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6 tips for efficient heating, cooling

  • Story Highlights
  • When heating and cooling systems aren't maintained, even the best can cost you
  • Quality providers staff an emergency number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Setback thermostats with a timer should regulate all HVAC systems
  • Arrange for service calls before the start of heating or cooling season
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By Danny Lipford
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This Old House

(This Old House) -- Nothing in your house affects your comfort more than your heating and cooling systems.


Ignoring your heating or cooling system can cost you. Make sure to keep up routine maintenance.

Yet unless the heater conks out during a blizzard or the air-conditioning goes on the fritz in the middle of a heat wave, most of us pretty much ignore our heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment.

We shouldn't. When it's not kept in shape, even the best system can cost you.

Depending on how you heat and cool your home and the climate of the area you live in, clogged filters, dirty thermostats, sooty flues, leaky ductwork and unlubricated fan motors can reduce heating and cooling efficiency by up to 25 percent.

Here are some tips for dealing with HVAC equipment and the pros that service it.

Routine maintenance

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The good news here is that some systems require little attention. A heat pump only needs a yearly service call by a technician who will check belts and filters and replace them as needed. He should also oil moving parts and inspect the wiring.

A gas-fired, forced-air heating system has simple requirements too. Furnace filter should be changed every month or two during heating season, and the circulating fan oiled once a year. Call in a pro to check the heat exchanger, flue and ducts and to adjust the burner every other year.

Other systems, like an oil-fired boiler, require annual maintenance -- flue cleaning, a fuel-filter change, cleaning and adjustment of the jets -- and often need attention more often than that. These chores should be handled by a professional.

Air-conditioning units are a little less maintenance-intensive. At the beginning and end of each cooling season, you should clean or replace the filters, vacuum out the unit and lubricate the motor. If the unit is not cooling properly, call a technician to check the pressure level of the refrigerant. This Old House: Air conditioners really are getting better

Arrange for service calls before the start of heating or cooling season. You'll get better attention and have more flexibility when scheduling the appointment. Video Watch tips to cut cooling costs »

When hunting for a company to maintain your system, look for one that designs, installs and services the type of system you have. Full-service companies tend to be up to date on the latest advances in the field.

Besides checking that liability insurance and workers' compensation policies are in force -- standard operating procedure with any hire -- check with neighbors, friends and family who have used the company over several years.

How did the system run under the company's care? Did the technicians always leave the working area clean? How quickly did the contractor respond to emergencies? Were the service people punctual when you called with a problem?

A quality provider will have an emergency number that's staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and enough technicians to respond when the weather is awful and the calls pile up.

HVAC services

Any contractor you're considering also should offer these products and services:

Heat-loss calculation
This process estimates the Btu capacity needed to heat or cool your home. The calculation should include the amount and type of insulation in the walls, attic and floors of your home, as well as the type, number and location of windows and doors.

This data is combined with your regional climatic conditions to determine the size unit you need. Software has made these calculations relatively easy. HVAC technicians who don't perform them often specify oversize equipment to be safe. That's dollars out of your pocket now and each time you get your utility bill. This Old House: Energy auditors account for wasted energy

Energy advice
When sizing an HVAC unit, a good contractor will advise you of energy upgrades, such as adding another layer of insulation to the attic. These may allow you to buy a smaller HVAC unit. This Old House: Insulating an attic

Efficient equipment
Although it's often not cost effective to buy the most energy-efficient unit on the market, there are minimums to shoot for. Here's what a contractor should offer:

• An air-conditioning unit (if below five tons) with a SEER of 10, preferably 12
• A high-efficiency natural-gas heater with an AFUE of around 90 percent
• A fuel-oil burner with an AFUE of around 85 percent
• A heat pump with an EER of 12

Automatic controls
A setback thermostat ($40), which contains a timer, should regulate all HVAC systems.

Payback calculations
A quality HVAC contractor will show you payback calculations for the various units he offers, and those calculations should give you estimates of seasonal operating costs.

Variables the contractor will use in his calculations include your regional heating or cooling load, the heating or cooling capacity of the units you are considering and the costs of various types of energy, so you can compare the costs of electric, gas and oil.


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