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Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re shopping for a new home comfort system, chances 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 many years. But because they use heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom recommends that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This may have you questioning 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 usage of heat pump technology has increased significantly in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With average 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 was previously unsuitable for cooler climates. As the temperature fell below freezing, these systems were just unable to extract enough heat to effectively warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the innovative features found in cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to work efficiently at temperatures lower than 0 degrees F.

    • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point versus traditional heat pump refrigerants, allowing them to collect more heat energy from cold air.
    • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in temperate weather and transition to higher speeds in severe cold. This improves efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more stable.
    • Variable-speed fans work with multi-stage compressors to produce heated air at the proper rate.
    • The upgraded coil design placed in most modern heat pumps is designed with grooved copper tubing with a bigger surface area, allowing the unit to transfer heat more efficiently.
    • Flash injection creates a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to increase 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.
    • More powerful motors use less electricity to increase energy savings.
    • Other engineering modifications such as weaker ambient flow rates, an increase in compressor capacity and enhanced 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 during 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. Many 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 consume in the process.

Performance falls 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 can vary. The biggest savers are probably people who heat with delivered fuels like propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters.

Nevertheless, heating with natural gas still is generally less expensive than using a heat pump. The cost gap depends on how severe the winter is, the utility prices in your area, whether your heat pump was installed correctly and whether you have solar panels to offset electricity costs.

Other Factors to Take into Consideration

If you’re looking at transitioning from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, consider these additional factors:

    • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are engineered for efficiency, but they should 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 reduce 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 function well with solar panels. This collaboration 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, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective decision. We’ll assess 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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