Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re looking for a new comfort system, odds are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and enviromentally friendly features of heat pumps. Heat pumps have been popular in warm climates for many years. But since they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This could have you questioning if a heat pump is the right 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 acceptable for northern climates. In the last decade, the usage of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With ordinary January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously depend on powerful heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have been delighted to discover that they fulfill their needs perfectly. 

What Makes Cold-Climate Heat Pumps More Efficient at Low Temperatures? 

Heat pump technology used to be insufficient for cooler climates. As the temperature fell below freezing, these systems were simply unable to collect enough heat to efficiently warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the special features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to operate efficiently at temperatures lower than 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point compared to traditional heat pump refrigerants, enabling them to collect more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors work at lower speeds in mild weather and switch to higher speeds in intense cold. This improves efficiency in dynamic weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more balanced. 
  • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The upgraded coil design found in most modern heat pumps features grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, enabling the unit to transfer heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection opens a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to increase cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency falls off a bit in this mode, but it’s still better than relying on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Improved motors consume less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering upgrades like reduced ambient flow rates, increased compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further decrease energy consumption in freezing 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 during the heating season divided by the energy consumed for that period. The higher the HSPF, the better the efficiency. 

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

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

In terms of actual savings, results may vary. The biggest savers are usually people who heat with combustible fuels such as propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters. 

That being said, heating with natural gas still tends to be less expensive than installing a heat pump. The cost gap is based on how harsh the winter is, the utility prices in your area, whether your system was installed correctly and whether you use solar panels to offset electricity costs. 

Other Factors to Consider 

If you’re considering switching from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, consider these additional factors: 

  • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are engineered for efficiency, but they should be sized, designed and installed properly to perform at their peak. Factors such as home insulation levels and the location of the outdoor unit can also affect system performance. 
  • Tax credits: You can save on heat pump installation costs with energy tax credits from the U.S. government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 until the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps are powered by electricity, so they work well with solar panels. This combo can lower your energy bills even further. 

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump 

Whether you’re replacing a current HVAC system or checking out options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective choice. We’ll evaluate your home comfort needs, take a look at your budget and recommend 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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