This article was crafted with the help of Mike Costa from Perfect Home Services

The inner workings of HVAC systems can be perplexing to many people, but finding ice on a heat pump during the hot summer months will surely spark confusion among even the savviest homeowners. Thankfully, there are precautions that homeowners can take to avoid having their heat pumps freeze over during any season. Mike Costa, Technical Supervisor with Perfect Home Services in Chicago, offers his expertise on how to keep your heat pump free of ice and running smoothly.

How Heat Pumps Work

While many homeowners have separate units for heating and cooling, a heat pump uses the traditional mechanisms of an A/C unit to provide both. During the summer, a heat pump operates just like a standard air conditioner. In the winter, the heat pump takes in energy from outside and provides heat to your home by using a reversing valve that redirects the flow of refrigerant. When used in the right climates, heat pumps can be very energy efficient because they heat your home using electricity and refrigerant instead of burning fuel with a traditional gas furnace.

However, Mike warns that recurring freezes can damage a heat pump, so it’s important for homeowners to know how to avoid and treat heat pump freezes. “When a unit starts to freeze, you actually start to slug liquid back into the compressor, and you don’t cool the compressor properly,” says Mike. “This can cause severe damage to the compressor itself.” Replacing a compressor can be very costly and will likely waste any money saved on energy bills.

Common Causes of Heat Pump Freezes

Winter chill. Mike explains that heat pumps work best in “climates that do not get below around 32 degrees ambient temperature.” But even homeowners living in the ideal climates for a heat pump will have to endure occasional drops in temperature. During cold spells, look for the accumulation of ice on coils and Freon lines, says Mike. Many types of heat pumps have a defrost cycle to combat brief periods of below-freezing temperatures, but Mike warns that any prolonged icing will inhibit airflow and potentially damage your system.

Improper installation. Unfortunately, many things that can go wrong in an installation will block airflow and consequently cause your heat pump to freeze. Mike says that mismatching is a common problem when heat pumps are installed, making it especially important to work with reputable contractors. Oftentimes “the wrong-sized coil is put with the wrong-sized pump; the wrong-sized heat pump is put with the wrong-sized blowing motor in the furnace; or the Freon lines are not sized correctly,” says Mike. Hiring a knowledgeable professional will ensure that your heat pump has the correctly sized components to provide year-round comfort in your home.

Low refrigerant levels. Heat pumps become susceptible to icing when the refrigerant levels are too low. A perfectionist when it comes to HVAC, Mike says that “there’s a right level for refrigerant. A lot of guys will read it as being ‘close enough’ to the perfect level.” Low refrigerant levels can also cause problems with the compressor by forcing it to work overtime. You must be EPA certified to work with refrigerants, so always call in a professional to check these levels.

Warning Signs

Mike says that homeowners can identify a freezing problem if they either visually inspect their unit for ice or notice a problem with airflow in their homes. Airflow problems will typically result in your home not heating or cooling as it normally does, Mike notes. Remember that freezing can occur in either the winter or summer, so if your home does not feel as if it is cooling properly on a boiling summer day, don’t rule out the possibility of ice on your heat pump.

Ways to Avoid a Heat Pump Freeze

Have an annual inspection. While we unfortunately cannot control the weather, there are many preventative measures that homeowners can take to avoid heat pump malfunctions that cause icing. Mike says that “during a maintenance visit, the refrigerant levels are going to be checked, the coils are going to be cleaned, the electrical components are going to be checked, and the fan motors will be inspected.” Without periodic inspections, your heat pump will be vulnerable to recurring freezes, which Mike says can severely damage your system.

Consider a hybrid heat pump. Heat pumps are not typically recommended for climates that experience frequent freezes, but many homeowners would still like to avoid using their furnace as much as possible to save on energy costs. According to Mike, hybrid units are increasing in popularity because they “use the heat pump until the weather reaches freezing temperatures, and when it gets lower, there’s another controller that automatically kicks in the furnace for backup.” For those living in extreme cold, heat pumps designed specifically for cold climates are promising options, but they are still in the early stages of development and implementation.

Be advised that you should never attempt to fix a heat pump yourself. Not only do you have to be EPA certified to work with refrigerants, but “you can really get hurt,” says Mike. “Depending on the heat pump, particularly newer ones, there are high-pressure gases inside the Freon levels, not to mention its high electrical charge.” But, with a knowledgeable professional to care for your heat pump, you can look forward to low-cost energy and year-round comfort in your home.

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This spotlight article was crafted with the help of Perfect Home Services, a Heating & Air Conditioning Best Pick in Chicago. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.