You may have noticed a new feature that is increasingly noted in listing remarks: “This home is heated and cooled with a high-efficiency heat pump system to maximize your comfort and minimize your bills and energy footprint.”

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For sustainability-minded real estate agents like Rebecca McIntosh, seeing listings promoting heat pumps makes her heart pump joy.

“Tackling the climate crisis requires systemic change and wide adoption of low-carbon technologies. This is just one of many adoptions I am making for myself and sharing with my clients,” she says. McIntosh leads by example: her Instagram features posts about her own family updating their Kitchener-Waterloo home to increase efficiency, replacing their lawn with gardens, running errands by bike and most recently, her new Tesla electric car.

Tackling the climate crisis doesn’t usually enter into a buyer’s must-haves, but heat pumps feature prominently in the federal government’s climate plan. It is offering up to $5,000 rebates for new installations of heat pump systems to help homeowners and landlords reduce their use of oil and gas and improve energy efficiency. But how much of a difference can it make?

The Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources reported in 2018 that buildings account for 17 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. It also reports that while energy use has gone up over the last few decades in our buildings, the associated greenhouse gases have gone down over the same period: our buildings are getting more efficient and use cleaner sources of energy. Even so, 40 per cent of residential energy usage is for home heating, and almost 20 per cent is for water heating, with most homes relying on natural gas for both.

A heat pump runs on electricity, which immediately reduces carbon emissions to near zero (since most electricity produced in Canada comes from clean sources); but heat pumps are also up to three times more efficient at producing heat than even high-efficiency gas furnaces and hot water tanks. Compared to an electric water heater, which uses about 3.5kw of power, an electric heat-pump water tank uses about 300w of energy – a huge reduction, and over the long term that translates to huge savings. And with the government rebates, the up-front cost is almost on par with gas and electric alternatives.

But while these high-efficiency technologies are more accessible than ever, getting the word out is still important. McIntosh recently co-hosted a webinar on heat pump water heaters with Climate Action Waterloo Region and REEP Green Solutions. The webinar included a presentation from sustainability professional Joseph Tanel and breakout room discussions with heat pump installers and homeowners who use them. The discussion was lively. They’re hosting another webinar on heat pump space heaters soon.

Energy-efficiency enthusiasts can rattle off statistics and acronyms that confuse or overwhelm most buyers; the challenge for agents is to understand the jargon, but to focus on the benefits instead of the products: heat pumps make for greater comfort at less cost. That’s something that’s important to all buyers because it impacts their quality of life – something that is not always emphasized in a listing.

Real estate boards are increasingly including “green” features among the available options of listing features, but those fields are often under-utilized. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: if the value of green features isn’t widely recognized, then there’s little demand for that information; but if the information isn’t listed, these features will never be widely recognized. Currently, sellers who have invested significantly in re-insulating their home, installing a heat pump and other “high performance” features are seeing less recognition and therefore less value from their investment compared to other renovations.

Cosmetic features have long drawn attention, from the materials of flooring and countertops to the wonders worked by a fresh coat of paint. Mechanical systems remain out of sight and out of mind, only noticed when they need to be replaced. In a way, then, the growing movement toward recognition of the value of these systems is about making the invisible visible – and when it’s visible, it’s valuable. Our comfort is hard to quantify, and the satisfaction of lowering our personal footprint is harder still, but they both make a significant impact on our quality of life every single day. And saving on utilities doesn’t hurt, either.

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