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Ultimate Guide to Cold Climate, Air Source Heat Pumps

Here at Elephant Energy, we consider ourselves cold-weather heat pump experts. Our small-but-mighty Boulder-Denver based team has installed cold climate heat pumps in hundreds of homes in Colorado and Massachusetts. With our customers encountering some of the coldest temperatures in the U.S., our installs have proven that heat pumps work (really well!) in cold climates. Plus, heat pumps are the most sustainable, cost-effective, comfortable way to heat and cool your home. That’s why we’re sharing our Ultimate Guide to Cold Climate Heat Pumps with everything you need to know about this awesome technology. Especially if you are considering upgrading your own home to include one.

The Basics

What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is a type of HVAC system that uses a small amount of energy to move heat from one location to another. In the summer, air source heat pumps cool your home by extracting cool air from outside and drawing it inside. In the winter, they do the opposite. Since heat pumps provide heating AND cooling, they are a versatile and efficient option that replaces your furnace AND air conditioner. In that sense, heat pumps are an “all-in-one” HVAC solution – and we think that’s pretty cool.

How heat pumps work

For the visual learners, here’s one of our favorite graphics:

Air Source Heat Pump Diagram
Source: FreshEnergy

As shown above, heat pumps work by transferring heat from one place to another, rather than generating heat like a furnace does. In the winter, this means transferring heat from the outside air into your house to warm it. Even when it feels cold to us, there is still enough heat in the air (according to the Kelvin temperature scale!) to warm your home. Science is awesome 🙂 

And, heat pumps are about 3x as energy-efficient than traditional HVAC systems because they use electricity to transfer existing heat from the outside air, rather than burning fossil fuels to generate it. The latter is much more energy intensive than the former.

Heat Pump Condenser in the Snow

Are cold climate heat pumps different from normal heat pumps?

No, not really. The main difference is that cold climate heat pumps are specifically DESIGNED to work in very cold temperatures. In other words, they can produce more heat at lower temperatures than non cold-climate rated equipment. Cold climate heat pumps look the same as heat pumps in milder climates. Most of the differences can be seen in internal components and computer programming. Cold climate heat pumps are typically used in heating dominated areas with colder temperatures. Think: places where it gets cooold in winter months, like Colorado and New England.

Where Heat Pumps Work

Where are heat pumps used?

Heat pumps are used in a variety of climates and regions around the world. They are particularly popular in areas with moderate climates, where they can provide efficient heating and cooling throughout the year. They are also popular in areas with high electricity costs, as they often reduce energy bills. 

Heat pumps are also commonly used in residential and commercial buildings, as well as in industrial and agricultural applications. They are a popular choice for heating and cooling homes, offices, schools, and other buildings.

Heat pumps are an increasingly popular choice for heating and cooling in the United States and Canada. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps are used in approximately 50% of new single-family homes built in the United States.

Across the rest of the world, heat pumps are popular in Europe, Japan, China, Australia, and New Zealand.

Do heat pumps work in the winter?

Yes! We have installed many heat pumps in the Colorado Front Range and New England, and they function very well in extreme cold weather. They’ve also been proven effective in other very cold climate locations (for example, Alaska and Maine). However, there are many people who still think that heat pumps don’t work in this climate. Up until a few years ago, heat pump technology was not robust enough for super cold weather conditions. Technology improvements have now rendered this belief a myth.

At Elephant Energy, we are extremely thoughtful when we approach heat pump system design and sizing for cold climates. We ensure our homeowners feel confident that their heat pumps will keep them cozy on the coldest of days. 

In December 2022, Coloradans experienced some of the coldest temperatures in the past four decades in the market we serve. They saw overnight lows of -16°F and daytime highs of 0°F for ~36 hours – see below:

And, we were incredibly happy to see that all of our customers’ homes stayed toasty warm. Specifically, their homes maintained a temperature within a couple degrees F of the thermostat set point. This is a huge validation of heat pumps, and more specifically our approach of using building science to size systems. Heat Pumps for the win – and we have the data to prove it!

Choosing the Right Heat Pump for Your Home

Different Types of Heat Pumps

There are three main types of heat pumps: air-source, ground-source (also known as geothermal), and water-source. Air-source heat pumps use the outdoor air as a heat source in the winter and a heat sink in the summer. Ground-source heat pumps use the constant temperature of the Earth to absorb heat from the ground in the winter and from the home in the summer. Water-source heat pumps are similar to ground-source but use a body of water as the heat source instead of the ground. Here at Elephant, we install air-source heat pumps. These are the most cost-effective type of heat pump for sustainable and comfortable heating and cooling.

Mini-Split Heat Pumps

A mini split is a type of heat pump designed to provide heating and cooling to a single room. They have two use cases. First, in homes or buildings where it is not practical or possible to install a central heating and cooling system. Second, where the homeowner wants to control the temperature in different rooms separately.

Mini splits are generally more energy efficient than traditional heating and cooling systems. This is because they only need to heat or cool a single room or zone rather than the entire building. They are also easy to install and are a good choice for those who want to avoid major renovations.

Do I need ducts for a heat pump system?

This depends on the type of heat pump and the layout of your home or building.

Many heat pump systems use ducts to distribute heated or cooled air throughout the home or building. If you already have a central heating and cooling system with ducts, you may be able to use the existing ducts for your heat pump. 

If you do not, or if they are in poor condition, it may be possible to install a ductless mini split heat pump system. Ductless mini splits consist of an indoor unit (mounted on the wall or ceiling) and an outdoor unit that are connected. They provide heating and cooling to a single room and are often used when it is not practical or possible to install ducts.

We’re happy to provide an assessment of your ducts during your Home Comfort Consultation.

Air Source Heat Pumps vs. Ground Source Heat Pumps

Air source heat pumps and ground source (or geothermal) heat pumps are both types of heat pumps that can be used to heat and cool buildings. However, they differ in how they extract heat from the environment.

As mentioned above, air source heat pumps extract heat from the outdoor air and transfer it indoors to heat a building. Air source heat pumps are generally less expensive to install than geothermal heat pumps and require less maintenance.

Ground source heat pumps, on the other hand, use the relatively constant temperature of the ground or a body of water as a heat source. This type of system can be more efficient than an air source heat pump because the ground or water is able to store and release heat more efficiently than the air. However, ground source heat pumps are generally more expensive and much more complex to install because they require a loop system to be installed in the ground or water.

Sizing Your Cold Climate Heat Pump

Since we operate in the Front Range, all of our home heating systems are specifically designed to ensure homes stay warm and cozy even when temperatures drop well below 0°F.

To do this, we’ve developed a proprietary sizing methodology that incorporates the industry standard Manual J approach – and adds to that real world historic data. We’ve studied the heat output in British Thermal Units (“BTUs”) of various cold climate heat pump models. We then compare that to our building science model – which indicates your specific home’s heating requirements – to select the right equipment.

We also take the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) into account in our analysis. We’ve found that, sometimes, getting a smaller system with a back up resistance heat kit yields a better, more affordable outcome since the smaller unit operates most the year more efficiently and has a lower upfront cost due to rebates.

Regardless of the best fit for your home, getting this sizing equation right is absolutely crucial for a successful and comfortable air source heat pump install. If the system is too big for the home, that leads to extra cost upfront. If the system is too small, then it might not be able to keep up on the coldest days. So, our sizing methodology is focused on finding the perfect “Goldilocks” heat pump – a system that is sized just right for both your home and your preferences.

It’s important to note that the sizing methodology we’ve developed is a big departure from the way that most traditional HVAC contractors look at the world. In our experience, 99% of gas furnace installs are more like Papa Bear – way oversized for the homes they are installed in. This leads to lots of downstream comfort issues (think: blasting on / off, uneven heating and cooling, excessively high energy bills, etc.).

Affording Your New Heat Pump

Heat Pump Cost

The cost of a heat pump depends on several factors including the size and type of the unit.

In addition to the cost of the heat pump, you should factor in the cost of installation. This can vary depending on the size and layout of your home, the location of the heat pump, and the complexity of the installation. 

It’s also worth considering the long-term energy savings that a heat pump can provide. This can help to offset the initial cost of installation. Heat pumps are generally more energy efficient than traditional heating and cooling systems, which can result in lower energy bills over the long term.

Curious what the path to full home electrification might look like for you? Get Your Electrification Roadmap® with our free tool here

To get a free estimate for a specific project, click here
To learn more about the rebates and incentives available for electrification, click here.

How The Cost of a New Heat Pump Compares to Alternatives

Heat pumps cost about the same as an efficient furnace plus air-conditioning combination up front – but provide significant cost and carbon savings over time relative to their traditional gas counterparts. Our goal is to always get you the most cost effective system for your home, taking into consideration upfront cost, on-going cost, and your personal comfort goals. To achieve this, we choose equipment that specifically meets your home’s needs while also ensuring the equipment falls within your budget (taking advantage of financial incentives wherever possible). 

Speaking of financial incentives, there are a lot and to summarize – it’s quite complicated! There are incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), utility companies, states, and cities. And each one has slightly different efficiency and performance requirements for heat pumps. While it’s highly complex, we’re here to make it easy for you. Below, we go into some detail around the nuances in the various rebate and tax credit financial incentive programs.

How The Inflation Reduction Act Impacts Your Heat Pump Purchase

TLDR: The IRA is the largest investment in greenhouse gas reductions – EVER! There are tax credits for heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, solar, and other #ElectrifyEverything upgrades! There are rebates for an even broader set of electrical upgrades! Meaning you can get better equipment for less money

Here’s the breakdown for each type of project: 

IRA incentives for heat pumps
Source: Elephant Energy

You can read our full Guide to Making the Most of the IRA Incentives here.

So what does this mean for you?

Many incentives are available! We are in the process of designing a tool to help you estimate upfront discounts and tax credits made available by the IRA for heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, electric stoves, electric wiring, weatherization, electric vehicle chargers, rooftop solar, and more. In the meantime, check out this useful IRA calculator tool from Rewiring America (the leading leading electrification nonprofit in the US). 

And, don’t forget about other incentives from local governments or utility companies. 100% of our customers have qualified for financial incentives. Xcel Energy offers a rebate of up to $2,000 for heat pumps, and many of our customers have qualified for additional city-level rebates, too.

Home electrification IRA savings
Source: Elephant Energy / Nicole Kelner

Heat Pump Financing Options

Colorado

Financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements (including heat pumps!) is available for eligible Colorado homeowners through The Colorado Residential Energy Upgrade (“RENU”) Loan. We partner with RENU to provide low-cost financing for our customers, starting at 3.5% and zero-money down. 

To qualify for RENU, homeowners must both own a single-family or multi-family home in Colorado and meet certain income requirements. The loan amount and terms depend on the borrower’s specific energy upgrades and creditworthiness.

To apply for RENU, homeowners must complete an application and provide relevant documentation such as proof of income, proof of ownership, and a detailed list of their selected home upgrades. A loan officer will review the application and determine whether the borrower is eligible for the loan.
You can read more about our partnership with RENU here.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts homeowners can take advantage of the Mass Save HEAT Loan program, which offers zero interest financing opportunities up to $50,000 to residential customers who are installing eligible heat pumps.

Installation: What to Expect

Installation Process Overview

Once you have selected your project, we will introduce you to an Elephant Energy Project Manager who will manage your project through its completion. Then, we take care of everything – ordering your equipment, selecting the best contractors for your projects, and overseeing the installation process. After your project is installed, we will help you learn how your new equipment works and make sure it is running properly. We simplify the process of accessing low-cost financing. And we also manage all of the rebate paperwork so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy your upgraded home.

How long does the installation process take?

Heat pump installations generally take 2 days, but can depend on the size of the installation and home specifications. Our other home electrification products such as Heat Pump Water Heaters, EV Chargers, and Induction Stoves can be completed in a single day.

How long will I wait to have my new heat pump installed?

While the actual installation is quick, we recommend scheduling your project ASAP, as equipment ordering and project scheduling typically take 1 month, and potentially longer during the busy seasons, summer and winter.

Heat Pumps vs the Competition

Air Source Heat Pumps vs. Traditional HVAC

We know that deciding what to replace your heating and cooling systems with can feel overwhelming – even more so if it’s an emergency situation, or particularly inopportune time. We are here to help you navigate your purchase and make sure you know all of your options. The table below shows how a heat pump compares to legacy alternatives (gas-powered furnace and traditional air conditioning). 

Please keep in mind that the below table is a high-level summary of these three options – the specifics for each can vary greatly depending on the exact equipment, the home that the equipment is being installed in, and where that home is located.

Air-Source Heat Pump Gas Furnace Central/Window AC
Energy Source Electricity Fuel (natural gas, propane, or oil) Electricity
How Does It Work? Heats & cools by pumping air between indoor & outdoor environments Burning fuel produces heat that is transferred indoors Removes heat from inside and releases it outside using a refrigerant
Lifespan (Years) 15-20 15-20 – 15-20 (central)
– 5-10 (window)
Upfront Cost $10,000- $25,000*
*Before rebates, which usually range from $2,000 – 7,000
$4,000-$8,000 – $4,500-$15,000 (central)
– $300-$800 (window)
Incentives – $8,000 rebate for low / moderate income households
– $2,000 tax credit for all households
– Other local incentives
None None
Environmental Impact 🟢 🔴 🟡
Efficiency 🟢 🔴 🟡
Annual Utility Bill Savings
(vs. Furnace)
$1,000-$2,500 $0 $0
Source: Elephant Energy

The Advantages of Installing an Air-Source Heat Pump

Heat pumps have several “pros” over other heating and cooling systems:

  • Energy efficiency: Heat pumps are generally more energy efficient than traditional heating and cooling systems because they use electricity to move heat rather than create it. This means that they can provide the same amount of heat using less energy, which can result in lower energy bills. On average, homeowners save about $1,000 -$2,500 per year on energy bills by moving to electric technologies.
  • Environmentally friendly: Heat pumps do not burn fossil fuels to generate heat, which means they do not produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses. This makes them a more environmentally friendly option compared to fossil fuel-based systems.
  • Quiet operation: Heat pumps are generally very quiet when operating, making them a good choice for homeowners who want to minimize noise in their home.
  • Versatility: Heat pumps can be used for both heating and cooling, making them a versatile choice for homeowners who want a single system to handle both functions.
  • Zone control: Some heat pumps come equipped with zone control, which allows you to adjust the temperature in different areas of your home separately. This can help to save energy by only heating or cooling the areas of the home that are being used.
  • Increase Home Value: Electrifying can increase your home’s value by an average of 4-7% for heat pump HVAC systems.

Things to Consider Before Installing an Air Source Heat Pump

  • It’s critical to get the system sizing right: If the heat pump is too small, it may struggle to heat or cool the home effectively. On the other hand, if the unit is too large, it may short cycle and turn on and off frequently, which can reduce efficiency (and therefore savings). It’s important that you choose a heat pump that is properly sized for your home. We leverage building science and proprietary sizing software to ensure that is optimal for your home.
  • Make sure you are getting the right cold climate equipment: Cold climate heat pumps are better than regular heat pumps at producing more heat at lower temperatures. This equipment differs in certain internal components and computer programming. We are experts in heat pumps specifically built for colder climates, and only work with contractors who have a wealth of experience installing them.
  • You may benefit from supplemental heating: We use building science to assess if a backup heat source will be necessary on a house-by-house basis, and install them if needed. This is a backup heating system that will always be available to provide additional heat during the coldest weather. In the rare case that the heat pump system is unable to provide sufficient heat on its own during extreme cold, the heat kit is activated and will be able to provide your home with heat at any temperature. 
  • Your existing ductwork may impact your heat pump installation: Ductwork is an important part of the heat pump installation process because it is used to distribute the heated or cooled air throughout the home. Properly sized and installed ducts can help ensure that the heat pump operates efficiently and effectively. We always factor your existing ductwork into your system design. Additionally, mini splits are a ductless heat pump technology and can be a good option for homes with small or poorly designed ducts. 

Heat Pump Maintenance

Heat pumps require some basic maintenance to keep them running efficiently and effectively. This may include tasks such as cleaning or replacing filters, checking and refilling refrigerant levels, and cleaning the outdoor unit. The amount of maintenance recommended – and the cost of that maintenance – is in line with the maintenance requirements for traditional gas HVAC systems (usually about ~$100-300 per year).

Most heat pumps will have a filter that needs to be cleaned or replaced on a regular basis, typically every month or two. The frequency will depend on factors such as the type of filter, the size of the unit, and the level of use.

Heat pumps also have refrigerant levels that should be checked periodically to ensure that they are at the proper level. If the refrigerant level is too low, it can affect the performance of the heat pump and may even cause damage to the system.

It’s a good idea to have a professional technician service your heat pump on a regular basis (usually once a year). During a service, the technician will inspect and clean the unit, check and adjust the refrigerant levels, and make any necessary repairs. This can help to keep the heat pump running efficiently and prolong its lifespan.

In addition to these regular maintenance tasks, it’s important to keep the outdoor unit of the heat pump clean and clear of debris. This can help to ensure that the unit has adequate airflow and is able to operate efficiently.

Overall, the amount of maintenance required for a heat pump will depend on factors such as the type and size of the unit, the location and climate, and the level of use. By following the manufacturer’s recommendations and having regular professional maintenance, you can help ensure that your heat pump is running efficiently and effectively.

The Environmental Benefits of Heat Pumps

13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from heating and cooling residential and commercial buildings. Electrification is the most effective and lowest cost way to decarbonize buildings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Heat pumps are better for the environment than other systems for several reasons. First, heat pumps are ~3 times more efficient than traditional heating systems so they use less energy to heat and cool. Second, unlike traditional furnaces and boilers, heat pumps run on electricity. When paired with renewable energy sources like solar, they operate without warming the planet. As more solar and wind energy is deployed, heat pumps become an even more attractive solution. Lastly, heat pumps are proven to reduce emissions. In April 2022, a study performed at UC Davis found that residential heat pumps reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 38–53% over a gas furnace.

Factors That Influence Heat Pump Efficiency

There are several factors that can affect the efficiency of a heat pump. Some of these factors include:

  • The size of the heat pump: It’s important to properly size a heat pump for your home. If the heat pump is too small, it will have to work harder to heat or cool your home, resulting in lower efficiency. On the other hand, if the heat pump is too large, it will cycle on and off more frequently, which can also reduce efficiency. This is why we put a tremendous amount of emphasis on data-informed system design at Elephant Energy.
  • The climate: The efficiency of a heat pump can also be affected by the climate in which it is used. In very cold climates, for example, a heat pump may have to work harder to extract heat from the outdoor air (although our data shows that heat pumps work very well even in extreme winter temperatures, so long as the system design is appropriate for the home and climate). 
  • The insulation and sealing of the home: Proper insulation and sealing of the home can help to retain heat and reduce the amount of energy needed by the heat pump to maintain a comfortable temperature. We offer this service to all of our customers, as well.
  • Maintenance: Regular maintenance, such as cleaning and replacing filters, can help to keep a heat pump running efficiently.

Wrapping Up

So, here’s our recommendation: if you can do it, install a cold climate heat pump. You’ll save money and energy, and gain peace of mind. If you’re hesitant about being able to afford it, we encourage you to look into the myriad of incentives and financing options available, which we cover above and in our blog.

As a homeowner, you’re in a unique position to transition your home away from fossil fuels to modern electric technologies. By choosing to install a heat pump, you can avoid burning dangerous gasses in your home and reduce your home’s carbon emissions for decades to come. It’s one of the most impactful things you can do to bend the arc of climate change. 

Curious where to start your electrification journey? Get Your Electrification Roadmap® here

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