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Part 1 of this series looked at electrical efficiency. In this installment, we’ll discuss ways to save money on your heating and cooling.
Just like refrigerators, old water heaters waste a lot of energy, so consider replacing a unit that’s more than fifteen years old. Again, look for the Energy Star logo to be sure it’s energy efficient. Also, think about a tankless water heater, which heats water on demand rather than keeping 40-50 gallons hot all the time. You can find whole-house tankless water heaters and point-of-use tankless water heaters.
If replacing your old water heater is not an option, an inexpensive way to save energy and money is to install a water heater blanket. Don’t just put a regular blanket over the water heater – that’s dangerous! For about $30 you can buy a water heater blanket that installs in minutes. You’ll save about $30 each year in energy costs, so the blanket pays for itself in a year.
Central air conditioners use a LOT of electricity, so if you have one, try to use it sparingly. We moved to our current home four years ago and replaced the old rusty AC with a new energy-efficient model. Even so, we only use it when the heat and humidity are overwhelming – maybe about two weeks a year – and we keep the temperature set for 83 degrees. The AC doesn’t just lower the temperature, it also removes humidity, which makes you feel cooler. With excess humidity removed, 83 degrees is very comfortable.
When buying an air conditioner, look for a high SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) model. Central air conditioners built today must have a SEER rating of at least 13. The higher the SEER rating, the higher the initial price, but the less it costs to operate.
The biggest problem with central AC is that it cools the entire house even though you might only need one or two rooms to be cooled. A much more efficient option is to use a floor fan or ceiling fan just where you need it. If you use a SEER-15 central AC unit on a regular basis, it could cost you about $35/month in electricity. A ceiling fan will cost about $1/month to operate. On hot days, dampen a towel and place it over your shoulders. The evaporative effect will cool your body. It works even better with a small fan blowing on you.
One more thing about fans: they don’t actually cool anything, they just blow heat away from your body. So running a fan in an empty room just wastes electricity. If you’re not sitting in front of it or under it, then turn it off and save money.
Because peak demand for electricity usually occurs when people are running their air-conditioners, many power companies offer incentives to reduce your AC usage during peak hours. Com Ed has a program where they’ll install a switch at our house – at no cost to us – that lets them temporarily turn off our AC during peak hours. They guarantee that it won’t be off for more than 30 minutes a day, so the effect on the house’s temperature is negligible. By participating in this program, we get a $10/month credit on our electric bill during the four summer months. So we save $40 a year and don’t notice any difference in comfort. Ask your power company if they have a similar program.
If you live in a dry climate like the American southwest, you might consider an evaporative cooler (also called a “swamp cooler”). These cool the room by wetting a cloth and blowing air over it. As the water evaporates it produces a cooling effect, just like our bodies are cooled by the evaporation of sweat. This adds humidity to the air, so evaporative coolers don’t work well in humid climates. Swamp coolers use about one-third of the electricity of a regular air conditioner, so they are big energy savers when used in the right climate.
Our house has no gas – it’s all electric. When we moved in, we had an old electric furnace and a rusty old air conditioner. Since we rarely use AC, we considered not replacing the AC unit. But then we learned that an air conditioner can be used as a heat pump in the winter, drawing heat from the outside and bringing it inside. Yes, even in the coldest Chicago winters, there is heat in the outside air, and a heat pump is very efficient compared to an electric furnace. So we decided to replace the old AC unit with a SEER-15 model and use it as a heat pump in the winter. We still replaced the electric furnace because the old one was defective, but it hardly ever turns on.
If you have a central heating/cooling system, remember to keep the ducts clean and replace the air filter regularly.
We also installed a wood burning stove in our living room, and that keeps the entire ranch-style house nice and toasty. Since we have a finished basement and that’s where our son’s room is, I let the heat pump run for a while in the morning to warm up the basement. Around mid-morning I build a fire in the stove; the heat pump never turns on for the rest of the day. We have a ceiling fan over the basement stairs, which blows some warm air down to the basement. We spend less money on wood for a winter than we would spend on electricity to run the heat pump. I keep the thermostat at 68 degrees, but the wood stove brings the house temperature up to 75 or more, so we’re getting more comfort for less money. As a bonus, we cook on top of the wood stove, saving even more money. And who doesn’t love a wood stove?
If you buy a wood stove, be sure to have it installed by qualified professionals. Also, contact your insurance company to be sure that they’ll cover you in case of fire. They may need to add a rider to your current policy. In our case, our insurance company wanted proof that it was installed by professionals. They added the rider to our policy and did NOT increase our premium.
And of course, keep the chimney clean; sooty chimneys lead to chimney fires! We had ours professionally cleaned for the first couple of years. Last year they guy showed me how to clean the chimney myself, so I’ll be doing that before the heating season begins this year.
Only burn dry, seasoned hardwoods. Wet wood doesn’t burn efficiently and it produces soot, which clogs the chimney. Soft wood burns quickly and doesn’t produce as much heat. If you cut your own wood, it will need to be cut, split, and stacked for at least a year before you can burn it.
Suppose you set your thermostat for 70 degrees in the winter. Your house will be 70 degrees all day, including the times when nobody is home or everyone is asleep. You might remember to turn it down before going to work or bed, but then you come home/wake up to a cold house, so you’re less likely to turn it down. Experts estimate that you could save 30% on your heating/cooling costs by using a programmable thermostat, which automatically changes the set temperature based on the time of day. These thermostats are pretty easy to set up – you tell it what time of day you wake up and what temperature you want it to be. Then you tell it when you go to work and what temperature to maintain while you’re away, when you come home and what temperature you want it when you arrive, and when you go to bed and what temperature to maintain overnight. They have weekend settings and vacation settings too. You can get one of these for about $35 and it pays for itself in less than a year through energy savings.
If that’s too much “programming” for you, consider the Nest thermostat. It’s more like a dial thermostat, but it learns your behaviors and adjusts temperatures automatically. The first week or so, you manually adjust temperatures. The Nest keeps track of the times and temperatures and creates its own schedule based on your settings. Then it takes over. Of course, with any programmable thermostat, including the Nest, you can manually adjust the temperature. So if your mother-in-law comes over and she’s cold, you can turn up the heat for a while.
Air Sealing and Insulation
Most houses have air leaks that let heat escape during the winter and let heat enter during the summer. Caulking and spray-foam insulation can seal small cracks around windows and doors. Also check vent pipes and flues for leaks. A simple way to test for leaks is the “hand test” – on a cold winter day, walk around the house and put your hand near doors and windows to feel for a draft. If you want to go high-tech you can get an infrared imaging tool, which shows temperature variations throughout the house.
Weatherstripping around door interiors will make a good seal to reduce air leaks from closed doors. It’s inexpensive and easy to install. Look around the door’s perimeter when it’s closed – if you can see light, put weather stripping there.
If you’re replacing windows anyway, then invest in high-efficiency double-pane windows. They have better insulating qualities than single-pane windows. However, if your single-pane windows are in good shape, then don’t replace them just for the sake of energy savings. The insulation difference isn’t that significant, so you’ll have a long payback period on new windows.
Newer houses should have adequate wall insulation, but if yours doesn’t, consider blown in cellulose insulation. Cellulose is recycled newspaper and wood pulp, treated with a non-flammable chemical. One place where the builder may have skimped is attic insulation. We have a local insulation company whose slogan is “Six inches is NOT enough.” Adding an extra layer of attic insulation is an inexpensive way to increase your comfort and decrease your heating and cooling costs.
If you’re not sure whether you need any of these, look for a professional who does energy audits. He or she will come to your house with a set of professional tools and give you a report with recommendations. A good energy auditor only does audits; they don’t actually provide the insulation or sealing, and they don’t recommend companies who do. This way, you know they aren’t finding things just to drum up business for themselves or their buddies in the industry. Many organizations have certifications for energy auditors. Ask to see the person’s credentials.
These are just a few ways that you can stay comfortable without spending a lot of money.
How do you save money on Heating and Cooling?