Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates

If you’re shopping for a new HVAC system, it’s likely that you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and enviromentally friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been popular in warm climates for decades. But because they take heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom recommends that installing them in cold climates is not sensible. This might have you asking 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 suitable for northern climates. Over the past decade, the adoption of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With ordinary January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these communities obviously depend on efficient 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 once insufficient for temperate climates. As the temperature dropped below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to extract enough heat to effectively warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the innovative features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that enable them to operate efficiently at temperatures lower than 0 degrees F.

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, helping them to pull more heat energy from cold air.
  • Multi-stage compressors run at lower speeds in temperate weather and switch to higher speeds in extreme cold. This boosts efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more balanced.
  • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to supply heated air at the proper rate.
  • The improved coil design placed in most modern heat pumps features grooved copper tubing with a bigger surface area, helping the unit to exchange heat more efficiently.
  • Flash injection opens a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to improve 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.
  • Better motors require less electricity to boost energy savings.
  • Other engineering modifications like weaker ambient flow rates, an increase in compressor capacity and improved compression cycle configurations further reduce 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 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.

Starting in 2023, the national minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Lots of cold-climate heat pumps can boast ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, allowing 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 dips 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 may vary. The biggest savers are probably people who heat with delivered fuels including 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 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 installed solar panels to offset electricity costs.

Other Factors to Think About

If you’re looking at switching from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, don't forget these additional factors:

  • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are engineered for efficiency, but they should be sized, designed and installed precisely to perform at their best. Factors like 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 U.S. 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 work well with solar panels. This combination can lower your energy bills even further.

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump

Whether you’re replacing an old HVAC system or comparing options for a new property, Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning can help you make a cost-effective decision. We’ll evalulate 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 office today.

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