When the forecast calls for wintry weather, savvy homeowners and renters spring into action. We get out the snow shovel, salt our walkways, put patio furniture away, check our roofs and gutters, and more to protect our homes from the onslaught of snow and ice.
If you rely on a central heating and cooling system to warm your home, you also should be taking steps to protect your heat pump (that’s the HVAC unit outside your house that looks like a giant air conditioner). Heat pumps are designed to withstand frigid temperatures as well as snow and ice, of course, but even the best, most carefully maintained outdoor equipment can be susceptible to winter’s wrath.
Here’s our advice for protecting your heat pump from the elements during winter:
- Visually inspect your heat pump regularly—especially right after a snow or ice storm—to ensure that it looks and sounds like it should. If you see any signs of damage, such as to coil fins or the fan, or if you hear any strange noises coming from the unit, call our 24-hour service department immediately for assistance.
- Make sure no tree limbs or other hazards are above your outdoor unit. Ensure your gutters are secure and that melting snow or ice isn’t dripping onto your heat pump. Watch for icicles that could form above the unit as well—you’d be surprised by the damage they can cause. Our retail partner Trane once told the story of a heat pump outside a home in Massachusetts that ran flawlessly for seven years before it was impaled by a giant icicle. Don’t let this happen to you!
- Keep your heat pump and the space around it clear of debris, such as leaves, branches, ice, and snow, which can impede airflow. Heat pumps must have a free flow of air around them to operate efficiently.
- Use a soft-bristled brush to clean snow off the top of your heat pump. Shovel any snow that accumulates around it as soon as possible, but be careful not to touch it with the shovel or hit any of the pipes, wires, or tubes that come out of it.
- Watch for significant ice buildup on the fan and coils. Heat pumps have an automatic defrost component to melt this ice, but certain malfunctions, such as low refrigerant levels, a dirty air filter or coils, and failing blower motors, can prevent it from working properly. If you see ice buildup, monitor your heat pump for an hour or so. If it doesn’t melt the ice on its own, call us for assistance.
Additional Preventive Measures
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This wisdom definitely applies to your heat pump. Proper maintenance is by far the most effective way to protect it during winter. And it saves you money, too. “The difference between the energy consumption of a well-maintained heat pump and a severely neglected one ranges from 10 to 25 percent,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Take our advice to keep your heat pump in good working order in winter:
- Follow the care instructions in your heat pump’s owner’s manual. While most heat pumps require similar maintenance, you should check for any model-specific guidelines.
- Schedule annual inspections and tune-ups. Having your heat pump serviced by a professional will allow your HVAC technician to catch any problems early on—before they become worse—and help keep your system running smoothly during the coldest and snowiest days of winter. Your technician will do things like inspect ducts, filters, blowers, and indoor coils for dirt and other obstructions; diagnose and seal duct leakage; check for refrigerant leaks; inspect electric terminals; lubricate motors; and more.
- Replace or clean air filters regularly. Excessive buildup of dust and dirt in the air filter hinders airflow and forces your heat pump to work harder, which decreases its life span and uses more energy. Clean or change your unit’s air filters monthly, or twice a month during seasons when it runs more often.
- Clean the supply and return registers throughout your home. If the fins are bent, straighten them. Also ensure all registers are unobstructed by furniture or other objects that could impede airflow.
- Clean your heat pump’s outdoor coils when they look dirty. Do likewise for the fan—but turn off the power to the fan first. Failing to keep these parts clean can reduce your system’s airflow. If you’re nervous about doing this yourself, call our service department for help.
Along with properly maintaining your heat pump, using it in the most efficient manner possible will help protect it from harsh winter weather.
Here are our tips for maximizing your heat pump’s efficiency:
- Make sure your home is airtight. Check for air leaks around windows and doors, lighting and plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets, ducts, and chimneys. The DOE recommends caulking and weatherstripping doors and windows that let heat escape. Leaks where plumbing or electrical wiring come through walls, floors, or ceilings also should be caulked and sealed. Check out the DOE’s Energy Saver guide for more tips on making your home airtight.
- Turn your heat down. This tip may seem obvious, but many people keep their homes warmer than they need to be. Set your thermostat as low as is comfortable for you. Around 68 degrees is warm enough for most people. If you find yourself feeling chilly, try wearing warmer clothes. You can save even more money by reducing the temperature at bedtime or before you leave your home: “When you are asleep or out of the house, turn your thermostat back 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours and save around 10 percent a year on your heating and cooling bills,” advises the DOE.
- Install a programmable thermostat. The beauty of a programmable thermostat is that you can set it and forget it. You set temperatures based on your habits—when you’re sleeping and when you’re not home, for instance—and your thermostat automatically turns heat up and down as needed to reach desired temperatures. Once you set your programmable thermostat, you almost never have to adjust it, which is great for people who sometimes forget to turn the heat down when they don’t need it.
- Use ceiling fans strategically. This advice may seem counterintuitive, but according to an article for This Old House, using a ceiling fan correctly in winter can lower your heating bills by up to 2 percent for every degree you lower your thermostat. The trick is to make sure your ceiling fan is rotating in the right direction. In the winter, it should spin clockwise so that the movement breaks up the warm air that collects at the ceiling and circulates it throughout the room. “This can be especially effective in rooms with a very high, angled ceiling or cathedral ceiling that collects a lot of heat,” according to This Old House.
- Let the sun help warm your home. By opening the curtains on your south-facing windows during the day, you can allow sunlight to help heat your home naturally. But close curtains once the sun goes down to prevent heat from escaping.
- Use a humidifier. Dry winter air can make your home feel colder. Using a humidifier to add moisture to the air will make it feel warmer, which means you can save energy by turning down the heat. Whole-house humidifiers are ideal for many homes. Ask about our selection of Aprilaire humidifiers, or visit our Indoor Air Quality page to learn more.
- Consider space heating. During especially cold temperatures, it may make sense to use a space heater to supplement your heat pump. The proper way to do this is to turn down the thermostat and use a space heater to warm only your main living areas. Space heaters come in many forms and can be powered by electricity, propane, natural gas, or kerosene. Wood and pellet stoves technically are space heaters as well. Depending on the overall efficiency of your heat pump and your home, and the cost to run your space heater, space heating could help you save a significant amount of money on your heating bills each winter.
By implementing these energy-efficiency practices, and by taking proper care of your heat pump, your central air system should run smoothly and keep your home warm and cozy all winter long.
If you live in Martinsburg, West Virginia, or the surrounding region and need help with your home’s heating system, call Sunfire Energy Solutions at 304-267-3029.
Sunfire Energy Solutions is a one-stop shop for HVAC products and installation, hearth appliances, grills, outdoor furniture, and hot tubs. We serve customers in Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Charles Town, Ranson, Hedgesville, and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, as well as the surrounding region, including parts of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Learn more at www.sunfireenergysolutions.com