Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re shopping for a new home comfort system, chances are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly features of heat pumps. These systems have been popular in warm climates for decades. But since they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom suggests that installing them in cold climates is not sensible. This may have you wondering if a heat pump is a good 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 suitable for northern climates. Over the past decade, the adoption of heat pump technology has surged in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With average January temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously need efficient heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have found that they meet their needs perfectly. 

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

Heat pump technology was once unsuitable for cold climates. As the temperature dipped below freezing, these systems were simply unable to extract enough heat to efficiently warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the innovative features found in cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to operate efficiently at temperatures below 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather refrigerants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, allowing them to draw more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors run at lower speeds in moderate weather and switch to higher speeds in extreme cold. This improves efficiency in varying weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent. 
  • Variable-speed fans work with multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The improved coil design found in most modern heat pumps includes grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, allowing the unit to exchange heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection opens a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to boost cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency drops a bit in this mode, but it’s still better than relying on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Better motors use less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering optimizations like reduced ambient flow rates, increased compressor capacity and improved compression cycle configurations further reduce energy consumption in frigid winter weather. 

Traditional Heating Systems vs. Heat Pumps in Colder Climates 

Heat pump efficiency is measured 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. 

Starting in 2023, the nationwide minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Many cold-climate heat pumps come with 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 dips as the temperature drops, but many 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 may vary. The biggest savers are likely to be people who heat with delivered fuels like 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 running a heat pump. The cost difference depends on how harsh the winter is, the utility rates in your area, whether your equipment was installed correctly and whether you have solar panels to offset electricity costs. 

Other Factors to Consider 

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 engineered for efficiency, but they must be sized, designed and installed correctly to perform at their peak. Factors like home insulation levels and the location 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 U.S. government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 through the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps run on electricity, so they pair well with solar panels. This combination can reduce your energy bills even further. 

Start Saving with a Cold-Climate Heat Pump 

Whether you’re replacing an existing 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 assess your home comfort needs, consider your budget and recommend the best equipment, which may 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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