Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re looking for a new HVAC system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been a favorite in warm climates for decades. But because they take heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not sensible. This may have you wondering 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 appropriate for northern climates. Over the past decade, the adoption of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With regular January temperatures hovering 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 fulfill their needs perfectly. 

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

Heat pump technology used to be 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 special features used in cold-climate heat pumps that permit them to perform efficiently at temperatures colder than 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 work at lower speeds in moderate weather and switch to higher speeds in severe cold. This improves 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 enhanced coil design found in most modern heat pumps includes grooved copper tubing with a bigger surface area, allowing the unit to exchange heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection creates a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to boost cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency falls off a bit in this mode, but it’s still superior to relying on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • More powerful motors consume less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering modifications such as weaker ambient flow rates, greater compressor capacity and improved compression cycle configurations further reduce 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 throughout 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 can boast ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, helping 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 such as 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 using a heat pump. The cost gap will depend on how tough the winter is, the utility prices in your area, whether your heat pump was installed correctly and whether you installed solar panels to offset electricity costs. 

Other Factors to Consider 

If you’re thinking of 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 need to be sized, designed and installed correctly to perform at their best. Factors like home insulation levels and the placement 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 United States 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 function well with solar panels. This collaboration can lower your energy bills even further. 

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump 

Whether you’re replacing a current HVAC system or exploring options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective decision. We’ll review your home comfort needs, take a look at your budget and suggest the best equipment, which could 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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