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Dealing With A Frozen Heat Pump In Winter: What You Need To Know

Dealing With A Frozen Heat Pump In Winter: What You Need To Know

Winter brings with it the picturesque landscapes of snow-covered surroundings, but it can also bring challenges, especially when your heat pump decides to freeze up. A frozen heat pump can disrupt the warmth in your home, but before you fret, let’s explore the causes and solutions offered by HVAC experts.

Understanding The Causes Of A Frozen Heat Pump

Dealing With A Frozen Heat Pump In Winter: What You Need To Know

During winter, a heat pump accumulates ice on the outdoor coil due to the freezing of condensation. This occurrence is natural, and heat pumps are equipped with a defrost cycle to address it.

However, problems arise when the ice buildup becomes excessive, blocking airflow and potentially damaging crucial components like coils, fan blades, and refrigerants. Signs of trouble include the inability of fins to pull air, a complete covering of frost, the heat pump being encased in ice for an extended period, and an ice coating on the inner coil.

What To Do When Your Heat Pump Freezes Up

If your heat pump freezes up, there’s no need to panic. The defrost function, activated when the temperature drops to 32 degrees, is designed to tackle this issue. This function typically lasts for 10 to 15 minutes and works by directing refrigerant to the frozen coil, thawing the ice.

It’s crucial to let the defrost cycle do its job. The system will usually go into defrost mode every 35 to 40 minutes or as needed during winter. However, if the defrost cycle isn’t working, it’s time to delve into potential issues.

Dealing With A Frozen Heat Pump In Winter: What You Need To Know

Troubleshooting A Stalled Defrost Cycle

When the defrost cycle fails, several factors could be at play:

  1. Clogged Air Filters: A buildup in air filters prevents warm air from reaching the coil, hindering the defrost function. Regularly check and replace filters if needed.
  2. Defective Reverse Valve: This valve controls the system’s shift to defrost mode. If damaged, the unit won’t defrost.
  3. Broken Outdoor Fan: A malfunctioning fan impedes the release of hot air, leading to frost accumulation.
  4. Low Refrigerant: Inadequate refrigerant levels reduce the heat produced during the defrost cycle, rendering it ineffective.
  5. Leaking Gutter: Water leaks trigger unnecessary defrost modes, resulting in malfunctions.

If the defrost cycle isn’t working, it’s advisable to contact HVAC repair services. Avoid using the heat pump while it’s frozen to prevent further damage.

Manual Solutions While Waiting For Repairs

While awaiting professional assistance, there are some safe measures you can take:

  1. Thawing with a Garden Hose: Turn off the system and gently spray the heat pump with water to melt the frost. Avoid using sharp objects to prevent damage.
  2. Running in “Fan Mode”: Utilize the heat pump’s “fan mode” to generate warm air and assist in melting the ice.
  3. Pouring Hot Water: Safely pour hot (not boiling) water on the ice buildup.

Protecting Your Heat Pump From Winter Elements

To shield your heat pump from ice and snow, consider the following preventive measures:

  1. Build a Wind Barrier: Plant shrubs or perennial plants around the unit, maintaining a 24-inch distance for proper airflow. Privacy screens are effective but avoid covering the unit to prevent fire hazards.
  2. Check Gutters Regularly: Inspect gutters for breaks or clogs to prevent water leaks onto the outdoor unit, which can contribute to ice buildup.

Enhancing Heat Pump Efficiency In Winter

To maximize your heat pump’s efficiency during winter, follow these tips:

  1. Avoid Cranking Up the Temperature: Instead, use a smart thermostat to adjust settings efficiently.
  2. Reserve Emergency Heat: Backup heating systems consume more energy, so save them for extreme cold or emergencies.
  3. Clean Filters Regularly: Ensure smooth airflow by regularly cleaning or replacing air filters.
  4. Optimize Air Direction: Direct airflow to open spaces for even distribution.
  5. Clear Debris from Outdoor System: Remove leaves and debris to prevent compressor and condenser coil blockage.
  6. Properly Insulate Your Home: Insulate doors, windows, attic, and ductwork to retain heat.
  7. Consider Dual Fuel Systems: In areas with extreme temperatures, a dual fuel system pairing a heat pump with a furnace can save energy.

Using Your Heat Pump Throughout Winter

A heat pump typically cycles on and off, running for about 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. During extremely cold temperatures (below 32 degrees), it may run continuously until reaching a higher set temperature, ensuring efficient operation.

Maintain a setting between 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal comfort during fall and winter.

Emergency Heat And Scheduled Maintenance

Understanding emergency heat, a backup system activated in severe cold (30 degrees), is crucial. Reserve it for real emergencies to avoid excessive energy consumption and higher electric bills.

Dealing With A Frozen Heat Pump In Winter: What You Need To Know

Regular scheduled maintenance is key to preventing unexpected breakdowns. Service your heat pump in the fall and spring to detect and address potential issues with coils, filters, refrigerant, and more.


A frozen heat pump in winter may cause concern, but with the defrost function and proper maintenance, you can ensure the continued comfort of your home. If issues persist, professional HVAC assistance is essential. Take proactive measures to protect your heat pump from winter elements, optimize efficiency, and reserve emergency heat for critical situations. Regular maintenance is the key to a reliable heat pump system. Stay warm and worry-free throughout the winter season.

Dealing With A Frozen Heat Pump In Winter: What You Need To Know

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Written by HVAC Contributor

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