Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates

If you’re shopping 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 a very long time. But considering they use heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom suggests that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This may have you questioning 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 such as Norway and Sweden. With frequent January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these communities obviously rely on efficient heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they fulfill their needs perfectly.

What Makes Cold-Climate Heat Pumps Successful at Low Temperatures?

Heat pump technology used to be too weak for temperate climates. As the temperature dipped below freezing, these systems were just unable to extract enough heat to effectively warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the advanced 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 versus traditional heat pump refrigerants, helping them to collect more heat energy from cold air.
  • Multi-stage compressors run at lower speeds in mild weather and switch to higher speeds in severe cold. This increases efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more stable.
  • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate.
  • The improved coil design found in most modern heat pumps is designed with grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, enabling 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 superior to counting on a backup electric resistance heater.
  • Improved motors use less electricity to increase energy savings.
  • Other engineering optimizations such as reduced ambient flow rates, increased compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further lower energy consumption in freezing winter weather.

Traditional Heating Systems vs. Heat Pumps in Colder Climates

Heat pump efficiency is calculated by its heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF), which illustrates 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. The majority of cold-climate heat pumps come with ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, helping 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 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 max out at about 98% efficiency.

In terms of actual savings, results may vary. The biggest savers are likely to be people who heat with common fuels including 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 costs 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 considering transitioning 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 engineered for efficiency, but they must be sized, designed and installed correctly to perform at their peak. Factors such as 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 federal government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 through the end of 2022.
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps run on electricity, so they pair well with solar panels. This combination can reduce your energy bills even further.

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump

Whether you’re replacing an existing HVAC system or comparing options for a new property, A-PLUS Service Experts can help you make a cost-effective decision. We’ll review your home comfort needs, consider 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 A-PLUS Service Experts office today.

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