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11 Commonly Asked Questions About Heat Pumps in Cold Climates

by Ultimate Heating & Cooling / December 15, 2021

Recent research shows that just over 10% of homes in the United States use a heat pump. However, their popularity is rising, as they're cheaper to run and produce fewer carbon emissions than a traditional furnace. 

Here’s a rundown of the most frequently asked questions about heat pumps in cold climates:

What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is a way to heat your home in which a refrigerant and a compressor extract and transfer thermal energy from sources like the air, ground, or nearby body of water. You can also use the unit to cool your home, as there's a built-in reversing valve that enables the system to operate in the opposite direction. 

How do heat pumps work in cold climates?

Heat pumps work in cold weather by pushing the refrigerant through an expansion valve. This makes the refrigerant colder than the surrounding atmosphere and attracts any thermal energy in the air to the super-cooled coil and refrigerant. The captured heat is then drawn indoors via an air return vent and further warmed by an indoor heat pump system. For more in-depth info, see our overview of the four types of heat pumps and how they work in winter.

What temperature should I set my heat pump to in the winter?

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat to 68°F during the day and a few degrees lower when you're away from home or asleep.

Should I cover my heat pump in the winter?

Don't cover your heat pump in the winter. The only exception is when you’re not using it for an extended period and have turned it off. If you run a heat pump with a cover on, it won't be able to take in air or release the exhaust. This can cause it to overheat, shut down, and even damage the internal parts. There’s a risk of fire too.

What's the difference between a heat pump and a furnace?

A furnace generates heat using electric heating elements or by burning natural oil or gas, whereas heat pumps use electricity and a refrigerant to extract heat from external sources like the air, ground, or bodies of water.

What's the cost to run a heat pump during winter?

It costs as little as $430 per year to run a heat pump for 8 hours per day from early November to late April. The figure is based on a 2,000 square foot home using a 2.5 ton heat pump with an HSPF rating of 12 and paying 12 ¢/kWh. Less efficient pumps can cost up to twice as much to run per year.

What is the heat pump defrost cycle?

The heat pump defrost cycle warms the refrigerant to prevent excessive ice and frost build-up on the outdoor coil. It usually lasts for 10 to 15 minutes per cycle.

Why does my heat pump freeze up in the winter?

Heat pumps tend to ice up in the winter because water vapor is generated when the pump's refrigerant turns to gas. The vapor then freezes in contact with the pump's cold metal surface.

How to keep my heat pump from freezing up in the winter?

To prevent your heat pump from freezing up in winter, make sure nothing is obstructing the airflow in your setup. Check that your air filters are in good condition and ensure there's no debris clogging up the heat pump's exterior. 

It's natural for a bit of ice to cover the exterior parts of your heat pump in winter, especially the coil. However, if it’s heavily iced over for long periods, get an HVAC specialist to have a look. We also have a short guide for troubleshooting common heat pump issues in winter.

Why is my heat pump making a loud noise in cold weather?

Heat pumps often make a wooshing noise in cold weather when the refrigerant valve shifts into defrost mode. It lasts for a couple of seconds. Afterward, the noise of the compressor sometimes increases and makes a metallic sound. When the unit starts up or shuts down, it can sound like a washing machine, and some solenoid coils also make a buzzing noise. These noises are normal and are not a cause for concern.

Why is my heat pump running continuously in cold weather?

Heat pumps run continuously when it's extremely cold outside because they have to work longer to draw sufficient thermal energy.

Have questions about using heat pumps in cold weather that weren’t on our list? Contact our team of HVAC specialists!

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