Can Heat Pumps be Used in Northern Climates?

If you’re looking for a new home comfort system, odds are you’ve heard about the efficient, cost-effective and sustainable features of heat pumps. Heat pumps have been popular in warm climates for decades. But since they absorb heat from the outdoor air and transfer it inside, conventional wisdom recommends that installing them in cold climates is not practical. This might have you questioning 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 acceptable for northern climates. Over the last decade, the acceptance of heat pump technology has increased significantly in Northern European countries like Norway and Sweden. With average January temperatures sitting around 20 degrees F, homeowners in these regions obviously depend on effective heating options. Those who have installed cold-climate heat pumps have been delighted to discover that they fulfill their needs perfectly. 

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

Heat pump technology was once insufficient for temperate climates. As the temperature dropped below freezing, these systems were unfortunately unable to collect enough heat to successfully warm a house. But this is no longer the case. Here are the innovative features found in cold-climate heat pumps that permit them to perform efficiently at temperatures lower than 0 degrees F. 

  • Cold-weather coolants have a lower boiling point versus traditional heat pump refrigerants, enabling them to pull more heat energy from cold air. 
  • Multi-stage compressors function at lower speeds in temperate weather and transition to higher speeds in extreme cold. This boosts efficiency in changing weather conditions and keeps the indoor temperature more consistent. 
  • Variable-speed fans use multi-stage compressors to deliver heated air at the proper rate. 
  • The upgraded coil design placed in most modern heat pumps is designed with grooved copper tubing with a greater surface area, allowing the unit to transfer heat more efficiently. 
  • Flash injection opens a shortcut in the refrigerant loop to increase cold-weather heating performance. Efficiency drops a bit in this mode, but it’s still much better than relying on a backup electric resistance heater. 
  • Improved motors use less electricity to boost energy savings. 
  • Other engineering modifications such as reduced ambient flow rates, an increase in compressor capacity and improved compression cycle configurations further lower energy consumption in frigid 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 over 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. The majority of cold-climate heat pumps can boast 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 dips as the temperature drops, but various 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 usually people who heat with common fuels like propane and oil, as well as those who use electric furnaces or electric baseboard heaters. 

However, heating with natural gas still is generally less expensive than installing a heat pump. The cost variation is based on how harsh the winter is, the utility costs in your area, whether your system was installed correctly and whether you use 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 designed for efficiency, but they need to 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 impact system performance. 
  • Tax credits: You can save on heat pump installation costs with energy tax credits from the United States government. The tax credit amount for qualifying installations is $300 up to the end of 2022. 
  • Solar panels: Heat pumps are powered by electricity, so they work well with solar panels. This combination can lower 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 evaluate your home comfort needs, take a look at your budget and suggest the best equipment, which may 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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