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 eco-friendly features of heat pumps. Heat pumps have been sought after in warm climates for a very long time. But considering they take heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom recommends that installing them in cold climates is not worth the effort. This may have you questioning if a heat pump is the right 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 suitable for northern climates. Over the last decade, the adoption of heat pump technology has soared in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With frequent January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these areas obviously need effective heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they fulfill their needs perfectly. 

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

Heat pump technology used to be too weak for cooler climates. As the temperature dipped below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to extract enough heat to successfully warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the special features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to work efficiently at temperatures colder than 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather refrigerants have a lower boiling point versus traditional heat pump refrigerants, allowing them to collect more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors run at lower speeds in moderate weather and increase to higher speeds in severe cold. This boosts efficiency in varying 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 enhanced coil design found in most modern heat pumps includes grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, enabling the unit to transfer heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection opens up a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to boost cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency falls off a bit in this mode, but it’s still much better than depending on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Improved motors use less electricity to increase energy savings. 
  • Other engineering optimizations such as weaker ambient flow rates, greater 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 conveys the total heating output over the heating season divided by the energy consumed during that period. The higher the HSPF, the better the efficiency. 

Beginning in 2023, the nationwide minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Many cold-climate heat pumps come with ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, allowing 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 top out at about 98% efficiency. 

In terms of actual savings, results might vary. The biggest savers are usually people who heat with combustible fuels such as 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 running a heat pump. The cost variation will depend on how severe the winter is, the utility costs in your area, whether your system was installed correctly and whether you have solar panels to offset electricity costs. 

Other Factors to Take into Consideration 

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 designed for efficiency, but they must be sized, designed and installed precisely to perform at their peak. Factors like home insulation levels and the placement of the outdoor unit can also affect system performance. 
  • Tax credits: You can save on heat pump installation costs with energy tax credits from the United States government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 until the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps use 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, 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 suggest 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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