Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re shopping for a new comfort system, it’s likely that you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and sustainable features of heat pumps. These systems have been sought after in warm climates for many years. But because they use heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not worth the effort. This could have you wondering 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 like Norway and Sweden. With ordinary January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these areas obviously need 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 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 efficiently warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the special features used in cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to perform efficiently at temperatures below 0 degrees F.

    • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, allowing them to draw more heat energy from cold air.
    • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in moderate weather and switch to higher speeds in severe cold. This improves efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more stable.
    • Variable-speed fans use 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 greater surface area, allowing the unit to transfer heat more efficiently.
    • Flash injection creates a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to boost cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency drops a bit in this mode, but it’s still much better than depending on a backup electric resistance heater.
    • More powerful motors consume less electricity to increase energy savings.
    • Other engineering modifications like reduced ambient flow rates, increased compressor capacity and improved compression cycle configurations further decrease energy consumption in icy 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 over 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 offer ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, allowing them to operate at up to 400% efficiency in moderate weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they use 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 max out at about 98% efficiency.

In terms of actual savings, results may vary. The biggest savers are usually people who heat with delivered fuels including propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters.

Nevertheless, heating with natural gas still tends to be less expensive than running a heat pump. The cost difference will depend on how tough the winter is, the utility rates in your area, whether your heat pump was installed correctly and whether you use solar panels to offset electricity costs.

Other Factors to Think About

If you’re thinking of transitioning 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 need to be sized, designed and installed properly to perform at their best. 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 up to the end of 2022.
    • Solar panels: Heat pumps are powered by 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 choice. We’ll evaluate your home comfort needs, consider your budget and recommend the best equipment, which could 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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