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Can Heat Pumps Actually Work in Cold Climates?
Heat pumps are becoming essential tools in combating climate change, not just in the southern regions, but across the country. Compared to traditional heating and cooling systems, heat pumps are more energy-efficient and can significantly reduce household carbon emissions, especially when powered by clean electricity, which often leads to substantial carbon emission reductions. In fact, President Joe Biden authorized the use of the Defense Production Act in June of this year to rapidly expand the American manufacturing of key clean energy technologies, including heat pumps.
For decades, heat pumps have been common in the warmest regions of the United States, but the traditional belief was that air-source heat pumps (the most common type due to their simple installation and lower cost compared to ground-source heat pumps) didn’t make sense in areas where temperatures drop below freezing. This was because air-source heat pumps work by extracting heat from outdoor air and transferring it indoors, making their operation more challenging in cold outdoor conditions. It’s been said that even during mild cold snaps, electric heating struggles to keep homes comfortable, and the efficiency of electric heating is often reduced in such weather. They argued that if you wanted efficient electric heating in cold climates, you’d need the expensive and complex installation of ground-source heat pumps, which extract heat from the ground.
However, this is old news. When properly installed, many modern air-source heat pumps (referred to as “heat pumps” in the rest of this article, can be R290 heat pump or R32 heat pump) can keep your home warm even in the most frigid cold, with energy consumption much lower than other types of heating systems. Many homeowners who use heat pumps also save money. While Consumer Reports has not yet tested any whole-house heating and cooling equipment, including heat pumps, research and practical experience clearly indicate that heat pumps are viable. Dave Lis, the Technical and Market Solutions Director at the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP), believes that air-source heat pumps can function as the primary heating system for homes in almost any climate condition.
Of course, you may find people who spent tens of thousands of dollars installing an air-source heat pump and ended up with a chilly home and skyrocketing energy bills. However, this situation is only likely to happen with contractors unfamiliar with heat pumps. If you choose equipment suitable for your home and climate, make any recommended weatherization upgrades, and hire a reputable contractor experienced in installing heat pumps, you should have a positive outcome (for additional installation advice, please refer to our heat pump buying guide).
Considerations for Heat Pumps in Cold Climates
Currently, there isn’t an official “cold climate” standard specifically for heat pumps. However, the next Energy Star air-source heat pump standard, scheduled for release in January 2023, will include a cold climate heat pump certification label, indicating that the heat pump’s low-temperature performance and efficiency meet appropriate levels.
Meanwhile, Lis’s organization, NEEP, maintains a database of heat pump models that perform well in cold climates. Many models in this database can effectively heat in both chilly 5-degree Fahrenheit conditions and mild 47-degree Fahrenheit conditions, even working well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, these heat pumps are designed for the significant temperature fluctuations experienced in the northeastern and central-western regions each winter.
A key feature of heat pumps designed for cold climates is the variable-speed compressor driven by an inverter. This type of compressor is beneficial for heat pumps in any climate condition, but it’s particularly advantageous in regions with significant seasonal temperature differences. It allows a heat pump to operate efficiently during the coldest winter days, the hottest summer afternoons, and all moderate days in between.
Another advantage is that variable-speed systems can maintain a more stable temperature (and humidity in cooling mode) than traditional single-speed HVAC systems. Dr. Iain Walker, a mechanical engineer and building scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explains that single-speed systems can cause more indoor temperature fluctuations during the day.
Lis compares it to a car’s accelerator: a single-speed heat pump is like going from 0 to 100 miles per hour. A variable-speed system can operate at various speeds in between. On a chilly February night or a hot July day, it can cruise at high speeds. In milder October or April weather, it can crawl along like it’s in a school zone. The highest gear is rarely needed. Variable-speed models also contribute to energy savings, much like how driving at a steady, moderate speed increases your fuel efficiency, as opposed to repeatedly revving the engine and slamming on the brakes.
Another technology that contributes to achieving low-temperature performance is flash steam injection (or steam injection). As the outdoor temperature decreases, the heating capacity of standard heat pumps (i.e., the ability to keep the space warm) also decreases. Therefore, when the outdoor temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, a heat pump that can keep your house comfortable may struggle when the temperature drops below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. However, cold climate heat pumps can take a shortcut by opening the refrigerant circuit at low temperatures, thus improving the heating performance in cold climates. In this mode of operation, along with occasional defrost cycles, there may be a slight decrease in efficiency (in cold weather, the heat pump coil may frost up and requires periodic defrosting). But Lis says that even with this additional energy consumption, it’s still much more efficient than resistance or fuel-based systems.
Like “regular” heat pumps, cold climate heat pumps usually come in two types: ducted or ductless. If your home already has a good duct system, you’ll likely opt for a ducted heat pump. If your home lacks a duct system—such as if you currently use radiators for heating or if you’re adding climate control to a garage, attic, or an additional part of the residence—you typically choose a ductless system, commonly known as a mini-split system. Both types of equipment can be highly efficient in cold weather, with the difference being in their heating (and cooling) mechanisms. For more details on different types of heat pumps and how they work, please refer to our heat pump buying guide.
Even in cold climates, heat pumps can save you money. After soaring heating fuel prices in the early 2010s, the northern New England region experienced the first wave of adopting cold climate heat pumps. For many residents, heating with heat pumps proved to be cheaper than using propane or oil (the common fuels in that region, along with wood). Additionally, many households suddenly had access to air conditioning for the first time.
However, whether heat pumps save you money, or at least break even, compared to other HVAC systems, can depend. A study from the University of California, Davis, estimates that 32% of households in the United States (including many in cold climate areas) could save on expenses by switching to a whole-house heat pump system. If heat pump subsidies become more widespread, the savings percentage might increase, particularly if fuel prices remain high relative to electricity costs (check these summaries provided by the Department of Energy to see the potential savings in your state).
The most significant savings might be for those currently using delivered heating fuels like propane and oil (as many early adopters in New England did) or those using electric furnaces or baseboard heaters for heating.
Jerome Edgington, a mechanic from Leicester, Massachusetts, installed a ductless mini-split system that met cold climate standards in late 2019. During the coldest months, he averaged around $150 in savings compared to using an oil boiler. Given the current oil prices (which have remained historically high since March 2022), he’s saving about $550 per month. He stated, “With no natural gas in my area and ground-source heat pumps being very expensive and complex to install, air-source heat pumps seemed like the only viable option.”
However, the cost of heating with natural gas is often lower than using heat pumps. Lis says that as heat pumps become more efficient, the cost difference narrows. “It’s not a runaway,” he said. “But it really depends on the climate where you are, whether your winter is severe or mild, the specific HVAC equipment, how well your equipment is installed, and your utility prices.”
Dave Adams, a pastor and home renovator in Fort Wayne, Indiana, installed a ducted heat pump that meets cold climate standards in 2020 to replace a failing air conditioner and an aging gas furnace. He reported in a video that his heating bills did indeed increase by about $270, but a significant portion of that increase occurred during an exceptionally cold month. In cooling mode, the heat pump’s efficiency was much higher than his old air conditioner, and he claims that in the first year of using the heat pump, he nearly achieved cost parity for both heating and cooling, a point he details in a series of YouTube videos, including this one.
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So, what about installation costs? The purchase and installation costs of cold climate heat pumps often tend to be higher than other HVAC equipment, potentially even more than the total cost of a decent furnace and central air conditioning. However, like with all products in the HVAC industry, there are many exceptions.
Adams shared with us that he received a “crazy quote” of $4,700 to replace a failed central air conditioner with the lowest-efficiency 2.5-ton unit but ended up buying a high-efficiency 3-ton all-climate heat pump for a much lower price (around $3,500 in today’s market) and installed it himself, being a skilled DIYer. He didn’t need to buy a heat pump because his gas furnace was still functioning, but it was the “best deal.” Traxler from Minneapolis mentioned that he spent about $2,300 in 2016 to buy and install two separate ductless mini-split systems (one for each floor of his house), and he did most of the installation work himself.
On the other end, according to data shared with CR, some homeowners in the northeastern region paid over $30,000 for professionally installed ducted cold climate air-source heat pumps as their sole heating source, as part of a study on the costs and performance of cold climate heat pumps by the Cadmus Group. The average cost per square foot of the heat pump (including installation) based on data from 22 households is approximately $10.36, but the price range varies widely, from $3.52 to $16.98, and there isn’t a clear pattern based on duct system requirements (Our Advice: Given the significant price differences in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, it’s recommended to obtain multiple quotes to ensure you get the best price).
Building scientist Walker believes that unventilated homes present a challenge for heat pumps, resulting in higher installation and operational costs. For any heating system, drafty walls and leaky ducts, along with inadequate insulation, are a problem. “This has always been a headache for the HVAC industry, and it still is,” Walker said. It’s the same with conventional furnaces. However, you’ll feel this more with heat pumps because the air they blow out is cooler than what a furnace produces. You won’t have warm air blowing from the vents to distract you from the cold elsewhere, and in extremely cold temperatures, your house may lose heat faster than with a furnace.
So, if your home is leaky but you still want to use a heat pump, you’ll need to find a way to compensate if you want to stay comfortable. One approach is to purchase a larger capacity heat pump, but this method can be costly. The best way is to upgrade the insulation and air sealing around your home. This also isn’t free, but these upgrades often pay for themselves quickly, and some states even provide subsidies for insulation and other weatherization measures.
To make heat pumps more attractive, some states now offer generous tax incentives or rebates for installing heat pumps, making the cost analysis more favorable for heat pumps. You can find a list of subsidies available in your area in the “Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.”
Of course, if you choose a heat pump that doesn’t require frequent repairs, you can also save on expenses. To this end, CR predicted reliability and user satisfaction ratings for ducted heat pumps from 24 top brands based on thousands of actual usage data collected in member surveys since 2016 (CR members can access these ratings).
When do you need a backup (or hybrid) system? Even in milder regions of the United States, temperatures occasionally drop below freezing. However, basic single-speed heat pumps usually come with a backup heating system to ensure users remain comfortable during the coldest seasons.
Today, you can certainly keep a backup system for contingencies. However, if the modern heat pump you install is well-suited to your climate and the size and condition of your home, you may not need a backup system. Among the heat pump users we interviewed, each one mentioned having a backup heating system, but even in extremely cold weather, they had never needed to use it.
However, combining a heat pump with other types of heating equipment can actually be the most economical and comfortable setup. It also saves energy compared to a completely traditional system. You can call it a backup system, a hybrid system, or a dual-fuel system, but the principle is the same. As Walker said, “We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As far as burning gas goes, you can still make substantial changes.”
As for how much money hybrid systems can save, there’s some debate. The right answer depends on the size of your home, its layout, ventilation, and whether you want to maximize cost savings or overall comfort. To explore more options, read about several common hybrid setups in our heat pump buying guide.
Ultimately, the decision to install a backup system, a hybrid system, or solely rely on a modern heat pump depends on your specific circumstances and priorities. Whether it’s about achieving cost savings, maximizing comfort, reducing carbon emissions, or ensuring reliable heating during extremely cold weather, understanding the unique features and trade-offs of heat pump systems is crucial.
In summary, the landscape of heat pump technology has evolved significantly over the years, making them increasingly viable even in cold climates. Properly selected, installed, and maintained heat pumps can be a cost-effective and efficient solution for heating and cooling your home, offering environmental benefits while potentially saving you money in the long run. However, it’s essential to assess your specific situation, consider available incentives, and consult with professionals to make the best choice for your comfort, budget, and energy goals.
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