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When Should You Use Emergency Heat?

Have you ever wondered what the “emergency heat” setting on your thermostat actually does? It’s not just a button to press when the winter chill gets overwhelming, it’s your HVAC system’s understated superhero, ready to spring into action when the going gets tough. This unsung hero is your home’s backup plan, ensuring you stay warm even when the primary heat source taps out. Join us as we delve into the world of emergency heat—unpacking its mysteries, its appropriate uses, and tips to optimize it without breaking the bank. By the end of this post, you’ll be more than prepared to face the frostiest of days with confidence and comfort.

What is emergency heat?

Emergency heat, often referred to as “auxiliary heat” or “backup heat,” is a secondary heating component integrated into heat pump systems to provide supplemental heat during extreme cold conditions or when the main heat pump is not operational due to maintenance or malfunction. Heat pumps typically transfer heat from outside air to warm your home, but as outdoor temperatures approach freezing, the heat pump’s efficiency drops. That’s where the emergency heat setting steps in – it’s an alternative heat source, often consisting of electric resistance heaters, though sometimes it can be fueled by natural gas or oil, depending on your system’s setup.

When do you use emergency heat?

Close up of hands adjusting thermostat

Emergency heat is like the spare tire of your HVAC system – you don’t use it often, but when you do, it’s because there’s been a significant malfunction. Here are situations when you should consider switching to emergency heat:

1. When the Primary Heat Pump Fails:
Most home heating systems rely on a heat pump to transfer warm air throughout your property. However, if the heat pump becomes dysfunctional due to mechanical failure, ice accumulation, or electrical issues, your system should automatically switch over to emergency heat. If it doesn’t, or you notice the heat pump struggling, manually switching to the emergency heat setting helps provide temporary warmth while you address the main issue.

2. During Extreme Cold Conditions:
Heat pumps are less efficient in sub-freezing temperatures. When the mercury plummets, they struggle to extract heat from the outside air. If your area is hit with a particularly harsh cold snap, it’s safer to switch to emergency heat to ensure consistent indoor temperatures and prevent damage to the primary heat system.

3. When the System Is in Defrost Mode:
Sometimes, frost develops on the outdoor component of your heat pump, triggering the system’s defrost mode. In this scenario, emergency heat kicks in to warm your home while the heat pump concentrates on defrosting. It’s an automatic process, but understanding it assures you that your system is functioning as intended.

What are the drawbacks of emergency heat?

While emergency heat can be a savior during a cold snap, relying on it comes with several disadvantages that homeowners should be aware of.

  • High Energy Consumption: Emergency heat typically utilizes electric resistance heating elements, which are less energy-efficient compared to the heat pump’s normal operation of transferring heat from outdoors. These elements work similarly to how a toaster or an electric oven generates heat, which is a direct and often costly way to produce warmth. As a result, one main drawback is the significant increase in electric bills. Homeowners who frequently turn to emergency heat during the winter might notice a sharp rise in their monthly energy costs.
  • Not a Long-Term Solution: Emergency heat is designed as a temporary measure for extreme weather conditions or system malfunctions. It is not intended for extended use. Systems running on emergency heat do not operate with the same level of efficiency as during regular heating. Over time, this can lead to accelerated wear and tear on the electric heating elements and potentially result in more frequent maintenance issues or reduced lifespan of the system.
  • Insufficient Heating: In some cases, the emergency heat setting might not be capable of providing the same level of comfort as the primary heat source. The distribution of heat could be uneven, leading to cold spots in your home. Additionally, because emergency heat is meant as a stopgap measure, it may not reach the desired temperature setting, leaving your living space less cozy than you would prefer.
  • Underlying Issues: Relying on emergency heat without addressing the primary reason it has engaged can lead to more significant problems down the line. Whether it’s due to a malfunctioning heat pump or a problem with the thermostat, neglecting these issues will not only diminish your HVAC system’s efficiency but could also result in more expensive repairs or even the need for a full system replacement if left unchecked. 

While emergency heat is an essential feature that can provide immediate relief during a heating system failure or unusually cold weather, it’s important to understand its limitations and drawbacks. The added expense, potential discomfort, and risk of ignoring underlying HVAC issues make it clear that this mode is a short-term fix rather than a sustainable heating solution. If you need HVAC repair service in Richmond, VA, call us today!

HVAC Near Me is Richmond’s Trusted Partner

When the winter chill strikes Richmond and your heating system falters, the discomfort and potential risks can escalate quickly. That’s when you need reliable HVAC contractors to restore warmth and safety to your home. HVAC Near Me stands out as Richmond’s trusted partner, ready to tackle any heating crisis with speed and expertise. We offer expert HVAC repair and service 24/7 for commercial and residential properties around Richmond, VA. Call HVAC Near Me today!


How do I turn my emergency heat on?

Start by locating your thermostat, as this is the control center for your heating system. Thermostats can vary in design and functionality, so it’s essential to know whether you have a manual dial, a digital panel, or a smart thermostat. Most modern thermostats have a clear setting for ‘Emergency Heat,’ ‘EM Heat,’ or simply ‘E Heat.’ This setting is specifically for situations where your main heat pump is not operational or cannot keep up with the extreme cold. Carefully switch your thermostat to the emergency heat mode. If your thermostat is digital, you may need to navigate through a menu. For mechanical thermostats, it might be a simple switch that you turn to the emergency heat position. Make sure to follow your thermostat’s instruction manual to avoid any mistakes.

What if I accidentally turn on the emergency heat?

Accidentally engaging the emergency heat on your HVAC system is not an uncommon scenario, particularly for those who are unfamiliar with the specifics of their heating system controls. If you’ve accidentally switched on the emergency heat, don’t panic. Initially, you’re not likely to notice any dramatic changes in your home’s comfort level. Emergency heat is designed to maintain warmth, but it will generally do so with a substantial increase in energy consumption due to its inefficiency compared to regular heat pump operation. If you find that emergency heat is activated, simply switch it back to the normal heat mode on the thermostat control. The system should revert to using the heat pump for heating, thus optimizing energy use. However, if the weather is warm and there’s no need for any heat, switching to ‘off’ or your system’s “cool” mode if applicable, is the best choice.

Is it OK for a heat pump to run all night?

Heat pumps are optimized to maintain a constant temperature within your home. At night, temperatures tend to drop, and consequently, the heat pump must work harder to maintain the set temperature. Running all night can be perfectly normal behavior for a heat pump, especially during a cold snap. Although, it’s essential to keep an eye on efficiency. If your heat pump is constantly running, check your thermostat settings. Excessively high settings in extreme weather can cause the heat pump to operate non-stop to achieve the desired temperature. Proper insulation and sealed windows can also reduce heat loss.

Do heat pumps work below 20 degrees?

Contrary to common misconception, modern heat pumps retain functionality even below 20 degrees; however, their performance might not be optimal. While heat pumps can operate below 20 degrees, there is a point, known as the “balance point,” where the heat pump may no longer efficiently meet the heating demands of your home. This balance point varies depending on the specific heat pump model and the insulation quality of your home. When the outside temperature falls below this critical threshold, the heat pump may require additional support to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature.