During the coldest days of the winter, your heat pump can truly be a godsend. It’s the only line of defense between you and the freezing temperatures outside. Even a good quality heat pump is not itself immune to the cold weather, however, and you may notice a layer of frost that has built up overnight. While it’s normal for the pump to develop a layer of ice, if too much ice builds up, the heat pump itself will freeze up. Ultimately, this can damage or even ruin the pump. Fortunately, there are steps to take if your heat pump is freezing up in winter.
Learn to Identify a Problem
It is perfectly normal, and not necessarily harmful, for your heat pump to develop a layer of frost during the winter. This isn’t, in and of itself, a cause for concern. Indeed, heat pumps have built-in defrosting features, allowing them to regularly melt any ice that has accumulated before it becomes a problem. Usually, these defrosters work on a timer or a sensor, and they melt the ice off the heat pump by venting heat outward towards the frozen parts.
If your defrosting system is compromised or malfunctioning, however, ice will continuously build up until the whole system is frozen. This risks permanently damaging the heat pump and potentially leading to extremely costly repairs. That’s why it’s critically important for a homeowner to recognize the difference between an ordinary, harmless layer of frost and the beginnings of a frozen heat pump.
Recognizing a Frozen Heat Pump
There are several potential causes of a heat pump that’s frozen—or beginning to freeze—and is not simply frosted. Some are obvious, and others are less so. Regardless, you should learn to tell the difference between a simple layer of frost and a harmful build-up of ice.
The first sign that you’re dealing with something worse than a mild frost is duration. That is to say, your heat pump’s defrosting system can usually deal with a small buildup of ice within about ten minutes. If you notice ice that doesn’t seem to go away after a few minutes of running the defroster, that’s the first sign you have a more serious problem. The thickness of the ice is telling as well. If there’s a thick layer of frost that has built up on your heat pump, it’s a telltale sign your defroster isn’t doing its job.
What You Can Do
Although a heat pump freezing up in winter can be a very serious problem, sometimes it’s possible for you to take care of the issue yourself. This is especially true if the freezing is caused by external factors that you can control. For example, often a frozen heat pump is the result of water dripping into the pump from above. Frequently, dripping gutters are to blame for this.
As water drops onto the pump, the winter cold freezes it before the defroster has a chance to keep up. Over time, this can lead to a massive buildup of ice and cause catastrophic problems, but it is also an easy fix. Simply isolate the source of the dripping water and stop it up. In this case, preventing your heat pump from freezing may be as simple as a few drops of silicone sealant applied in the right spot in your gutter.
Leaves building up on the pump can cause similar issues. A layer of dead leaves will trap snow, ice, and moisture and eventually lead to freezing up. You can deal with this easily as well. Try to keep the pump clear of leaves, and if they do build up, clean them off regularly. If you notice there’s already a buildup of ice forming on the pump, you can often remove it yourself by scraping the ice away. Make sure the heat pump is turned off before you do this, however. You don’t want to risk injuring yourself or damaging your heat pump. And if at any point you’re uncomfortable with the task, it’s always best to contact an expert.
When You Need a Professional’s Help
While some of the causes of a frozen heat pump are easy to fix and require only basic skills, other issues are a lot more complex and will require the help of a professional HVAC technician. Any issues caused by malfunctioning equipment or by electrical problems shouldn’t be tackled without the proper training and certification a skilled technician has.
Indeed, not just any technician will do either. You’ll want to look for highly trained technicians who are NATE certified. NATE stands for North American Technician Excellence, and certification ensures a technician and well-trained and competent.
You’ll also want to read reviews, check references, and talk to other satisfied customers. A poorly handled job can further damage your heat pump and lead to more serious problems and great cost to you. If you live in the Portland or Vancouver area, your best bet is the technicians from Entek. They are certified, as well as highly recommended and experienced.
Problems a Technician Should Fix
A heat pump freezing up in winter is often caused by a small but potentially serious problem. For example, if the thermostat short circuits due to an electrical issue, this can lead to the defroster mechanism not activating when it should. So while the machine remains perfectly capable of removing ice, it won’t know when to do so and will eventually become further damaged from a buildup. Other problems with your heat pump may be more complex. For example, the reversing solenoid coil may have worn out and require replacement.
In either of these cases, you’ll require the assistance of a professional HVAC technician. Unlike with other systems in your home, fixing an HVAC system is not something you should attempt to DIY. Fortunately, if you have a good technician who is a mere phone call away, they’ll be able to provide the repairs you need, as well as perform maintenance so that you can avoid other costly repairs in the future.