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Michael Feldstein
The Cheticamp Monitoring Association building in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia

HeatSmart: Energy efficient heat pumps work in cold weather

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By Friday, Jul 6, 2018 Environment

When our Great Barrington HeatSmart volunteer group talks to people about the heat pumps (or “mini-splits”) that are available to residents at a discount through the MassCEC HeatSmart grant program, one question we hear often is whether heat pumps work in cold weather. This concern generally comes from two sources. First, heat pump technology has improved significantly in recent years. Some people who looked into them in the past may have found that the technology available to them at the time was not up to the demands of New England winters in contrast to today’s units.

The short answer for today’s heat pumps is yes, they do work in cold climates and are used regularly in parts of the world that are colder than New England. But you do have to think about installing and employing them a little differently than a traditional furnace or boiler.

It is true that even today’s heat pumps have limits in terms of their ability to operate in cold weather. For example, some of the units included in our HeatSmart program will only work in temperatures down to about 13 degrees below zero. While that temperature is unusual for the Berkshires, it’s not unheard of. That seems like a big problem. Unusual or not, nobody would want be without heat in minus-13-degree weather. So how can heat pumps be a workable solution in a place like the Berkshires?

Image courtesy Google Earth

I saw the answer to that question in action last week when my wife and I took a vacation in Nova Scotia. We flew into Halifax and drove north, almost to the northern tip of the province. Roughly one in five homes and small businesses we saw had the telltale outdoor condenser units of heat pumps. This was true even in the northernmost towns we visited, like Chéticamp, whose record low temperature is minus 21 degrees. How do they do it?

In some cases, like that of a restaurant we dined at, they had old-fashioned electric baseboard heating. Most of us have been conditioned to think of these units as bad because they are expensive to operate. But they are cheap to install and, if you will only be using them on the rare days when the temperature drops below minus 13 degrees, then the cost is minimal. For new construction, this is a good way to go.

A baseboard heater. Photo: Michael Feldstein

In our house we already have an oil baseboard heating system. When we install our heat pumps, we will just leave that system in place. On the rare days that we may need it, we will have it. And the system should last many more years because we will be using it very lightly.

Today’s heat pumps work very well in cold New England winters. You just have to adjust your thinking a little about how your home heating system should work.

The HeatSmart sale on heat pumps for Great Barrington residents runs through the end of August. You can sign up for your free, no-obligation assessment at http://www.heatsmartgb.org/.

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