New Builds #4: Paying up front to save for decades: spray foam insulation and heat pumps

Investing up front in spray foam insulation and heat pumps are two wise choices for Prince Edward Islanders who are building new homes.

That’s according to Josh Silver, a carpenter and an instructor at Holland College, who has been taking CBC P.E.I. along on his personal quest to make improvements at his 12-year-old Charlottetown home to save energy and money.

This summer, he is looking beyond his own home and focusing on new home construction.

Silver said spray foam insulation may cost more than some other kinds of insulation, but the added expense will pay off for years. 

Silver said spray foam insulation comes out like a gel, then expands. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

“This is a fantastic product that really gives a high volume of R-value per inch,” Silver said, referring to the measure of how well the insulation keeps heat in or out of a building.

The insulation comes out as a gel and expands, he said.

“Part of the beauty of the product is that it really gets in all those little nooks and crannies, the little pinholes that make air leakage. This clogs those right up.”

Easier during construction

Silver said there is a fair bit of prep work for spray foam insulation to make sure it doesn’t spread through the house, which is why it’s easier to do during construction.

“All the walls are open, and everything’s very easily accessed. It’s when the house is messy anyway.”

Silver said there is a fair bit of prep work for spray foam insulation to make sure it doesn’t spread through the house. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Silver said spray foam can also be used for retrofits.

“The professionals come in, prep all the areas, tape everything off, put plastic where we don’t want the foam, and then they can spray,” he said.

Silver said spray foam insulation gets small areas that contribute to air leakage. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Silver said the spray foam product has good “bang for the buck” when it comes to insulation. 

“The beauty of spray foam is the professionals can change the depth, how much foam they’re going to put on. They can regulate that,” Silver said. “Maybe we just need an inch. Maybe we want three inches.” 

Silver said another of the benefits of insulation is that it is also cooling when needed. 

“I always say a well-insulated home is exactly like a thermos,” Silver said. “If we put something cool in, it’ll stay cool. If we put something warm in, it’ll stay warm.”

Heat pump popularity

Silver said heat pumps have become a very popular choice in new home construction and are also easier to install when the home is being built.

“What it’s doing is drawing out as much heat out of the ambient air outside as it can, and it puts it inside,” Silver said.

“Conversely, it’s sucking the cold air from the inside and pushing it outside. So it’s kind of transferring those two.”

Silver said many homeowners also use their heat pumps for cooling during the summer. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Silver said many homeowners also use their heat pumps for cooling during the summer. 

Temperature limits

Silver said there is a limit on the temperature at which a heat pump is effective: about –20 C. More inexpensive units will shut off sooner.

Silver said heat pumps should last a couple of decades. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

According to the building code, a new home must have an alternative heat source to the heat pumps in case they stop working.  

“So we can look at electric radiators, hot water radiators, things of that nature,” Silver said.

Cost savings

Silver said many new homes are being built with multiple heat pumps, and the cost savings can be significant.

“We call it 300 per cent efficient. So what that means in layman’s terms is, if I spend one dollar on heat with a heat pump, I’m getting three dollars worth of heat,” Silver said. 

A new home must have an alternative heat source aside from heat pumps, in case they break down. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Silver said insulation and heat pumps go hand in hand. 

“We want to do both. We want heavily insulated and a great heating product.” 

Funding available

Silver said heat pumps are still relatively new, but the theory is that they will last a couple of decades at least.

He said new government programs are fuelling interest in more heat pumps, along with other energy-efficiency products, including solar panels. 

“If we can integrate all those together, we have an electric heat pump and we’re gaining free electricity from the sun, so one’s feeding the other,” Silver said.

“Those are [the] kind of modern houses that we should all be looking for.” 

There are federal grants available under the Canada Greener Homes Grant program, which also cover home energy upgrades. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Andy Collier of Efficiency P.E.I. said his office was processing around 500 heat pump rebates a year, before 2018-2019.

He said that number has now jumped to 4,000 rebates per year, in part because of an increased level of rebate, but also because of an increased demand for air conditioning.

The rebate program for air source heat pumps (and other equipment) is the Energy Efficient Equipment Rebates program.

The rebate program for insulation (and air sealing and windows/doors) is the Home Insulation Rebates program.

Collier said the Home Insulation Rebates program requires an energy audit before you do the work, while the Energy Efficient Equipment Rebates program does not. 

He said there are federal grants available under the Canada Greener Homes Grant program, which also cover similar upgrades. That program requires an energy audit.