With all (interior) doors kept open, Rachel Fraser’s entire trailer stays comfortable down to below -20 degrees Celsius. She kept her wood stove for really cold days and outages. /RACHEL FRASER

By Rachel Fraser

You can take the girl out of the city, but”¦ she’ll probably freeze to death.

When I bought my trailer in Valemount in the summer of 2022, the small wood stove in the front vestibule was the only heat source in it. There had been a propane furnace in the past, but a former resident removed it, ostensibly because it wasn’t being used. I had been living in Vancouver, and I’d never even used a wood stove before, but I trusted that I’d figure it out, and it would work fine for me for the time being if it had been working for him. “Plus,” I thought. “It’s only July.”

I could light a fire, but I’d never used a wood stove before. I’d never cleaned a chimney, I’d never bought wood, I didn’t know what a cord was or what size I wanted the wood cut to in order to fit the stove. I still haven’t figured out how to set the dampers to have the fire, or even embers last more than a couple of hours, so come winte rI was getting out of bed in the morning to see my breath and lighting a fire a with cold fingers, and the couple of occasions I had to be away for a night or two at a time, I was feeling like I was choosing between risking burning my house down if I left space heaters on , or freezing my cat if I didn’t. I know people around here love their cozy wood heat, but it was a miserable first winter relying on it.

I intended to put in a new heating system, but I was undecided on which one. Given that it’s a 50-year-old trailer, it wasn’t worth investing in something with too big an upfront cost. I didn’t want combustible fuel for sustainability reasons, though I intended to keep the wood stove for power outages and coziness on demand. Efficiency was critical if I was going to be using electricity.

I considered several options: a boiler system with either in-floor heat coils or radiators, infrared panels, heat pump, or electric baseboard heaters. Radiant in-floor heating would have been my first choice, but the infrastructure requirements and equipment costs just didn’t make sense. Likewise with radiators.

I really liked the idea of infrared panels. They are a radiant heat, which means that they heat the people and objects in a room, rather than the empty space, like a forced-air heat source. No blowing air or dusty vents. The manufacturers say they are extremely efficient, certainly much more efficient than electric baseboards, but with a similar install factor. The equipment is a bit higher cost, but depending on your square footage and layout, still probably less than a new furnace or boiler. The manufacturer’s rep or distributor does an audit of your current heating requirements, and based on your layout, ceiling heights and square footage, supplies a package of panels for your configuration.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have caught on much outside of hot yoga studios, so there isn’t a lot of feedback from homeowners out in the interwebs. The little that engineers and industry insiders have weighed in is mixed. I decided to buy one panel for my bathroom and try it out. One upside to infrared is that it inhibits mold growth. Since I had discovered an extensive ecosystem behind the shower surround I’d ripped out, anything that prevented it spreading again was a huge selling point.

I ordered it in September with a 6-8 week lead time. After multiple follow-ups and assurances that it was shipping next week, and after a couple of cold snaps and multiple days in the minus 30 range, during which different pipes froze and burst in that bathroom, on two separate occasions, I cancelled the order in February.

I decided a heat pump was the way to go. Heat pumps are essentially air conditioners that can also heat spaces via an exterior unit that pulls the warmth out of outdoor air in winter and feeds it to one or more indoor heads, which use forced air to heat or cool the room. They are efficient because they are transferring the heat rather than generating it from scratch.

I figured I could even take advantage of rebates. I was looking at the BC Hydro website, but right away, I discovered that not a single contractor on the Home Performance Contractor Network (a required designation for your contractor’s work to qualify you for a rebate) would be willing to come out to install it. In fact, I couldn’t find anyone that would, in Prince George, Kamloops, or on the other side of the Alberta border. Until I mentioned it to the out-of-town friend-of-a-friend I’d hired to do my plumbing.

As pure, dumb luck would have it, he was working on his refrigeration ticket, and was happy to add to his experience.

We were both relatively new to the technology, and we looked at a lot of different options, but in the end, I ordered a Senville 36000 BTU dual zone mini-split heat pump online for about $5000. My contractor may have preferred a higher BTU count, but I was conscious of the online industry wisdom that an overpowered unit for the space undermines its efficiency.

The heat pump has two “heads” – the interior units which distribute heat – one installed in my bedroom at the back end and the other in my front room. The front head is required to heat about 500 square feet of relatively open space, while the back head heats my 200-ish sq ft bedroom and three other smaller rooms. When I had the final electrical hook-up completed at the end of last November, finally, I had been using space heaters the week prior. Having similar slightly-below-zero temperatures the first week of use gave me the opportunity to compare. My energy usage dropped by over 30 per cent. While it’s impossible to control for all factors, when I compared to the times the previous winter when I was depending more on space heaters than just wood, that 30 per cent seems to hold steady. My Hydro bill for December-January was $380, and I’ve only used the wood stove once.

With all interior doors kept open, the entire place stays comfortable down to below -20 degrees Celsius. When temperatures were hitting -38 this winter, my bedroom was ok without any auxiliary heat, but I put a small space heater in the bathroom. Even with the heat pump jacked up to 84 degrees, fan on high AND my electric fireplace also maxed, it was a bit chilly in the front half of the house. A fire in the wood stove was required to get rid of the chill completely.

Even though a little help is needed on the coldest days, I’m happy. It was a solid investment. And I am really, really enjoying being warm this winter.