Archive for June, 2011

Maintenance Really Does Save Money

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

When it comes to your home heating and cooling systems, you really cannot go wrong with proper annual maintenance. While it may seem like an unnecessary expense, especially if your systems are relatively new, you will save a lot in the long run if you pay that small fee once a year for each system.

During a maintenance visit, a technician can thoroughly clean out your heating or cooling system and check all parts to make sure they are not showing signs of excessive wear and tear. If they do find a problem or a part that needs to be replaced, they will be able to make the necessary repairs quickly and you will not have to worry about calling someone out later for an emergency visit.

Also, catching problems early like this means that repairs will likely involve fewer parts and cost much less than they would if you let the problem go and it became more widespread. The truth is that your heating or cooling system can continue to work when one or another of its parts is not working correctly, but that means that other parts of the system have to work overtime to create the same result.

Your heating or cooling system will also be much more energy efficient if it receives regular tune ups and attention from a professional. Even the best new systems lose a small percentage of their efficiency each year that they are in operation. While this is not much from year to year, the cumulative effect will soon cause your energy bills to climb higher than necessary.

Paying for regular maintenance, then, can actually save you money because it will mean you pay less each month to run your system. And it is never too late to start. Even if your heating or cooling system is not new, it will benefit from a thorough cleaning and tune up. You may be quite surprised how much your energy bills go down after this type of service has been performed.

Annual maintenance can also help you to get more for your money by extending the useful life of the heating or cooling system. Many systems that are properly maintained can last even beyond their expected life span, meaning that you will not have to replace it as soon as you would have otherwise. For all of these reasons, the minimal cost of an annual maintenance visit is well worth paying over the long term.

Hydronic vs. Forced Air System

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Both hydronic and forced air heating systems can serve you well depending on the specifics of your home and your household heating needs. Certainly each of these types of home heating systems has advantages and drawbacks, but there is really no clear cut answer about which is better. All you’ll be able to determine is which one is best for you.

While current discussions about hydronics have come to focus on the applications for in floor radiant heating, this category of heating systems is actually much broader than that. Really, all the term hydronics means is that the system uses water to carry the heat throughout the house instead of air. This is what traditional radiators always did, and these types of systems are certainly still perfectly appropriate for certain types of homes.

Particularly if your home doesn’t already have ductwork installed, hydronic heating might be the best option for you because it doesn’t require ducts to get the job done. All you’ll need to have installed are pipes to carry the water to different parts of the house. These pipes are much easier than ducts to install and take up much less space overall.

If you’d like to include radiant floor heating as part of this system you’re certainly able to. However, using only this type of heating to heat your entire house is not particularly efficient or practical. Radiant flooring is particularly useful in basements because no matter how warm the air in the room is, the floor in these areas will still be cold.

However, if you do already have ducts installed in your home, it may make perfect sense for you to have a forced air heating system installed. While there are sometimes problems with the evenness of the heating experience that you get with these types of heating systems, proper installation of a high quality system can usually mitigate those types of issues.

Forced air heating systems are also convenient because they are made to work in concert with many types of central air conditioning systems. If you have hydronic heating and think you’d like to have a central air conditioning system as well, you’ll either have to install multiple window or wall units or have ducts put in anyway.

Maintenance: Why You Should Have Your Furnace Serviced Every Heating Season

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Particularly if you’ve just purchased a new furnace, it’s probably not something you think about all that much. As long as it works when you need it to, that is. Unfortunately you usually find out that something is wrong with your furnace just when you need it most. However, there is a way to avoid that kind of problem, and many others, and that’s to have regular maintenance service performed on your furnace by a home heating professional every year.

One of the main reasons to have your furnace serviced is that it allows technicians to catch small problems before they become large ones. During a typical maintenance visit, a technician will examine all parts of your furnace to ensure that they are still in good working order. He’ll also thoroughly clean out the unit to make sure there are no buildups of debris that could cause problems or impede the furnace’s energy efficiency.

And if they do find something wrong like a part that’s beginning to wear out or something that just isn’t working properly, the technician can make the necessary repairs right away. You can get the problem taken care of ahead of time and you won’t have to worry about going without heat during the coldest part of the winter.

That’s not the only reason that annual maintenance is important and beneficial, however. It can also help you save money, both on your monthly energy bills and in the long term. That’s because annual maintenance tune ups keep your furnace functioning at peak efficiency levels longer than they would be able to otherwise.

A typical furnace will lose a small percentage of its energy efficiency every year, and while it won’t seem like a lot at first, that can really add up over the course of a couple of years. With regular maintenance, though, you can often maintain up to 95% of your furnace’s original efficiency for the life of the furnace.

Plus, when the proper maintenance and service is performed on a regular basis, your furnace will simply last longer. Most furnaces purchased now will last between 10 and 15 years, and with proper care, you can help to ensure that your furnace reaches the upper limit of this span or even beyond.

Changes in Light Bulb Laws and Technology

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which promoted many forms of renewable energy and energy conservation. Its provisions include changes to the minimum standards for light bulb efficiency. Although the new standards haven’t officially gone into effect yet, you many already have seen changes in the kinds of light bulbs on sale in your local hardware store.

According to the law, starting in 2012, most standard general-purpose bulbs must be 30% more energy efficient than current incandescent bulbs. The new requirements will be phased in gradually, but the net result will be that by 2014, most of today’s incandescent bulbs will no longer be available for sale, and will be replaced by compact florescent light bulbs, or CFLs.

Of course, higher-efficiency bulbs are good for the environment. Moving to more efficient lighting is one of the easiest, lowest-cost ways for the U.S. to reduce electricity use and carbon emissions. But the changes will also benefit consumers – some estimates suggest that the average household’s utility bill will be reduced by as much as 12%. Even though CFLs cost more to buy ($3 compared to 50 cents for an incandescent), they use about 75% less energy and last five years instead of a few months. Depending on the cost of electricity, a homeowner that invests $90 to change 30 bulbs to CFLs will save between $440 and $1500 over the five-year life of the bulbs.

CFLs do have their detractors. Many claim that they don’t last anywhere near as long as the five years claimed by manufacturers – and this can in fact be the case you turn the bulbs on and off frequently. Energy Star recommends that all CFLs be left on for at least 15 minutes at a time. (Also, if you are using the bulbs in a dimmer, make sure that you buy bulbs specifically marked “dimmable”.) If you buy Energy Star bulbs, they come with a two-year warranty, so save your receipts and contact the bulb’s manufacturer if it burns out prematurely.

Others dislike the white – sometimes called “harsh” – light of CFLs. This effect can be mitigated by buying cooler-burning CFLs. Bulbs with Kelvin temperatures in the range of 2,700 to 3,000 emit a warmer light than higher-temperature bulbs with Kelvin temperatures of 5,000 or higher, which tend to have a white or bluish light.

Still other critics point out that CFLs contain mercury. While this is true, incandescent bulbs are not mercury-free in practice either. The increased power used for incandescent likely comes from coal-powered plants that produce mercury and many other types of pollution.

If you do break a CFL in your home, consult the EPA’s website for instructions on how to clean it up safely. http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup.html

Of course, manufacturers are preparing for 2012 by developing new kinds of light bulbs that meet the more stringent standards, including high-efficiency incandescent and LED bulbs, so look for these options to arrive in stores over the next year or so.

The good news? A much less-beloved light bulb has already been phased out. The T-12 fluorescent tube – those humming, flickering office lights that give everyone’s skin a miserable greenish cast – has been replaced by T-8 fluorescent tubes, which are quieter, more efficient, don’t flicker, and make colors look much more natural.

Sealing Your Home Can Bring Big Rewards

Monday, June 20th, 2011

You use a lot of energy – and money! – keeping your house at a comfortable temperature. But if there are holes in the “envelope” or “shell” of your home, air from the outside can get into your home and drive up your energy costs.

Sealing the envelope of your home is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve energy efficiency and comfort. Energy Star estimates that appropriate sealing can save up to 20% on heating and cooling costs.

There are three ways to seal the envelope of your home:

  • Sealing air leaks to stop drafts
  • Adding insulation
  • Installing Energy Star windows when replacing windows

Sealing leaks. It may be easy to find some of the leaks in your home, because you can feel and sometimes even see them (for example, around windows and doors). You can seal these leaks with caulk, foam, and weather stripping.

Other leaks may be hidden in attics, basements, and crawl spaces. Common leak spots include:

  • Recessed lights
  • Outdoor faucets
  • Dryer vents
  • Attic hatches
  • Around light switches and cable, phone, or power outlets
  • Chimneys and furnace flues
  • The tops of walls that lead up to attic space

To find and seal these hidden leaks, it may be advisable to hire a contractor who can use special diagnostic tools. The expense is often quickly paid back in increased comfort and reduced utility bills.

Adding insulation. There are several common types of insulation — fiberglass (in both batt and blown forms), cellulose, rigid foam board, and spray foam. Different types are appropriate for different places in your home.

The strength of insulation is measured by “R-value” – its ability to resist heat flow. The higher the R-value, the more insulating power. Different R-values are recommended for different parts of your house, depending upon where you live.

Insulating your attic may offer significant savings, and can be a good DIY project if you are handy. To see if your attic can benefit from more insulation, look across your uncovered attic floor. If your insulation is level with or below the attic floor joints, more would probably be helpful.

Remember, however, that even well-insulated attics need appropriate ventilation to prevent mold growth in the summer and ice buildup in the winter.

Installing Energy Star windows and doors. Replacing windows and doors is a big project and may not generate enough energy savings to justify the cost. However, if you are remodeling or building a new home, be sure to choose Energy Star windows and doors. Energy Star windows and doors will not only help seal and insulate your home – they will also act as a sunscreen to protect your pictures, furniture, and carpets.

After Sealing Your Home: Check Air Quality!

After any sealing or insulating project it’s very important to have a professional perform a Combustion Safety Test on your gas and oil burning appliances to ensure that they are still operating safely.

It’s rare that homeowners seal their homes too tightly – especially if it’s an older house. However, if you are concerned, you can hire a contractor to test your home’s ventilation. If your home is too tightly sealed, he or she may recommend that you install a fresh air ventilation system.

How Often Do You Change Your Filters?

Friday, June 17th, 2011

The core component of any good air quality system is the filter. A good air filter removes almost all of the particles that inundate your home every day – from the pet dander that flakes off of your cats or dogs to the pollen released by plants both indoors and out.

But many homeowners are not aware of when they should change the filters in their air quality system. They know it should be done regularly, but how often and when do you ignore the manufacturer’s recommendation to ensure higher quality air?

Know Your Home

The first thing to consider is the size of your home and what types of contaminants you must deal with each day. Air testing helps with this, as does regular cleaning of the areas around your air filter, including your ductwork. If you don’t have any pets and don’t keep any plants inside, your biggest air quality issue is likely dust, and dust will only fill up the filters quickly if you have a large family.

However, if you have a lot of pets, multiple plants and a large family, the odds are that your filter is being put through the ringer every day – asked to filter out a tremendous number of contaminants. This is when you might need to change the filter more often.

Changing Your Filter

If you have a high quality HEPA filter, it’ll probably work for as long as it’s rated. Only lower quality filters or those not large enough for the space in which they are installed will fail early. However, keep in mind that a HEPA filter, even when it can last longer, should always be changed no later than the manufacturer’s recommended date.

For most homes that timeframe is about 6 months. However, some higher quality filters can last as long as 12 or even 18 months in the right conditions. If you use your air filter in conjunction with an air purifier, you should also have the cartridges changed out at the same time as your filter.

If you think you are changing your filters too often, you can always have your air tested to determine if the contaminants in your home require less filtration. Some home have filters larger than they need installed or lower grade filters that get changed too often unnecessarily. As long as your family is safe and healthy, you might as well try to save some money.

Worst Rooms in Your Home to Collect Allergens

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Your home is a haven for allergens, but some rooms in particular are much worse than others. They are damp. They are warm. They often have garbage in them. These are the rooms that need especially close attention when trying to maintain air quality in your home.

Basement

First on the list is your basement. A basement is the biggest problem when it’s either unfinished or not used very often. If you have water leaks in your basement or poor insulation, it’s important to have a moisture barrier put in and have your pipes checked. If the water comes from a drainage pipe or your sewer line, repairs can be made. If it comes from excess ground water or leaks in the foundation, a sump pump or drain tile system will help remove the excess water. Either way, the wetter your basement gets, the higher the risk of mold and other contaminants becomes.

Beyond moisture, a basement tends to collect a lot of dust. After all, it is where we put many of our old and unwanted possessions, and because the furnace is often in your basement, all that damp, allergen filled air gets cycled back into your home.

Bathroom

Bathrooms are allergen havens for two reasons. They are filled with moisture, and without proper ventilation they will soon be filled with mold and mildew. Additionally, when not cleaned regularly they can house buildups of hair, skin, and other dust building residue that tend to trigger allergies.

The easiest way to handle this problem is to clean your bathroom regularly and make sure it is properly ventilated. Short of an exhaust fan in your bathroom, keep the door and windows open to help it dry faster.

Kitchen

Your kitchen produces allergens like mold and mildew due to the presence of garbage and fruit. It can also attract bugs and the dirt that accrues from people passing through constantly. Pets tend to eat in the kitchen, leaving behind dander. Additionally, plants and vegetables in the kitchen release pollen that circulates through your home to trigger additional allergies. Exhaust from cooking and smoke can also be a harmful allergen trigger.

The kitchen should be kept well ventilated and clean at all times. Check for any gaps in your insulation and have your exhaust fan and hood cleaned regularly to avoid backups of smoke or gas.

Allergens are everywhere in your home – with careful attention, however, you can stop them from affecting your family negatively.

What is a Whole House Fan?

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Cooling your home is a big deal. Especially if the temperature in your home is generally very high in the summer, the cost of air conditioning is tremendous. A central air conditioner can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 to run for an average 2,800 square foot home over the course of six months. That’s a lot of electricity just to stay cool.

That’s why a whole house fan is a great option for those that want to forego the use of direct air conditioning for at least part of the year.

What It Does

A whole house fan is different from a standard air conditioner because it doesn’t use a heat exchanger to remove heat from air before it enters your home. That heat exchanger is the culprit for a large percentage of an air conditioner’s energy consumption. A whole house fan can be used when the temperature outside is lower than inside, a common occurrence on moderate days in the summer.

The whole house fan draws air and then cycles it through your air vents without cooling it. The act of moving air through your home, however, is often enough to cool the space to a comfortable level. The size of your whole house fan depends on quite a few things. First, how big is your home? Large homes that require even cooling need a larger fan to draw in air. However, small homes can often get away with models that use as little as 120 Watts of electricity. That’s less than your computer uses.

Choosing a Fan for Your Home

Keep in mind that a whole house fan only works when the temperature outside is lower than inside. If the air outside is excessively humid or if it is very warm in the hottest months of summer, you will still need an air conditioning unit. But, even if you run your air conditioner for two months out of the year, you’ll save a tremendous amount of money in the other four months by operating a whole house fan.

Whole house fans should be used in conjunction with an effective air purification system to ensure all outdoor contaminants are effectively removed before they are cycled through your house. They also require the same level of maintenance and cleaning as a normal AC system. However, with the right care, they work wonders to cut down on your energy bill.

Portable Air Conditioners

Friday, June 10th, 2011

If you’re in the market for an air conditioner, you’re probably familiar with central and window air conditioning units. But did you know there was another option? While they’re not perfect for every situation, portable air conditioners can provide reliable, even cooling for many homes.

Advantages of Portable Units

Of course, the main reason to buy a portable air conditioner is that it’s, well, portable. With one of these units, you don’t have to worry about which room to put the air conditioner in. Instead, you can simply take it with you wherever you go in the house.

Many people like to keep a portable air conditioner in their bedroom to take the edge off at night without dropping the temperature as much as a window unit might. And most portable air conditioners are quieter to operate than common window units. Portable air conditioners also come in a wide variety of sizes, so you can easily find one that matches your needs.

Disadvantages of Portable Units

Unlike window air conditioners that are automatically installed to vent and drain outside of a building, a portable air conditioner requires special setup. That means that every time you move your unit, you’ll have to find somewhere to place the exhaust hose so that fumes don’t accumulate in the room. This also means that portable air conditioners can’t be used in rooms without access to windows or air vents.

The cooling power of most portable air conditioners is not quite on par with equivalent window units either. You’ll want to choose a portable unit with slightly more BTUs than if you were buying a window unit to take care of the same sized room. As a result, the portable unit may cost slightly more to operate during peak cooling months.

Extras to Look For

Of course, while the cost may go up slightly, there are a lot of benefits to owning a portable air conditioner. For instance, many portable air conditioners can be used independently to dehumidify a room without cooling. This is often helpful (and can save energy) when the temperature would be bearable if not for the humidity level.

You also want to make sure that your portable air conditioner really is portable. That means finding a model with wheels and handles or some other mechanism that makes it easy to move it from place to place.

What Is SEER?

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

If you’ve been looking at air conditioners, you’ve probably noticed that they all seem to have a SEER rating. But what does this actually mean?

The SEER, which stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, is a measure of how energy efficient a particular air conditioning model is. So when you’re shopping around for the best deal on an air conditioner for your home, this is something you’ll absolutely want to pay attention to.

Interpreting SEER Ratings

The SEER rating system is relatively simple – the higher the SEER, the more energy efficient the product. But because a higher price tag typically comes with a higher SEER rating, it’s important to know just how much more efficient a higher rated unit will be. It helps you decide whether paying significantly more for a higher rated unit is worth it in long term savings. Will it actually save you enough each month to make up for the difference in price?

Evaluating Your Energy Usage

A big factor here is how much you will use your air conditioner. If you live in a place with very hot and humid summers where the air conditioning runs constantly, you’re probably best off with the highest SEER you can find. When you consume that much energy to keep your home cool, you want to get as much as possible out of it, and that’s what a high SEER model can do for you.

On the other hand, if you live in an area that doesn’t have the harshest summers, you may be better off with a slightly less efficient (and therefore cheaper) model. Keep in mind, too, that the actual percentage increase in energy efficiency goes up by smaller and smaller increments the higher in SEER ratings you get. For instance, while a 10 SEER unit may be almost 20% more efficient than an 8 SEER model, a 12 SEER is only about 10% more efficient than that 10 SEER.

Finding the Right Balance

The best way to decide what SEER rating is best for you is to determine the annual cooling costs with your current unit and then calculate your savings in dollars based on the percentage each model would improve your efficiency. If you don’t currently have an air conditioner, this can be a bit tricky, but a professional contractor or air conditioning salesman can help you estimate your total monthly cooling costs with the various units.