Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re searching for a new comfort system, odds are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and enviromentally friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been popular in warm climates for a very long time. 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 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 appropriate for northern climates. Over the last decade, the usage of heat pump technology has increased significantly in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With standard January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these communities obviously need 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 was previously too weak for cooler climates. As the temperature dropped below freezing, these systems were simply unable to capture enough heat to effectively warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the special features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that permit them to perform efficiently at temperatures below 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point compared to traditional heat pump refrigerants, enabling them to pull more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors work at lower speeds in moderate weather and increase to higher speeds in intense cold. This increases efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent. 
  • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to produce heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The improved coil design placed in most modern heat pumps is designed with grooved copper tubing with a bigger surface area, helping the unit to exchange heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection opens up a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to increase cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency falls off a bit in this mode, but it’s still much better than relying on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Improved motors consume less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering optimizations such as weaker ambient flow rates, greater compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further decrease 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 conveys the total heating output during the heating season divided by the energy consumed during 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, enabling 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 might vary. The biggest savers are usually people who heat with common fuels such as propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters. 

However, heating with natural gas still tends to be less expensive than using a heat pump. The cost difference is based 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 Think About 

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

  • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are engineered for efficiency, but they need to be sized, designed and installed precisely to perform at their peak. Factors such as home insulation levels and the placement 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 through the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps are powered by electricity, so they pair well with solar panels. This combo can lower your energy bills even further. 

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump 

Whether you’re replacing a current 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, take a look at your budget and recommend the best equipment, which might 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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