Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re searching for a new HVAC system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly features of heat pumps. Heat pumps have been a favorite in warm climates for a very long time. But since they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not sensible. This may have you asking if a heat pump is a better choice for your home in the Northern U.S. or Canada.

Before going into more detail, rest assured that modern, cold-weather heat pumps are appropriate for northern climates. Over the last decade, the acceptance of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With frequent January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these communities obviously depend on efficient heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they fulfill their needs perfectly.

What Makes Cold-Climate Heat Pumps Successful at Low Temperatures?

Heat pump technology was once unsuitable for cooler climates. As the temperature dropped below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to collect enough heat to successfully warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the innovative features found in cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to work efficiently at temperatures lower than 0 degrees F.

    • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point compared to traditional heat pump refrigerants, allowing them to pull more heat energy from cold air.
    • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in mild weather and transition to higher speeds in intense cold. This boosts efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent.
    • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to supply heated air at the proper rate.
    • The enhanced coil design found in most modern heat pumps is designed with grooved copper tubing with a bigger surface area, allowing the unit to exchange heat more efficiently.
    • Flash injection creates a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to increase cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency drops a bit in this mode, but it’s still much better than counting on a backup electric resistance heater.
    • Improved motors consume less electricity to boost energy savings.
    • Other engineering upgrades like decreased ambient flow rates, an increase in compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further lower energy consumption in icy winter weather.

Traditional Heating Systems vs. Heat Pumps in Colder Climates

Heat pump efficiency is determined by its heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF), which illustrates the total heating output over the heating season divided by the energy consumed for that period. The higher the HSPF, the better the efficiency.

Starting in 2023, the national minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Many cold-climate heat pumps offer ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, enabling them to operate at up to 400% efficiency in moderate weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they consume in the process.

Performance drops as the temperature drops, but numerous models are still around 100% efficient in sub-freezing conditions. Compare this to brand-new, high-efficiency furnaces, which max out at about 98% efficiency.

In terms of actual savings, results might vary. The biggest savers are likely to be people who heat with delivered fuels like propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters.

However, heating with natural gas still is generally less expensive than running a heat pump. The cost gap is based on how tough the winter is, the utility rates in your area, whether your heat pump was installed correctly and whether you use solar panels to offset electricity costs.

Other Factors to Think About

If you’re thinking of transitioning from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, remember these additional factors:

    • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are built for efficiency, but they need to be sized, designed and installed correctly to perform at their best. Factors such as home insulation levels and the placement of the outdoor unit can also impact system performance.
    • Tax credits: You can save on heat pump installation costs with energy tax credits from the federal government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 up to the end of 2022.
    • Solar panels: Heat pumps are powered by electricity, so they pair well with solar panels. This combo can reduce your energy bills even further.

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump

Whether you’re replacing a current HVAC system or exploring options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective choice. We’ll assess your home comfort needs, take a look at your budget and suggest the best equipment, which might be a cold-climate heat pump or similar product. To ask questions or schedule a heat pump installation estimate, please contact your local Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing office today.

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