Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re looking for a new home comfort system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and sustainable features of heat pumps. These systems have been popular in warm climates for decades. But because they use 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 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 appropriate for northern climates. Over the past decade, the usage of heat pump technology has increased significantly in Northern European countries like 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 been delighted to discover that they meet their needs perfectly. 

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

Heat pump technology was once insufficient for cooler climates. As the temperature fell below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to collect enough heat to successfully warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the innovative features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that enable them to work efficiently at temperatures below 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, helping them to pull more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors run at lower speeds in moderate weather and switch to higher speeds in intense cold. This improves efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more balanced. 
  • Variable-speed fans work with multi-stage compressors to produce heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The enhanced 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 creates 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 depending on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Better motors require less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering modifications like decreased ambient flow rates, an increase in compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further reduce 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 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. Lots 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 consume in the process. 

Performance drops as the temperature drops, but various 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 probably people who heat with common 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 using a heat pump. The cost difference will depend on how severe the winter is, the utility prices in your area, whether your equipment was installed correctly and whether you installed 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 need to be sized, designed and installed correctly 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 up to the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps run on electricity, so they work 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 an old HVAC system or comparing options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective choice. We’ll review your home comfort needs, go over your budget and point you toward the best equipment, which may be a cold-climate heat pump or similar product. 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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