Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re looking for a new comfort system, odds are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly features of heat pumps. Heat pumps have been a favorite in warm climates for a very long time. But considering they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom suggests that installing them in cold climates is not worth the effort. This could have you asking 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 acceptable for northern climates. In the last decade, the acceptance of heat pump technology has soared in Northern European countries such as Norway and Sweden. With regular January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these communities obviously depend 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 extract enough heat to successfully warm a house. But this is no longer accurate. Here are the advanced features used in cold-climate heat pumps that allow them to operate efficiently at temperatures below 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point than traditional heat pump refrigerants, helping them to collect more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors work at lower speeds in mild weather and switch to higher speeds in extreme cold. This boosts efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more balanced. 
  • Variable-speed fans use multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The improved coil design found in most modern heat pumps features grooved copper tubing with a bigger surface area, allowing 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 much better than relying on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Better motors use less electricity to increase energy savings. 
  • Other engineering modifications like decreased 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 over the heating season divided by the energy consumed for that period. The higher the HSPF, the better the efficiency. 

Starting in 2023, the national minimum efficiency rating for heat pumps will be 8.8 HSPF. Many cold-climate heat pumps come with ratings of 10 HSPF or higher, enabling them to operate at up to 400% efficiency in mild weather. In other words, they move four times more energy than they consume in the process. 

Performance dips 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 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. 

However, heating with natural gas still is usually less expensive than using a heat pump. The cost difference depends on how severe the winter is, the utility prices 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 looking at 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 engineered for efficiency, but they must be sized, designed and installed precisely to perform at their best. Factors like home insulation levels and the location 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 up to the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps use electricity, so they work 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 comparing options for a new property, Service Experts Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing can help you make a cost-effective decision. We’ll evaluate your home comfort needs, consider your budget and suggest the best equipment, which could 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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