Heating and cooling systems uses more energy than any other system in your home, taking up an average of nearly half of your utility bills. Regardless of the HVAC systems in your house, you can save money by properly maintaining and upgrading your equipment. Keep in mind, an energy efficient furnace or air-conditioner alone will not have as great an impact on your energy bills as using the whole house approach. For more information, contact us or call us at 571-346-3940.
Heating & Cooling Energy Saving Tips
By combining proper equipment maintenance and upgrades with appropriate insulation, weatherization and thermostat setting, you can cut your energy bills in half. All major appliances including gas furnaces, boilers, air conditioners and heat pumps sold in California meet the Title-24 energy efficiency “standards.” If you are thinking about purchasing a new central furnace, please check out our Appliance Database that lists the most energy-efficient models. This database will eventually be interactive allowing you to compare models.
- Set your thermostat as low as it is comfortable.
- Clean or replace filters on furnaces once a month.
- Clean warm-air registers, baseboard heaters and radiators as needed; make sure they’re not blocked by furniture, carpeting or drapes.
- Use kitchen, bath and other ventilating fans wisely; in just one hour, these fans can pull out a houseful of warmed or cooled air. Turn fans off as soon as they have done the job.
- Keep draperies and shades open on south-facing windows during the heating season to allow sunlight to enter your home; close them at night to reduce the chill you may feel from cold windows.
- Close an unoccupied room that is isolated from the rest of the house such as in a corner and turn down the thermostat or turn off the heating for that room or zone.
If you use electricity to heat your home, consider installing an energy efficient heat pump system. Heat pumps are the most efficient form of electric heating in moderate climates, providing three times more heating than the equivalent amount of energy they consume in electricity. There are three types of heat pumps: air-to-air, water source and ground source. They collect heat from the air, water or ground outside your home and concentrate it for use inside. Heat pumps do double duty as a central air conditioner. They can also cool your home by collecting the heat inside your house and effectively pumping it outside. A heat pump can trim the amount of electricity you use for heating as much as 30% to 40%.
Heat Pump Tips
- Do not set back the heat pump’s thermostat manually if it causes the electric resistance heating to come on. This type of heating, which is often used as a backup to the heat pump, is more expensive.
- Clean or change filters once a month or as needed and maintain the system according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Gas and Oil Systems
Gas furnaces are rated for efficiency with an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency number, or an AFUE. According to the state’s Energy Efficiency Standards, Title 24, the minimum AFUE for central furnace systems now sold in California is 0.78, which means that 78 percent of the fuel used by the furnace actually reaches your home’s duct work as heat.
The higher the AFUE, the more efficient the furnace. AFUE numbers in today’s furnaces range from 0.78 to around 0.90. If you are thinking about purchasing a new central furnace, please check out our Appliance Database that lists the most energy-efficient models.
Gas Furnace Tips
- Don’t block registers, vents or heating units with furniture or drapes. That makes your furnace work harder and uses more energy.
- Consider installing a programmable thermostat. You can save as much as 10% a year on your heating and cooling bills by simply turning your thermostat back 10% to 15% for 8 hours with an automatic setback or programmable thermostat.
- Using a programmable thermostat you can adjust the times you turn on the heating or air-conditioning according to a pre-set schedule. As a result, you don’t operate the equipment as much when you are asleep or when the house or part of the house is not occupied. Programmable thermostats can store and repeat multiple daily setting (six or more temperature setting a day) that you can manually override without affecting the rest of the daily or weekly program. When purchasing a new thermostat, look for the ENERGY STAR label (www.energystar.gov) and one that allows you to easily use two separate programs; an “advanced recovery” feature that can be programmed to reach the desired temperature at a specific time; and a hold feature that temporarily overrides the setting without deleting preset programs.
It might surprise you to know that buying a bigger room air-conditioning unit won’t necessarily make you feel more comfortable during the hot summer months. In fact, a room air conditioner that’s too big for the area it is supposed to cool will perform less efficiently and less effectively than a smaller, properly sized unit. This is because room units work better if they run for relatively long periods of time than if they are continually, switching off and on. Longer run times allow air conditioners to maintain a more constant room temperature. Running longer also allows them to remove a larger amount of moisture from the air, which lowers humidity and, more importantly, makes you feel more comfortable.
SEER is the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating. SEER rates the efficiency during the cooling season. Look for a SEER rating of 13 or above.
Evaporative coolers may be installed as an alternative to air conditioning, particularly in climates with very dry air. Evaporative coolers provide mechanical cooling to a building by either direct contact of air with water (direct evaporative cooler) or a combination of a first-stage heat exchanger to pre-cool the air and a second stage with direct air contact with water (indirect/direct evaporative cooler).
- Whole house fans help cool your home by pulling cool air through the house and exhausting warm air through the attic. They are effective when operated at night and when the outside air temperature is cooler than the inside.
- Set your thermostat as high as comfortably possible in the summer. The less difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures, the lower your overall cooling bill will be.
- Don’t set your thermostat at a colder temperature setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner. It will not cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling and therefor unnecessary expense.
- Set the fan speed on high except in very humid weather. When it’s humid set the fan speed on low. You’ll get better cooling.
- Consider ceiling fans to spread the cooled air more effectively through your home without greatly increasing your power use.
- Don’t place lamps or TV sets near your air conditioning thermostat.
- Plant trees or shrubs to shade air-conditioning units but not to block the airflow. A unit operating in the shade uses as much as 10% less electricity than the same one operating in the sun.
Just like your favorite car, your heating and cooling system needs a regular trip to the mechanic to keep it purring. Without regular servicing, heating and cooling systems burn more fuel and are more likely to break down. With the proper attention, they can keep you comfortable year-round.
Heat pumps and oil-fired furnaces and boilers need a yearly professional tune-up. Gas-fired equipment burns cleaner; it should be serviced every other year. A close inspection will uncover leaks, soot, rust, rot, corroded electrical contacts and frayed wires. In furnace (forced-air) and boiler (hot-water) systems, the inspection should also cover the chimney, ductwork or pipes, dampers or valves, blower or pump, registers or radiators, the fuel line and the gas meter or oil tank—as well as every part of the furnace or boiler itself.
Next, the system should be run through a full heating cycle to ensure that it has plenty of combustion air and chimney draft. Contractors can use specialty meters to check for sufficient draft and also test the air for carbon monoxide.
Finally, it’s time for the down and dirty task of cleaning the burner and heat exchanger to remove soot and other gunk that can impede smooth operation. For the burner, efficiency hinges on adjusting the flame to the right size and color, adjusting the flow of gas or changing the fuel filter in an oil-fired system. A check of the heat pump should include an inspection of the compressor, fan, indoor and outdoor coils and refrigerant lines. Indoor and outdoor coils should be cleaned, and the refrigerant pressure should be checked. Low pressure indicates a leak; to locate it, contractors feed tinted refrigerant into the loop and go over it with an electronic detector.
The Low Blow
Tuning up the distribution side of a forced-air system starts with the blower. To do the job right, it must first be removed. The axle should be lubricated, blades cleaned and blower motor checked to insure the unit isn’t being overloaded. The fan belt should be adjusted so it deflects no more than an inch when pressed. Every accessible joint in the ductwork should be sealed with mastic or a UL-approved duct tapes. Any ducts that run outside the heated space should be insulated. On a hot-water system, the expansion tank should be drained, the circulating pump cleaned and lubricated and air bled out of the radiators.
Turn It Up
While thermostats rarely fail outright, they can degrade over time as mechanical parts stick or lose their calibration. Older units will send faulty signals if they’ve been knocked out of level or have dirty switches. To recalibrate an older unit, use a wrench to adjust the nut on the back of the mercury switch until it turns the system on and, using a room thermometer, set it to the correct temperature. Modern electronic thermostats, sealed at the factory to keep out dust and grime, rarely need adjusting. However, whether your thermostat is old or young, the hole where the thermostat wire comes through the wall needs to be caulked or a draft could trick it into thinking the room is warmer or colder than it really is.
A neglected in-duct humidifier can breed mildew and bacteria, not to mention add too much moisture to a house. A common mistake with humidifiers is leaving them on after the heating season ends. Don’t forget to pull the plug, shut the water valve and drain the unit. A unit with a water reservoir should be drained and cleaned with white vinegar, a mix of one part chlorine bleach to eight parts water or muriatic acid. Mist-type humidifiers also require regular cleaning to remove mineral deposits.
Most houses with forced-air furnaces have a standard furnace filter made from loosely woven spun-glass fibers designed to keep it and its ductwork clean. Unfortunately, they don’t improve indoor air quality. That takes a media filter, which sits in between the main return duct and the blower cabinet. Made of a deeply-pleated, paper-like material, media filters are at least seven times better than a standard filter at removing dust and other particles. An upgrade to a pleated media filter will cleanse the air of everything from insecticide dust to flu viruses.
Compressed, media filters are usually no wider than six inches, but the pleated material can cover up to 75 square feet when stretched out. This increased area of filtration accounts for the filter’s long life, which can exceed two years. The only drawback to a media filter is its tight weave, which can restrict a furnace’s ability to blow air through the house. To ensure a steady, strong air-flow through house, choose a filter that matches your blower’s capacity.
Inside the walls and floors of 80 percent of American homes run a maze of heating and air conditioning ducts that connect the each room to the furnace. As the supply ducts blow air into rooms, return ducts inhale airborne dust and suck it back into the blower. Add moisture to this mixture and you’ve got a breeding ground for allergy-inducing molds, mites and bacteria. Many filters commonly used today can’t keep dust and debris from streaming into the air and overtime sizable accumulations can form—think dust bunnies, but bigger.
To find out if your ducts need cleaning, pull off some supply and return registers and take a look. If a new furnace is being installed, you should probably invest in a duct cleaning at the same time, because chances are the new blower will be more powerful than the old one and will stir up a lot of dust.
Professional duct cleaners tout such benefits as cleaner indoor air, longer equipment life and lower energy costs. Clean HVAC systems can also perform more efficiently, which may decrease energy costs, and last longer, reducing the need for costly replacement or repairs. Cleaning has little effect on air quality, primarily because most indoor dust drifts in from the outdoors. But it does get rid of the stuff that mold and bacteria grow on, and that means less of it gets airborne, a boon to allergy sufferers.
Energy-Efficient Water Heating
The next time you pay your utility bill, try one simple calculation. Divide the total amount by seven. The result is the amount you spend to heat your water. (If you receive separate utility bills for gas and electricity, use the gas bill for this calculation if you have a gas water heater; use the electric bill if you have an electric water heater.) Of course, you may think this cost is a small price to pay for the convenience of a hot shower. But during the course of a year, this cost adds up. And when you consider that 95 million households in this country pay the same percentage, it is easy to see how much money–and energy–is used to heat water.
Several measures can help you decrease water-heating costs in your home. Some specific actions include reducing the amount of hot water used, making your water-heating system more energy efficient, and using off-peak power to heat water.
Reducing the Amount of Hot Water Used
Generally, four destination points in the home are recognized as end uses for hot water: faucets, showers, dishwashers, and washing machines. Now, you do not have to take cold showers, dine on dirty dishes, or wear dirty clothes to reduce your hot-water consumption. Less radical measures are available that will be virtually unnoticeable once you apply them.
Faucets and Showers
Simply repairing leaks in faucets and showers can save hot water. A leak of one drip per second can cost $1 per month, yet could be repaired in a few minutes for less than that. And some apparently insignificant steps, when practiced routinely at your household, could have significant results. For example, turning the hot-water faucet off while shaving or brushing your teeth, as opposed to letting the water run, can also reduce water-heating costs. Another option is limiting the amount of time you spend in the shower.
Other actions may require a small investment of time and money. Installing low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators can save significant amounts of hot water. Low-flow shower heads can reduce hot-water consumption for bathing by 30%, yet still provide a strong, invigorating spray. Faucet aerators, when applied in commercial and multifamily buildings where water is constantly circulated, can also reduce water-heating energy consumption.
Older shower heads deliver 4 to 5 gallons (15.1 to 18.9 liters) of water per minute. However, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 sets maximum water flow rates at 2.5 gallons (9.5 liters) per minute at a standard residential water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (552 kilopascals).
A quick test can help you determine if your shower is a good candidate for a shower head replacement. Turn on the shower to the normal pressure you use, hold a bucket that has been marked in gallon increments under the spray, and time how many seconds it takes to fill the bucket to the 1-gallon (3.8-liter) mark. If it takes less than 20 seconds, you could benefit from a low-flow shower head. A top-quality, low-flow shower head will cost $10 to $20 and pay for itself in energy saved within 4 months. Lower quality shower heads may simply restrict water flow, which often results in poor performance.
Because of the different Uses of bathroom and kitchen faucets, you may need to have different water flow rates in each location. For bathroom faucets, aerators that deliver 0.5 to 1 gallon (1.9 to 3.8 liters) of water per minute may be sufficient. Kitchen faucets may require a higher flow rate of 2 to 4 gallons (7.6 to 15.1 liters) per minute if you regularly fill the sink for washing dishes. On the other hand, if you tend to let the water run when washing dishes, the lower flow rate of 0.5 to 1 gallon per minute may be more appropriate. Some aerators come with shut-off valves that allow you to stop the flow of water without affecting the temperature.
A relatively common assumption is that washing dishes by hand saves hot water. However, washing dishes by hand several times a day could be more expensive than operating some automatic dishwashers. If properly used, an efficient dishwasher can consume less energy than washing dishes by hand, particularly when you only operate the dishwasher with full loads.
The biggest cost of operating a dishwasher comes from the energy required to heat the water before it ever makes it to the machine. Heating water for an automatic dishwasher can represent about 80% of the energy required to run this appliance.
Average dishwashers use 8 to 14 gallons (30.3 to 53 liters) of water for a complete wash cycle and require a water temperature of 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) for optimum cleaning. But setting your water heater so high could result in excessive standby heat loss. This type of heat loss occurs because water is constantly heated in the storage tank, even when no hot water is used. Furthermore, a water heater temperature of 120 degrees F (48.9 degrees C) is sufficient for other uses of hot water in the home.
The question, then, is must you give up effective cleaning for hot-water energy savings? The answer is no. A “booster” heater can increase the temperature of the water entering the dishwasher to the 140 degrees F recommended for cleaning. Some dishwashers have built-in boosters that will automatically raise the water temperature, while others require manual selection before the wash cycle begins. A booster heater can add about $30 to the cost of a new dishwasher but should pay for itself in water-heating energy savings in about 1 year if you also lower your water heater temperature. Reducing the water heater temperature is not advisable, however, if your dishwasher does not have a booster heater.
Another feature that reduces hot-water use in dishwashers is the availability of cycle selections. Shorter cycles require less water, thereby reducing the energy cost. The most efficient dishwasher currently on the market can cost half as much to operate as the most inefficient model. If you are planning to purchase a new dishwasher, check the EnergyGuide labels and compare the approximate yearly energy costs among brands. Dishwashers fall into one of two categories: compact capacity or standard capacity. Although compact-capacity dishwashers may appear to be more energy efficient, they hold fewer dishes and may force you to use the appliance more frequently than you would use a standard-capacity model. In this case, your energy costs could be higher than with the standard-capacity dishwasher.
Like dishwashers, much of the cost–up to 90%–of operating washing machines is associated with the energy needed to heat the water. Unlike dishwashers, washing machines do not require a minimum temperature for optimum cleaning. Either cold or warm water can be used for washing most laundry loads; cold water is always sufficient for rinsing. Make sure you follow the cold-water washing instructions for your particular laundry detergent. Washing only full loads is another good rule of thumb for reducing hot-water consumption in clothes washers.
As you would for dishwashers, consult the Energy Guide labels when shopping for a new washing machine. Inefficient washing machines can cost three times as much to operate as efficient machines. Select a machine that allows you to adjust the water temperature and water levels for the size of the load. Also, front-loading machines use less water and, consequently, less energy than top loaders. However, in this country, front loaders are not as widely available as top loaders. Keep in mind that the capacity of front loaders may be smaller than that of most top-loading machines.
Smaller capacity washing machines often have better Energy Guide ratings. However, a reduced capacity might cause you to increase the number of loads you wash and possibly increase your energy costs.
Faucets, showerheads, dishwashers, and washing machines are only destination points for hot water in your home. The journey of your hot water before it reaches these outlets can be fraught with opportunities for energy losses. Fortunately, you can reduce the incidence of water heat loss from the point of departure to the point of arrival by applying a few basic measures.
Increasing Water-Heating System Efficiency
Reducing hot-water usage is primarily a matter of common sense and exerting a little extra effort to not be wasteful. Once you have applied a few simple, low-cost measures for reducing hot-water consumption, you may want to consider water-heating system improvements if you wish to further reduce your energy bill.
Lower Your Water Heater Thermostat
One simple step for reducing water-heating energy costs is lowering the thermostat setting on your water heater. Although some manufacturers set water heaters at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), 120 degrees F (48.9 degrees C) is satisfactory for most household needs. Furthermore, when heated to 140 degrees F, water can pose a safety hazard (i.e., scalding). For each 10 degrees F (5.6 degrees C) reduction in water temperature, water-heating energy consumption can be reduced 3% to 5%.
If your dishwasher does not have a booster heater, lowering the water-heating temperature is not recommended. Also, many dishwasher detergents are formulated to clean effectively at 140 degrees F and may not perform adequately at lower temperatures. (See previous discussion on Automatic Dishwashers.)
On gas water heaters, thermostats are usually visible. Electric water heaters, on the other hand, may have thermostats positioned behind screw-on plates. As a safety precaution, shut off electric current to the water heater before removing the plates. Keep in mind that electric water heaters may have two thermostats to adjust–one each for the upper and lower heating elements–and adjusting these is tricky. Talk to your local water-heating professional for help with this.
When you plan to be away from home for an extended period of time (at least 3 days), turning the water heater thermostat down to the lowest setting, or even turning the heater off completely, can help you achieve additional savings. Be sure you know how to relight the pilot light on your gas heater, though, before you turn it off.
Insulate Hot-Water Pipes and the Storage Tank
When you turn on a hot-water faucet during cold weather, it may take several seconds for the water to become hot. This happens because the water travels through pipes from the water heater to the faucet, and some of the pipes may pass through unheated sections of the house, such as the basement. As a result, the hot water loses some of its heat to the surrounding space
This heat loss can be reduced by insulating hot water pipes wherever they are accessible–especially in unheated areas. Use quality pipe insulation wrap, or neatly tape strips of fiberglass insulation around the pipes. Eventually the water will cool, but it will remain warmer much longer inside insulated pipes.
Insulating your water-heater storage tank is a fairly simple and inexpensive improvement that can help maintain the water temperature at the thermostat setting. Some newer models of water heaters are well insulated and do not need an added layer, but a heater that is warm to the touch needs additional insulation.
Easy-to-install, pre-cut blankets (or jackets) for electric water heaters are widely available and range in cost from $10 to $20. Your local utility company may offer them at a lower price, give you a rebate, or even install them at no cost. When properly installed, a water heater blanket on an electric water heater will pay for itself in energy saved within 1 year. Installation is more difficult on gas- and oil-fired heaters. Ask your local furnace installer for instructions.
If your water heater is at least 7 years old, you should carefully evaluate your water-heating needs and investigate the types of heaters that could replace your current one. Although most water heaters last 10 to 15 years, early investigation and timely replacement can ensure a wiser purchase. For more information on the types of water heaters now available, contact the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse (EREC–see Source List).
Using Off-Peak Power to Heat Water
Most consumers use more hot water in the evenings and mornings than at other times of the day. For those who have an electric water heater, this usage contributes to the electric utility company’s “peak load,” or the largest amount of power demand that they have to meet on a daily basis. Some utilities are required to offer their customers “time of use” rates that vary according to the demand on their system. Lower rates may be charged at “off-peak” times and higher rates at “on-peak” times. You may be able to lower your electric bills if you can take advantage of these rate schedules. Check with your local electric utility to find out if it offers time-of-use rates for residential customers, and if so, what the rate schedules are. Some utilities even offer incentives for customers who allow their utility to install control devices that shut off electric water heaters during peak demand periods.
Simple Actions, Big Results
Some ways to save on water-heating bills require greater financial investments than others. You may wish to consider the no- or low-cost options before making large purchases. Also allow for circumstances that may be unique to your household when deciding on the appropriate options (e.g., a small-capacity washing machine could meet the needs of a one-person household efficiently).
Although it is not feasible to eliminate water heating in your home, it is possible to substantially reduce water-heating costs without sacrificing comfort and convenience. The tips in this publication can help decrease your costs for heating water.
Federal Energy Efficiency Tax Credits
Click here to learn what you can do to qualify for up to hundreds of dollars in tax rebates.