we don’t see a reason for that to change dramatically this year.”

”Canada has such a short cooling season that if you are going to put in an air conditioner, it is likely going to be a base entry level,” concurs Bart Balthazor, residential product manager with Johnson Controls.

That said, his company is not assuming that all buyers will be on the low-end of the spend.

”What we are seeing in traditional ducted equipment is more and more features being placed into the premium equipment,” he says. ”If homeowners are paying a premium price, they are expecting premium features.”

Those features can include automated system diagnostics that can help with installations and servicing, indicating such parameters as pressure, temperature, subcooling, superheat and, in the case of a fault, what the operating parameters were at the time of the fault.

Mini-splits continue to rise


Once thought of as a good solution for home additions, ductless mini-splits evolved into a retrofit solution, but their story is ever expanding. ”Now, we are seeing new homes being built with mini-splits going in,” reports Balthazor.

”Applications for ductless have grown,” agrees Napoleon’s North American director of HVAC sales, Mike Cantin. ”There’s always a room in the house that you don’t heat or cool just right. You are now able to heat or cool that section of the home.”

Although some regions are seeing the segment hit a level of maturity, there is still an expectation to once again see double-digit growth.

”With rebate incentives, government initiatives, application flexibility and increased awareness, we are seeing significant growth of ductless products in Ontario and Western Provinces,” says Ryan vanDyk, president of True North HVAC and Hydronics Inc., distributor of Haier products in Canada.

”You’ll probably see more growth like what was seen last year,” suggests Cantin. ”I think the Quebec and East Coast market might slow down some since so many people already have them, but there’s always the replacement market.”


The heat (pump) is on


It may seem odd to be thinking about heating season when selecting a cooling product, but with a growing interest in heat pump technology, it can be worthwhile for a contractor to have ”the heat pump” conversation with customers looking to add or replace a comfort cooling system, and especially if the customer is considering a ductless system.

”There’s some cooling-only units in Canada, but the vast majority of ductless splits are heat pumps,” says Davis. ”There’s very little cost differential between an AC or heat pump in mini-splits.”

”The difference between the two units, from a manufacturing perspective, is fairly small,” adds vanDyk. ”So, it makes more sense to build a majority of units as heat pumps.”

The move to heat pumps has been very regional so far, but that’s likely to change, advises Cantin. ”With rebates and a focus on not burning gas in the future, that’s going to drive heat pump sales and consumer knowledge will increase.”


Moving heat around


A relatively new player to the cooling game is the Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) system. Also known as Variable Refrigerant Volume (VRV) systems in Daikin’s vernacular, these primarily commercial HVAC systems are starting to make inroads into the residential segment as well. Similar in look to ductless equipment, they move heat energy from zone to zone in a building, providing heating and cooling simultaneously.

”It started as a niche product but now, due to its unique capabilities, we are really seeing a lot more applications for this technology,” says Sonny Pirrotta, the national sales manager for heating and air conditioning at Panasonic Canada. ”Traditionally, VRF was perceived as a better fit for retrofit projects, but we are seeing the application expanding into new build as well.”



”Our goal is to help educate people about the efficiency and comfort levels provided by VRV systems,” says Daikin’s Bill Davis. ”If you look at how commercial buildings are heated and cooled in the rest of the world, there are some places where 70 to 80 per cent of the buildings use VRV. In Europe, it’s 45 per cent.”