1. What steps can be taken to lower a home’s cooling costs as the warmer months approach, inside and outside?
Insulation, sealing, and proper air flow play a large role in energy savings and comfort. It’s best to get the house checked by a professional. Ideally, a blower door evaluation should be performed to determine exactly how much energy is being lost into the attic. Even a simple energy evaluation walk-through by a professional can identify large amounts of energy waste, which results in discomfort in the home and higher utility bills.
A home’s ventilation also needs to be addressed. If you have an attic fan, check its operation. Lubricate any fans that you can. Check your home’s eaves for blockages. If you suffered over the winter from ice dams along the gutter edges, it’s likely that blocked eaves have caused that (those ice dams also likely caused some water damage in your attic).
An incorrectly air-sealed home can result in rot, insects, mold and higher utility bills, as well as discomfort during periods of peak demand of the cooling system.
Make sure your cooling system is working as efficiently as possible. The biggest killer of a cooling system is lack of proper air flow. Make sure your filters are clean, and check often during the summer months. Also, be sure to keep the outside unit clean and free from cluttering storage, growing shrubs and the like. Take a hose and wash the sides of the outside unit to flush any grass clippings or dirt that may have collected over time. If the system is located in the attic, check the insulation on the duct delivery system, because it’s not uncommon for insulation to fall off the metal ducts. Finally, check that the overflow pan is properly cleaned and the drain pipes are clear with no blockages.
2. Along with heating and cooling, what are other big energy consumers, and how can you reduce energy costs?
There are many variables, depending on how old the home is or what appliances are used, but the rule of thumb is that your heating and cooling appliances are the most likely candidates if they have not been replaced within the past 15-20 years. Your appliances, such as those that cool or freeze, should be upgraded if they are over 10-15 years old. The next most likely culprit is your lighting. Newer LED or CFL bulbs save money every time they’re turned on, especially compared to older style filament bulbs. As energy becomes more expensive, even the slightest improvement will have a profound result in your wallet and overall comfort level.
3. If building a two-story home, is it better to have one air conditioning unit, or have a separate unit to cool the upstairs?
The most efficient cooling method is one unit that allows for different temperate “zones.” If you’re in the process of new construction, install an HVAC system that allows for the greatest number of zones. It not only enhances the quality of comfort, but will lower your overall utility expenses. There are also many great zoning products that can work well with the system you currently have in place. You do not need more than one system to accomplish this feat, and newer equipment designs allow for zoning better than ever before. Newer, efficient systems with variable speed motors and compressors reduce power costs and deliver more constant pressure.
4. What is a home energy audit and who can be contacted to set one up?
There are two types of energy audits: an energy evaluation and an energy audit. Energy evaluations are simple 15-minute walk-throughs to check your attic for insulation, your windows for energy efficiency, your heating/cooling system to determine its age and efficiency, and your thermostat. Some may even look at your lighting and appliances, or even check out your air quality. An evaluation is more helpful than not, but usually their sole reason for being there is to sell you another product, like better windows or an HVAC system.
The second type is an energy audit. This is where the contractor uses special testing equipment like a blower door and gives you a full evaluation by testing the house’s current energy loss. As a part of the full energy audit, the contractor will also test your appliances using the max degree of stress to assure they are functioning properly. They’ll also test the combustion efficiency of the heating appliances, such as the furnace or boiler, the hot water heater, and your kitchen oven (if it’s gas powered). In addition, they’ll perform a gas leak detection test on all accessible gas pipes in and outside the home, to assure that you’re not losing gas and at risk for an explosion.
An energy audit is largely concerned with safety. During their walk around, they will be looking for conditions that would make performing their blower door test unsafe. Such conditions include visual mold and asbestos insulation.
The blower door test will determine the total air leakage through very careful measurements. During the test, the inspector will check using smoke and special testing equipment to identify leakage areas. You will receive very accurate information about how your home is currently performing, but you’ll also get a good idea on how to improve your cooling system for lower utility bills and better comfort. You’ll also be able to exactly measure the impact of your home improvements through a retest.
The costs of these evaluations vary based upon house size and location, but normally are in the range of $300-$400. They are ideally performed by BPI-certified contractors. On their website, you will find all there is to know about energy audits and where to find a contractor in your area.
Robert Cameron, President of Woodbridge Environmental, a home performance contracting company with expertise and special training in the area of home energy use, efficiency, health and savings.