Heat Pumps Buried With February Flurries

Most of Atlantic Canada has been experiencing what many would consider a light snow year and Shubenacadie Sam already has us barreling towards Spring and the inevitable thaw. 

So what’s the issue? 

Well, of the 182 centimeters of annual snowfall Halifax typically sees, roughly 75 of those centimeters are still unaccounted for. With inevitable storms still on the horizon, the wake of a quiet winter might still be turned upside down.

While we would be much happier expressing our thoughts on the air conditioning season, lets talk about maximizing your heat pump’s uptime during one of the snowiest times of the year.

When we are discussing heat pumps with customers and potential customers, maintenance is always a question on the top of the list.

“What kind of work is involved when you own a heat pump?”

Typically, our response is, “the five most important rules for owning a heat pump are…”

  1. Annually scheduled professional preventative maintenance to ensure reliability.
  2. Clear your unit of ice and snow
  3. Clear your unit of ice and snow
  4. Clear your unit of ice and snow
  5. Clear your unit of ice and snow

So, you get it. Your unit shouldn’t be buried in snow. But… why?

Well, literally speaking the snow itself isn’t going to harm your unit, it’s the accumulation. Your heat pump’s outdoor unit has two major places it needs to breath from for optimal operation.

  1. The front/back;
  2. And the bottom (also called the drain pan)

Your heat pump relies on pulling air from the back of the unit to the front. In doing so, it can have a tendency during heavy snow to pull that snow into the back of the unit. If you take the time to look at the back of your heat pump, you realize there is a large copper coil molded in a half circle shape. That copper coil is surrounded by aluminum fins. All in all, it’s a tight fit. You might not realize it, but when using the heat mode of your heat pump, that outdoor coil actually gets very cold when operating properly.

So, let’s recap. A cold metal coil, tight fit and snow… frozen water. Can I assume, you get the idea already? Your heat pump does have built in protection against these types of situations. You might have heard your contractor talk about it, the on-demand defrost cycle. This is when your unit actually heats itself up by reversing the heating process and pushing that same heat into the outdoor unit to assist in melting off accumulated ice. In heavy winter events, sometimes that defrost cycle just cannot keep up. This is where we intervene.

If you find your unit covered in snow and frozen on the back, turn it off immediately. At this point, you are already behind the curve and a little late attending to your unit. Make sure you’re checking on your outdoor unit before you know it’s too late. 

How to clear snow and ice away

Now you might be saying, “OK, I got it, I should have checked it earlier. What do I need to do?”. It is pretty simple. Clear it off. With the heat pump off, lean in and look at the back of the unit. Gently pull out on the metal cross sectioned grate to alleviate half of what the snow is attached to. Very gently and carefully clear out the snow and ice stuck in there. Typically, it comes out fairly easily but depending on the severity of the storm, it might be stuck a little tighter. The aluminum fins surrounding the coil are fairly delicate and can bend easily. Once you get the unit clear and it can breathe freely from front to back, you are set to get things fired back up and enjoy your heat!

Remember those defrost cycles we just talked about? Sometimes during heavy snow or when we have moisture in the air and cold temps, they can cause some adverse effects. When your unit tries to defrost itself, the melted frost has to go somewhere. Gravity would tell us, that is down. Your unit has holes at the bottom of it in what we would call the “drain pan”. This helps protect the unit but still allows water to drain from the defrosting of the unit. What happens when water hits steel that has been sitting outside in -15 weather?

I know what you are thinking. “Alfie from that Christmas Story movie had his tongue stick to that metal pole; I bet it’s the same.” You would be correct. That water hits the cold drain pan and freezes. If the water is continuously freezing and unable to drain, it will accumulate and stop your unit from operating by preventing it from pulling through the air it needs

How can you solve or prevent this from happening?

There are two ways to solve this and one way to prevent it in the future. Option one is turning your unit off, waiting for a warm day or the sun to melt that ice away. The other is to use warm water, gently pouring it into the pan to help melt the ice away and let the unit drain. After a little while and a lot of patience, you will have that pan clear and your unit will be ready to pump heat again.

Preventing the ice build up is fairly easy. You can install a drain pan heater. The heater is an electrical element that burns very little electricity but will keep the bottom of your unit at a temperature that prevents the ice from freezing and accumulating. Your contractor may not have told you about these or suggested you do not need it. They were not wrong but some homes, depending on location and orientation, have more pan issues than others. A pan heater can be added to just about any make and model of heat pump. You can give us a call for a quote and we would be happy to help out.

Remember. Damage from ice and snow accumulation is NOT covered under your heat pump’s warranty. Make sure you take these steps and stay ahead of the issues.

Now you’re ready. Maybe annoyed that we aren’t clear of snow yet. But at least you’re ready.