Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re shopping for a new home comfort system, odds are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been sought after in warm climates for decades. But considering they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom indicates that installing them in cold climates is not worth the effort. This might 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 appropriate for northern climates. In the last decade, the adoption of heat pump technology has soared in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With frequent January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously depend on powerful heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they fulfill their needs perfectly. 

What Makes Cold-Climate Heat Pumps Successful at Low Temperatures? 

Heat pump technology was once too weak for temperate climates. As the temperature dipped below freezing, these systems were simply unable to extract enough heat to effectively warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the advanced features designed for cold-climate heat pumps that permit 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 collect more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors work at lower speeds in moderate weather and transition to higher speeds in intense cold. This boosts efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent. 
  • Variable-speed fans use multi-stage compressors to produce heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The enhanced coil design used in most modern heat pumps features grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, allowing 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, an increase in compressor capacity and enhanced compression cycle configurations further lower energy consumption in frigid winter weather. 

Traditional Heating Systems vs. Heat Pumps in Colder Climates 

Heat pump efficiency is determined 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 nationwide minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Lots of cold-climate heat pumps come with 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 consume 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 top out at about 98% efficiency. 

In terms of actual savings, results might vary. The biggest savers are likely to be 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 is generally less expensive than installing a heat pump. The cost gap depends on how tough the winter is, the utility prices 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 thinking of switching from a traditional furnace, boiler or electric heater to a cold-climate heat pump, consider these additional factors: 

  • Design and installation: Cold-weather heat pumps are built for efficiency, but they should be sized, designed and installed precisely to perform at their best. Factors such as 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 federal government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 through the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps use electricity, so they pair well with solar panels. This combo can reduce your energy bills even further. 

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump 

Whether you’re replacing an old HVAC system or checking out options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective choice. 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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