Tip & How-To about Heating & Cooling
Many people have heat pumps and never realize that ice can form on the outdoor unit. Some have seen ice on their heat pumps but do not know how much is too much until they have a problem with not enough heat. Still others have a backup heat source and never know that they have a problem.
First off lets establish that heat pumps will form ice on the outdoor unit, usually whenever the outdoor temperatures go below about 40 degrees F. This threshold for ice depends a lot on the humidity of the air outside. If it is raining or snowing, the ice will form much more readily and rapidly. It is normal for ice to form on the outdoor unit because it is the cold side of the system when it is running in the heating mode. Because of this cooling, if the outdoor temperature is near or below freezing and there is moisture in the air, it will condense and freeze on the unit.
To keep the ice from building up to the point where it stops all the air flow, the outdoor unit will have a defrost timer board. This operates in conjunction with a sensor. Every 30 – 90 minutes the board will check the sensor. If the sensor tells the board that ice has formed on the coil it will then change the unit over from heating to cooling. This will make the outdoor unit the hot side for a short time to melt away the ice. While it does this, the unit will also energize the back up heat which is often an electric coil or a furnace. This will keep the inside air from blowing cold while the unit is defrosting.
When the sensor feels the coil temperature at about 50 degrees F it will then tell the board to return to the regular heating and switch the coils around again.
If this process fails to work for some reason the outdoor coil will become a big block of ice and look something like this.
When your outdoor coil becomes totally frozen over it stops all the air flow through the coil and stops the heating process. In extreme case it can be very difficult and becomes a very long process to defrost the coil. You need to practice a lot of patience and care when defrosting a badly frozen coil. A torch or preferably a heat gun (hair dryer) can be used to speed up the defrost process. If it continues to occur the timer needs to be set to defrost more often or either the timer or the sensor has gone bad.
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