How To Use a Heat Pump In Winter – Helpful Tips

| Last Updated: September 13, 2023

You probably think more about your heat pump when winter draws near than during summer, perhaps because you can partake in outdoor activities like a walk on the beachside to cool yourself during summer.

On the other hand, winter is when you spend most of the time indoors trying to contain the most heat possible within your room.

As a result, it's essential to know how heat pumps work differently during winter than in warmer seasons. That way, you'll learn the best ways to keep your power bills low besides enhancing the heat pumps' efficiency, such as safeguarding the unit's lifespan.

Read on for helpful tips plus and precautions to help you get the best out of your heat pump during the colder seasons. But first, let's understand how a heat pump unit works differently during winter.

Why Is Operating a Heat Pump in Winter Different?

Unlike traditional heating systems, heat pumps don't generate heat; they transfer heat from one location to another—pulling heat from the outdoor air into the room. The system's technology can manage to extract a bit of heat even from a freezing outdoor climate.

However, a heat pump will lose its operational efficiency in below-freezing temperatures. In such a case, your heat pump backup system—a gas-fired heater or an electric heat kicks in to maintain the energy-efficiency levels.

Unfortunately, such backup systems only work by generating their heat which can cause a surge in your power bills. Heat pumps are, therefore, more efficient to run in a temperate climate zone. But that does not mean they'll not get the work done during winter. 

There are multiple ways to maintain the unit's efficiency by keeping power bills low without compromising comfort.  

How To Use a Heat Pump In Winter

The essence of choosing heat pumps over traditional heating systems such as electric heating is their low operational costs and enhanced overall efficiency. For full benefits from a heat pump, you may need to master your way around how these units operate.

Here are the top hacks for using a heat pump in winter.

1. Do Not Leave Your Heat Pump Running All Day

Whether you set it at a low or high temperature, your heat pump needs some break from the hard work it does when people are around, no matter how advanced it may be. 

Cranking it at full temperature both day and night will prematurely terminate the units' lifespan besides accumulating power bills if the routine continues for long.

So, how do you keep warm in those freezing winter climates without running the heat pump all day? Make good use of the heat pump's timer. 

You may turn off the heat pump in the morning when leaving for work and turn it on about 45 minutes before you get back in the evening.

During winter, you may set the timer to turn on a few minutes just before you wake up. That way, you give your kitchen and other room sections, such as the dining area, time to get warm before breakfast time.

If you live alone or know the daily family routine, you may customize the heat pump timer to go on and offer at desired intervals. Good timing will significantly cut down on unnecessary energy wastage, hence lowering your monthly power bills.

2. Consider Placement of Heat Pump

Installing a heat pump for the first time requires two important considerations—the heat pump size and its placement. 

Proper energy efficiency balances between the size of the heat pump and the potential space you intend to heat. A heat pump that is too small when paired with an oversized room will need to work extra hard to achieve the desired heat levels. 

On the other hand, heating a smaller space with a larger heat pump will require you to turn the unit on and off from time to time to avoid overheating—this is particularly the case when using a regular thermostat. 

Therefore, you may need professional advice from an HVAC professional to guide you on the heat pump size you’ll need for your room. 

Additionally, you can install heat pumps in almost any room. But, the location you choose will determine its effectiveness and the glamour it will add to your space.  You may consider how people use the area you intend to heat. 

For instance, placing a heat pump close to a sitting area facing a couch may make it uncomfortable, especially if the air blows directly into your face when seated. In such a case, a high wall heat pump is your best option.

Go for a floor-mounted heat pump if you have enough floor space or a ducted one that conceals the systems in the roof cavity if that works for you. But, if all that sounds too technical to grasp, a heat pump provider should advise you on suitable placements.

3. Defrost Mode Is Important

Perhaps you've noticed your heat pump randomly turning off during winter when it's icy outside. That's perfectly normal and should not cause any worry unless the ice starts to collect on the heat pump coils.

The defrost follows a cycle whereby condensation water outside the coils builds up and turns to ice when the temperatures fall below freezing. The process repeats itself by heating periodically and cooling to ensure the heat pump doesn't fail.

During cooling, warm air is drawn from the inside and ejected outside. It is the warm air that defrosts the coils on the outside unit. You'll even notice some steam leaving the outdoor unit. The air handler turns back on when defrosting is done.

For the defrost to work, remember to turn on the fan. Additionally, keep in mind that the heat pump won't offer enough energy for central property heating during defrosting.

Sloshing and gurgling noises are common during defrosting, which is why you need to install the outdoor unit at a distance from your room, although defrosting lasts for a relatively short time.

4. Regularly Clean Your Filter 

Heat pumps work more efficiently when there is enough air circulation. The unit is designed to transfer a larger quantity of warm air, which is why you should ensure your filters are clean and free from any form of clogging.

A dirty filter will restrict smooth airflow, making the heat pump work harder. As a result, it may reduce the unit's lifespan besides compromising the indoor air quality. Therefore, HVAC contractors advise cleaning the air filter every four to twelve weeks.

Cleaning your heat pump filter is a simple DIY task that may not require a professional to perform. Simple vacuuming is enough to keep the filter clean. For tough dirt, you may soak the filter in lukewarm water with a dish-washing detergent, then scrub gently afterward.

You can then rinse or dry with a clean piece of clothing before sliding it back to the unit. You may not need any tool to remove the air filter and fix it back. Please consult your user manual when in doubt on how to do it.

If you damage the filter,  contact a local dealer for a replacement. Remember, a filter will serve you for the entire lifespan of the heat pump if adequately maintained.

However, Besides the routine filter cleaning, you'll still need regular professional maintenance. You should schedule and follow a maintenance program by a qualified technician at least once per year to prevent unexpected breakdowns.

5. Do Not Cover Heat Pumps

If you're new to heat pumps, you may be tempted to shield the unit from outward intrusions such as freezing climates. However, keep in mind that heat pumps are designed to survive harsh outdoor conditions.

Covering the unit may only lead to more problems such as pest infestation and mold growth. The heat pump needs adequate space for airflow. You may only need to wipe the top if storms cause ice and snow but not clean the inside. 

The heat pump system has a defrosting mode that'll melt all the ice away.

6. Don't Crank Up The Heat

Adjusting your heat pump temperature setting to 90s or even more will not speed up the heating process. Instead, it will use up a lot of energy, especially if your system has a backup such as auxiliary or electric heat equipped. 

Equipping your unit with a smart thermostat designed explicitly for a heat pump is thus an essential resolve towards minimizing energy consumption, improving comfort while lowering the monthly power bills. 

A smart thermostat will help you customize your heating settings, ensuring your room is warm and cozy throughout while still keeping your bills affordable.  Apart from its automated technology, consider switching off the systems when nobody is at home.

7. Avoid Heating Many Rooms At Once  

Many heat pumps are designed with a higher capacity to heat multiple rooms at the same time. However, it might not be a necessary option as it takes a longer wait time to heat all the rooms to desired temperatures. 

Consider dividing your home into sections while keeping an eye on areas you consider as “hot spots.” These could be the spaces you want to heat at specific times of the day or in your bedroom at night. 

For instance, you may consider focusing the heat in your kitchen in the morning to enable you to wake up to a warm kitchen space. You can then turn on the heat in your living room just when you get home from work and switch off the bedroom heating.

However, you can set the bedroom timer to about 45 minutes before bedtime. When you switch to the bed at night, turn off all other heat pumps in rooms you’re not using, such as the living room and kitchen. Draw your curtains and close the door to retain available heat.

Other Tips For Surviving Winter With a Heat Pump

More tips are available to enhance your heat pump energy efficiency.  Below are other hacks to incorporate into your heating system’s operation during winter. 

Avoid Using “Auto” Heating Mode

Consider setting the unit to “heat” mode and adjust the temperature and speed only. Auto mode setting will force the heat pump to constantly change from heating to cooling as the room heating changes to maintain the unit’s set temperature. 

The setting, therefore, uses a lot of energy, thus inflating the monthly power bills. Also, avoid using the “low” and “quiet” fan unit settings.

Boosting Air Circulation

  • Adjust air handler vanes to allow air to blow horizontally rather than downwards in the room. The action increases air movement speed, thus allowing for enhanced heat circulation.

  • Keep the fan speed high to blow the heat far from the air handler. That way, the unit pushes heat into the home while helping draw cool air across your air handler. The process enhances efficiency by allowing the air to dispense off more heat.

Get Proper Ventilation For Your Home

Proper ventilation means more heat is retained after a short duration of heating. On the other hand, poor ventilation allows more heat to escape since the system uses more energy, which results in high power bills.

Adjust The Thermostat To a Comfortable Setting

The temperature reading on your air handler should not cause you any worry as the heat pump measures the air handler’s temperature. And since warm air keeps rising, the temperature may be higher in your air handler.

During winter, avoid setting the thermostat back at night. Your house will remain warm and take very little time to be comfortable the next day. 

If you have customized hourly programming, consider switching it off and leaving the heating unit at a constant temperature during the day and night. Once the outdoor temperatures rise a bit,  switch back to your usual hourly programming. 

But, if you don’t like the idea, you may lower the temperatures at night by about two degrees and then pump it back to normal in the morning. 

More ways to surviving winter with a heat pump also include:

  • Ensuring seams surrounding your doors, plumbing, outlets, and windows are appropriately sealed. Ductwork and crawl spaces should also have adequate insulation. Keep the door and windows shut to minimize heat loss.

  • Consider a cheap energy supplier. Air source units require electricity to function, which can be costly. Although air-source heat pumps have more efficiency levels of up to 300%, cut down the bills further by switching to other cheap tariffs available in your area.


Using a heat pump during winter should not be a time to panic about a possible rise in your monthly power bills. Instead, it's time to handle your unit with more care and precaution than you do in warm seasons.

Apply these tips to keep your bills low without sacrificing comfort.

  • Avoid leaving the heat pump running when you don't need it

  • Find a proper placement for both the indoor and outdoor units (outdoor units can be noisy during defrosting installed at a distance)

  • Remove any clutter and debris around the heat pump (outdoor unit)

  • Perform regular cleaning of the filter and annual cleaning and servicing by a qualified technician

  • Use a smart thermostat

  • Avoid covering the heat pump

  • Avoid cranking up the heat—it will only use more energy without improving efficiency.

  • Get a professional technician for regular cleaning, maintenance, and repairs.

  • Avoid operating the unit on an “auto” heating mode

Remember, with all tips observed, your heat pump can run effectively for an entire 25 years—its typical lifespan with replacing even a filter.

People Also Ask

There is much confusion on how using heat pumps during winter is different from summer. Below are answers to common questions you'll find helpful in your pursuit of tips on enhancing your unit's efficiency during the cold weather.

How Long Should a Heat Pump Run In Winter?

A heat pump consumes very little energy, and there is no harm to leaving it to run throughout the day except when you don't need it. That could be times when you're not at home, or you may turn off the heating system in rooms you're not using.

Note that smart thermostats have self-regulating features to automatically turn off once a balance in the indoor cooling is achieved.

What Temperature Should I Set My Heat Pump In The Winter?

The Department of Energy recommends 68°F as an ideal spot for winter and fall when a room is occupied and all members awake. That setting keeps your room both reasonably warm and comfortable while still maintaining a balance on energy efficiency.

Should I Turn My Heat Pump Off In Extreme Cold?

Keep the thermostat setting to "heat" throughout and only turn it to "emergency heat" when the thermostat stops heating, which usually occurs when temperatures get below 25℉.

Otherwise, leave the heat pump running even in extreme cold—the backup heating will pick up if the settings are automatic. (Avoid running the unit on auto mode if you use different temperature settings for night and day.)

My name is Bob Wells and I am a retired HVAC tech from Washington state. I am currently retired and no longer do much with HVAC, however, I feel like I have a lot of knowledge in the subject and I wanted to create a website where I could talk about what I've learned and help upcoming HVAC techs. Find more info about me and HVAC Training 101.