The best home comfort can also be the most efficient. Whether you heat and cool your home with standard forced air, use a hybrid solution or really go for the green with one of the latest energy saving technologies, system effectiveness ultimately comes from thoughtful planning and attention to basic maintenance.
Other improvements also impact the energy savings you receive. Ample insulation allows you to use less energy, zoning climate control keeps the heat and cold where you want them, and additions that improve indoor air quality make a healthy difference. Learn how to stay warm, cool and green year-round with the latest heating and cooling alternatives.
When it comes to heating, most of homes come equipped with one of two options: dry heat or wet heat. Dry heat is provided by forced-air systems equipped with a furnace or heat pump to create the warmth, air handler to move that warmth along, and a system of supply and return ducts to deliver comfort to living areas. Even better, air conditioning is already incorporated or easily added to a forced-air system, and you can also work in components that improve air quality.
Wet heat—known in the old days as steam heat—is now recognized in its hydronic and radiant heating forms/formats. Hydronic heating requires a separately installed distribution system to work with the boiler and radiators, but the warmth it delivers is efficient, comfortable and mostly quiet. Radiant heating systems keep the warmth very close to you via a network of cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing installed below floors and other surfaces, through which heated water runs to transfer warmth in an effective, super-targeted way. Both of these water-powered heating systems are easily zoned to cover different sections or rooms within a house, and the absence of blowers means you aren’t pumping out dust and other allergens every time you turn on the heat.
New choices in components for these traditional systems provide even higher levels of efficiency. The newest gas and oil furnaces, for example, earn Energy Stars for highly efficient blower motors and annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) ratings of 85 percent and higher, which means they’re as much as 15 percent more efficient than the furnace you have now. You can also convert to a hybrid heating system, involving the earth-friendly power of a geothermal heat pump or dual-fuel components that make the most of fuel affordability as rates fluctuate.
Wondering about the efficiency of a wood-burning fireplace or stove? While these add atmosphere on chilly nights, they’re really not as efficient as other heating options. But it is possible to make them work for you on a supplemental basis.
Remember that a traditional fireplace lets as much warm air escape from a space as it delivers; you also have to factor in the costs of wood fuel and the annual maintenance required to keep the chimney safely gunk-free. Things get much better with an EPA-approved wood- or pellet-burning stove: the newer, smarter designs earn a 75-percent efficiency rating, which in turn qualifies you for valuable tax credits and rebates.
The EPA is happy to guide you toward solutions and stove efficiency tips at www.EPA.gov/burnwise. The top two tips? Choose the right stove size for the space you want to heat, and always burn seasoned, quality hardwood.
Believe it or not, your home’s indoor air may be hazardous to your health. In fact, the EPA has identified indoor air pollution as one of the top five risks to public health, and says that indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. Which means that, just as you’re getting comfortable thanks to climate control, dust and other harmful allergens could be spinning through the air and disrupting your serenity.
The solution is to give air quality just as much consideration as the warmth and coolness of your home. Maintenance of HVAC filters is a great way to start: check and change in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation (usually every 1 to 3 months) no matter how cleanly you think your equipment runs, and always choose high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which capture 99.9 percent of the pollutants that tend to travel through an HVAC system.
Adding a whole-house air cleaner is another smart air quality move. Easily installed as part of your heating and cooling system, it goes above and beyond the results achieved by individual air purifiers and ionizers to remove amazingly tiny, hard-to-catch contaminants. A whole-house humidifier is another smart addition that provides major health benefits for you and your home’s structure, automatically balancing air moisture and helping you feel warmer at lower, energy-saving indoor temperatures. And a literally life-saving system improvement is to add carbon monoxide detectors, now required in many states to prevent exposure to this deadly threat.
Excess moisture allows dangerous molds and mildews to find a home in yours, leading to a host of health and structural problems. So make sure that ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens is sized properely, effective and vented completely to the outside of your home (not into the attic; that just moves moisture and mold issues upstairs). Also make it a habit to keep the bathroom exhaust fan on for 20 minutes after use, to reduce mold-growing moisture. Your home and your healthy family will thank you for it!
Maintenance of heating system components extends their service and makes for better energy efficiency. Annual attention from an HVAC pro is a must, providing opportunity for routine adjustments, diagnosis and minor repairs that help everything work better.
If you’ve got a furnace or boiler that’s more than 15 years old, however, it’s time to think about replacing it. New Energy Star-rated equipment has advanced technology to deliver higher heating efficiency and greater savings on annual energy costs.
Whether designed to cool a single room or a whole house, air conditioners do their best, most efficient work when they’re the right size for the space at hand. An appliance that’s too small won’t help you chill out, but that doesn’t mean bigger is always better: a central air conditioner that’s too big makes a continual racket, is constantly cycling on and off, wears out faster and wastes a lot of energy.
If it’s time to add or update your central AC system (which should be done if your air conditioner is more than 10 years old), consult with an HVAC professional to determine the best fit for your home. They’ll guide you to equipment with the appropriate seasonal energy efficiency rating (SEER), which tells how many BTUs an air conditioner removes for every watt of electricity it uses.
The higher the SEER, the lower the cost to operate, and Energy Starred units are typically 14 percent more efficient than standard ones. Professional installation is what literally seals the deal for cool, comfortable results, and annual maintenance extends equipment life.
Also remember that you don’t save by upgrading only part of the machinery in an aging AC system; in fact, just the opposite is true. All central air conditioning components are calibrated to work together for optimum performance and efficiency, so piecing together a system with old and new equipment only leads to waste.
Becoming a fan of fans also makes a difference in home energy costs. Ceiling fans strategically direct air flow in support of your air conditioner, “pulling” cold air up and circulating it for your comfort. Attic fans mounted on the roof reduces the temperature of warm air trapped in the attic, which in turn keeps indoor temperatures lower and your air conditioner from working too hard.
The most efficient and effective fan of all, though, is the whole-house fan. This low-cost addition is mounted in the ceiling in the uppermost floor of your home, and works by drawing air from open windows up into the attic, where it’s release through enlarged vents to the home’s exterior. Multiple fan-speed settings and the number and location of open windows help you to control the air flow, and a time switch helps you manage the cool.
Compound the efficiency of your cooling efforts by making a few common-sense adjustments indoors and out.
Hydronic (hot water) heating has been around for quite a while, and with its reputation as an effective, efficient way to heat, it’s no surprise that through every economic up and down, it has held steady as the method of choice in eight percent of American homes. New technologies are making it possible to power hydronic systems with solar and geothermal sources, warm individual rooms with modular underlayments, and replace the clanking radiators of old with sleek units you barely notice.
“With hydronics, anything’s possible,” says industry expert Dan Holohan of HeatingHelp.com. “The only limits are imagination and budget, of course, because it’s always going to be more expensive than a simple furnace.”
Extra up-front costs for hydronic systems are more than balanced by the energy dollars they save over their lifetime, so don’t count out these evergreen options.
Here are a few tips for planning hydronic heat:
Contractor first, system second
It’s wise to research your hydronic options, but, ultimately, the expertise of your contractor determines home comfort, efficiency and all-around hydronic success.
“Shop for the contractor rather than the system,” says Holohan. “Find somebody who can talk to you about your comfort needs, how your family lives, and your domestic water use, and they’ll design around that profile.”
Stay in the zone
Hydronics provide the opportunity to create distinct comfort zones in a home, according to use and traffic patterns. Add hydronic heat to a single space, or, for a whole-house system, take advantage of the fact that you won’t be using every room at once. Many contractors recommend undersizing the boiler so as to drop as much as 30 percent of the total heat load, bringing your boiler costs down while still providing ample heating for standard use.
Maintain air quality
“Even with hydronics, you need to be concerned with air quality,” advises Holohan. “People have to be able to breathe, so you must have systems that can clean the air and remove humidity.
Comfort is not so much about blowing cold air on people in summer and hot air on people in winter—it’s more about control, humidity, the flow of air through a space, and the temperatures people feel when they’re in it.”