Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re looking for a new HVAC system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and sustainable features of heat pumps. These systems have been popular in warm climates for a very long time. But since they use heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This may have you questioning if a heat pump is the right choice for your home in the Northern U.S. or Canada. 

Before going more in-depth, rest assured that modern, cold-weather heat pumps are appropriate for northern climates. In the last decade, the acceptance of heat pump technology has soared in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With standard January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these communities obviously rely on powerful heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have been delighted to discover that they meet their needs perfectly. 

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

Heat pump technology was previously too weak for cold climates. As the temperature fell below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to capture enough heat to effectively warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the special features used in cold-climate heat pumps that permit them to operate efficiently at temperatures colder than 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point versus traditional heat pump refrigerants, allowing them to draw more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in mild weather and increase to higher speeds in intense cold. This boosts efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more stable. 
  • Variable-speed fans work with multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The enhanced coil design used in most modern heat pumps is designed with grooved copper tubing with a larger surface area, helping the unit to transfer heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection opens 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. 
  • Better motors require less electricity to increase energy savings. 
  • Other engineering modifications such as decreased ambient flow rates, an increase in compressor capacity and improved 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 throughout 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 temperate weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they consume in the process. 

Performance falls 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 top out at about 98% efficiency. 

In terms of actual savings, results might vary. The biggest savers are probably 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 is usually less expensive than running a heat pump. The cost gap depends on how severe the winter is, the utility rates in your area, whether your equipment was installed correctly and whether you installed solar panels to offset electricity costs. 

Other Factors to Consider 

If you’re thinking of switching from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, don’t forget these other factors: 

  • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are designed for efficiency, but they should be sized, designed and installed correctly to perform at their peak. Factors like 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 run on electricity, so they pair 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 an existing 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 assess your home comfort needs, consider your budget and point you toward the best equipment, which might be a cold-climate heat pump or another kind of system. 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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