Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re shopping for a new home comfort system, odds are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly features of heat pumps. Heat pumps have been sought after in warm climates for a very long time. But because they use heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This might have you asking if a heat pump is a better 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 acceptable for northern climates. In the last decade, the adoption of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With average January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously depend on efficient heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they meet their needs perfectly.

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

Heat pump technology was once insufficient for temperate climates. As the temperature fell below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to extract enough heat to efficiently warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the innovative features used in cold-climate heat pumps that enable them to perform 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 draw more heat energy from cold air.
    • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in temperate weather and switch to higher speeds in extreme cold. This boosts efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more stable.
    • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to supply heated air at the proper rate.
    • The upgraded 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 opens up 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.
    • Improved motors consume less electricity to increase energy savings.
    • Other engineering upgrades like decreased ambient flow rates, increased 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 measured by its heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF), which demonstrates 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 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, enabling them to operate at up to 400% efficiency in temperate weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they use in the process.

Performance dips 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 probably people who heat with common fuels such as propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters.

However, heating with natural gas still is usually less expensive than using a heat pump. The cost difference is based on how harsh 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 thinking of 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 must be sized, designed and installed precisely to perform at their peak. Factors like home insulation levels and the location 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 until the end of 2022.
    • Solar panels: Heat pumps are powered by electricity, so they function 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 existing HVAC system or checking out 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, take a look at your budget and recommend the best equipment, which might 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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