Energy Adviser: Get heat pump ready for winter

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If this winter’s weather is like our last, it might be a good idea to prepare now for cold and snow. Don’t ignore your heat pump system and do the maintenance now to keep it running as efficiently as possible.

“Most of the time, heat pumps run well in our temperate climate,” said Matthew Babbitts, Clark Public Utilities energy services project manager. “But it’s a good idea to prepare it for several days of cold and nasty weather, like last year’s heavy snowstorms.”

Keep in mind that your heat pump works like a refrigerator in reverse. It moves heat instead of generating it. When the temperature inside a house drops below the preferred heat setting, it “pumps” the heat from outside to the inside. Heat pumps have two heating sources: a high-efficiency heat pump and an auxiliary, lower-efficiency electric heater. Its outside thermal switch decides when the heat pump runs and when the backup heating kicks in. In our area, heat pumps kick over to backup heating at about 35-40 degrees.

“When the temperature drops to the low 30s, the high-efficiency heater switches over to the lower efficiency electric heat,” said Babbitts. “That’s why when there’s a long stretch of 30-degree temperatures, customers can see heating bills increase significantly.”

It’s important to check indoor filters monthly, especially during the heating and cooling seasons, he pointed out. Replace if dirty, because clogged filters decrease the effectiveness of any heat pump system. If yours are electrostatic, they can be washed and replaced.

“Keep at least 24 inches around the heat pump clear of plantings or debris for air flow and maintenance,” he said. “Leaves and debris quickly accumulate during the summer and fall and should also be cleared away before winter.”

Schedule fall maintenance with a certified heating-ventilation and air conditioning specialist. To find one, you can go to the Clark Public Utilities website and search for “heat pump contractors” to obtain a list of HVAC technicians participating in the utility’s Contractor Network.

The HVAC specialist will check your system refrigerant level, the wiring, clean the evaporator coils, and clear out the condensation line and drain pan. If leaves or other debris have gotten inside your heat pump, they will clean these out too. Manufacturers of some units recommend that filters only be changed by a specialist.

The specialist will also check the unit for any leaks, inspect the evaporator coil, drain pan and condensation lines. The specialist will also clean and tighten any loose electrical connections, lube parts, inspect the fan blades, and even replace the fan belt if needed.

This pre-winter checkup will give you a more comfortable home during the winter months–and head off lingering heating failures. It also keeps your utility bills low, provides you cleaner air, and extends the life of your heat pump.

Although heat pumps are designed for outdoor use, homeowners must still keep an eye on them. Don’t risk a failure during the harshest weather. During deep snows, shovel the snow away from the heat pump. Snow interferes with the fan and stops it from working properly.

Because Southwest Washington doesn’t get a lot of snow, building a protective “roof” over yours isn’t necessary. When the next winter storm heads this way, don’t worry–just brush the snow away. Definitely never use a temporary cover, like a tarp or plastic sheets, as protection. They will block the air flow and may damage your system.

It’s better to be comfortable than sorry. So, ready your heat pump for a potentially harsh winter. And use a programmable or smart thermostat to help keep your electric bills low. “During the winter, we recommend setting thermostats at 68 degrees during the day,” said Babbitts. “Every degree over that consumes three percent more energy.”


Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.