If you’re in a colder climate and researching HVAC replacement systems, you may have learned about the split system heat pump for the first time.
In milder climates, heat pumps are a very common go-to HVAC solution because they provide both heating and cooling. And, heat pumps cost quite a bit less to operate than a split system air conditioner plus a separate heating system (such as a gas or oil furnace).
Heat pumps are less popular in colder climates because they lose some of that efficiency when temperatures get very cold for extended periods of time. That’s why, here in the New York City area, many people have never heard of a heat pump.
However, that’s changing because heat pump use in a cold climate is catching on due to improved technology and rising utility rates.
Can you really use a heat pump in cold climates? Let’s examine the advantages and risks to help you make the best choice.
Why people are considering using a split system heat pump even in cold climates
Because cold-climate heat pump technology has improved, more homeowners and businesses are choosing a heat pump in the Northeast and other areas where the temperatures drop below freezing (and WELL below freezing).
But why might you want to do that? Here are 3 reasons:
Lower your energy bills. Heat pumps use less energy than air conditioners and furnaces. That means lower utility bills for you (an average home can save as much as $1000 per year). In fact, energy.gov says a heat pump can deliver as much as 3 times more heat energy to a space than the electrical energy it uses.
Cut down on repair and maintenance expenses. When you use a heat pump for both heat and air conditioning, there’s only one system to maintain, and one system to diagnose and repair if anything goes wrong. (Check out this related article about heat pump troubleshooting.)
Get earth-friendly heating. Heat pumps are more environmentally friendly than gas, oil or propane heat because they don’t need to consume any fossil fuels to produce heat.
Learn more: What is a heat pump and how does it work?
You can save money using a split system heat pump, even in the Northeast and other cold climate parts of the country.
TIP: There’s an HVAC heat pump tax credit that can save you thousands!
Keep reading to learn about the risks of using a heat pump in a cold climate.
What can happen to a heat pump in cold weather
If heat pumps are so cost-effective, why isn’t everybody using them? Well, there are risks to going with a split system heat pump in a cold climate.
The colder it is outside, the harder a heat pump must work to produce heat. It runs longer and uses more electricity. It’s still much less expensive than electric heat, but a heat pump might not deliver the promised cost efficiency during a very cold winter.
However, if you happen to be using solar and have less expensive electricity, that might not be a big concern.
In cold weather, the outside unit of a split system heat pump can get coated with ice. If that happens, in most cases you can just use the heat pump’s defrost mode to melt the ice. What defrost mode does, technically speaking, is change your heat pump to AC mode for a short period of time. I won’t bore you with the details of why it works this way… just don’t be alarmed when you feel cold air blowing out of your vents. It will only last a few minutes until it switches back to heat.
After a big storm or an extended period of freezing weather, there might be so much snow and ice packed around the heat pump’s outside unit that defrost mode isn’t enough to melt it. In this case, you may need a visit from a service tech.
This is the potential problem people are most concerned about… and understandably so. If we experience a long cold spell, you don’t want to find yourself without enough heat. In the coldest weather, some heat pumps simply can’t produce enough heat by themselves to warm the space.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the cost-saving benefits of a heat pump in a cold climate. You might just need a backup or supplemental heat source.
Supplemental heating eliminates the risks of using a heat pump in a cold climate
You might only need to use supplemental heat on the coldest days of the year. Here are some common options.
Use what you already have
Are you thinking of replacing an old oil heating system that’s too expensive to run all winter? You might be able to use a heat pump and turn on the oil heat only on the coldest days.
Split system heat pump with built in second stage heat
As we mentioned, heat pump technology is improving. Newer cold climate heat pump systems not only work better at lower temperatures, but they have built-in second stage heating. So when the temperature drops, a supplemental heat system (using electricity, gas, oil or hot water) automatically kicks in.
Radiant floor heat
If you’re renovating, putting in radiant floor heat along with a heat pump may be a cost effective option as well as a wonderful comfort option on cold days!