Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re shopping for a new home comfort system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been a favorite in warm climates for many years. But considering they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom recommends that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This may have you wondering if a heat pump is a good 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. Over the past decade, the acceptance of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With frequent January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously depend on effective heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they meet 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 dipped 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 advanced features used in cold-climate heat pumps that permit them to perform efficiently at temperatures colder than 0 degrees F.

    • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, enabling them to collect more heat energy from cold air.
    • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in mild weather and switch to higher speeds in extreme cold. This increases efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent.
    • Variable-speed fans work with multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate.
    • The upgraded coil design used in most modern heat pumps includes grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, allowing the unit to transfer heat more efficiently.
    • Flash injection opens a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to boost cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency drops a bit in this mode, but it’s still superior to depending on a backup electric resistance heater.
    • Better motors require less electricity to increase energy savings.
    • Other engineering modifications such as decreased ambient flow rates, greater compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further lower energy consumption in frigid winter weather.

Traditional Heating Systems vs. Heat Pumps in Colder Climates

Heat pump efficiency is determined by its heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF), which conveys 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 nationwide minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Many cold-climate heat pumps can boast ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, enabling them to operate at up to 400% efficiency in mild weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they consume in the process.

Performance drops as the temperature drops, but many 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 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.

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

Other Factors to Consider

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

    • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are engineered for efficiency, but they must be sized, designed and installed properly to perform at their peak. Factors like home insulation levels and the placement of the outdoor unit can also reduce system performance.
    • Tax credits: You can save on heat pump installation costs with energy tax credits from the United States government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 up to the end of 2022.
    • Solar panels: Heat pumps use 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 an existing HVAC system or exploring options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective decision. We’ll evaluate your home comfort needs, go over your budget and suggest the best equipment, which could be a cold-climate heat pump or another solution. 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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