Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re searching for a new HVAC system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been popular in warm climates for many years. But considering they use heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This might have you questioning if a heat pump is a better 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 acceptable 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 standard January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously rely on 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 Efficient at Low Temperatures? 

Heat pump technology was once too weak for cooler climates. As the temperature dropped below freezing, these systems were just unable to capture enough heat to efficiently warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the advanced features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to work efficiently at temperatures below 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather refrigerants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, enabling them to draw more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors run at lower speeds in temperate weather and switch to higher speeds in severe cold. This improves efficiency in dynamic weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent. 
  • Variable-speed fans have multi-stage compressors to supply heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The upgraded coil design used in most modern heat pumps includes grooved copper tubing with a larger surface area, enabling 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 depending on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • More powerful motors require less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering optimizations such as decreased ambient flow rates, greater compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further reduce energy consumption in icy winter weather. 

Traditional Heating Systems vs. Heat Pumps in Colder Climates 

Heat pump efficiency is calculated by its heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF), which illustrates the total heating output throughout 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 can boast ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, allowing them to operate at up to 400% efficiency in mild weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they use in the process. 

Performance drops 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 can vary. The biggest savers are probably people who heat with combustible fuels like 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 running a heat pump. The cost gap is based on how severe the winter is, the utility costs in your area, whether your system was installed correctly and whether you installed solar panels to offset electricity costs. 

Other Factors to Think About 

If you’re thinking of transitioning from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, don’t forget these additional factors: 

  • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are engineered for efficiency, but they should 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 affect 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 are powered by electricity, so they work 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 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, take a look at your budget and recommend the best equipment, which might 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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