One of the questions we ask when we’re talking with homeowners about comfort concerns: How are your utility bills?
At Fire & Ice, we don’t just go to your house and tell you, “Here is your solution, and we know it’s your solution because it’s the same solution we used with your neighbors.” We want to help you build a custom comfort system for your home.
Comfort is a variable. What you find comfortable may not be comfortable for someone else.
And one of the questions we hear back from the thousands of homeowners we talk to is, “How can I lower my utility bill in the summer?”
There’s no magic solution we can offer you. Some of the things that will help cost money upfront. Will you make that money over the years? It depends. And some of the ways to save a few bucks won’t cause a dramatic drop in your electricity bills. But several small changes might make a dent.
So we’ve compiled a list of six things that might make your HVAC system more efficient without diminishing your comfort. And depending on how you crunch the numbers, they may lessen the impact of the HVAC portion of your bill.
Change Your Furnace’s Filter
A clean filter helps your house in many ways. It will capture most of the dust and bacteria floating in the air, creating a cleaner, healthier home.
It also benefits the health of your entire HVAC system. Having a clean filter will allow the return air to flow easier so that it will be less restrictive on your blower motor. The furnace’s blower will stay cleaner and have to work less hard.
A dirty filter will eventually stop catching dust because it will be saturated. The dust that normally would be caught gets past the filter and winds up in the main compartment of your furnace. It can wind up on the blower motor, the blower wheel, and coils. Too much debris, and the furnace (and AC) will suffer. Clean parts mean a more efficient system.
There’s a trade-off. A thin, one-inch filter that you can see through won’t catch as much dust and hair, allowing more crud in the furnace, which can hinder the blower motor and blower. But the airflow will be better. A four-inch filter with a high HEPA rating catches more crud, so it gets dirty faster, but it’s more restrictive for airflow back to the furnace.
A more restrictive filter is better for your health because it catches more stuff. But this filter is also hard on your HVAC equipment; it creates more static pressure. In HVAC, static pressure is the resistance to airflow in ductwork. Too much static pressure can cause problems. Too little, and you get different problems.
Schedule Routine Maintenance
Regular routine maintenance helps everything. The biggest thing routine maintenance can do is help the system run smoothly. If it uncovers a part that’s wearing out, it can save money on a future repair bill. It can identify small problems that might turn into larger problems if they were left unattended.
For instance, a proper maintenance visit will test the charge of the refrigerant. If it’s low, it could damage the compressor, the indoor coil, and the heat exchanger. One leak leads to three separate repairs.
Thinking about skipping maintenance because your air conditioner is new and trouble-free? Your AC may be without obvious issues. There are no new sounds coming from it, no puddles near your furnace, and the cool it’s sending through the house feels fine. But each year your AC goes without its routine tune-up, it loses about 5% of its efficiency. And as it gets older, that 5% will increase.
Switch to a Programmable Thermostat
Buying a new thermostat isn’t going to save you money. But a programmable one can help you remember to raise the temperature in the summer - say from 72 to 75 - when you’re away from home. Saving money through your thermostat is going to be based on how you use it.
For every 1 degree Fahrenheit you turn up your thermostat in the summer, you'll use about 1% less energy. Energy Star estimates that homeowners properly using programmable thermostats can save about $180 a year.
If you want the latest in energy savings, you can switch to a smart thermostat. Most of them will allow you to see your savings with the push of a button or two.
Smart thermostats save money by keeping the temperature as high as possible for as long as possible. Based on your schedule and desired temperature, the thermostat will start to cool the house before you get home and saves as much energy as possible when you are away.
And if you forget to turn the thermostat down while you’re away, you can connect to the thermostat through an app.
Invest in a High-Efficiency Air Conditioner
Air conditioners are rated by their SEER, which stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. (This is the ratio of the cooling output of an air conditioner over a typical cooling season, divided by the energy it uses in Watt-Hours.)
But just buying a high-efficiency air conditioner doesn’t necessarily save you money. It depends on how you use it. If you have an old air conditioner and you buy a new one, and you keep it at the same temperature as the old one, yes, your energy bill will go down with a newer, high-efficiency air conditioner.
But if you kept your old conditioner at 78 because it didn’t work well at a lower temperature, and you get a new one and set it at 72, that new one might or might not save you any money. It’s not cut and dried.
We can also talk about stages in air conditioners. The traditional model has two settings: 100% on, and off. A two-stage model can run at a stage that’s about 60% of capacity. This AC will run longer because it can create comfort at a slower speed, and better balance the temperatures in the home. It will provide better comfort than a single-stage, and will save on energy bills. How much? Again, it depends.
Ditto with a variable-speed AC, which will run at virtually any speed between 30% and 100%. Energy Star claims that even if your air conditioner is only 10 years old, you may save 20% to 40% of your cooling energy costs by replacing it with a newer, more efficient model.
Just to throw another variable into this, you can invest in a pricy, variable-speed air conditioner with an unbeatable SEER, but if it doesn’t match the settings on your furnace’s blower, it won’t approach much of its capacity. It may not even work at all, and your warranty may not be good anymore. Check with your HVAC expert about which equipment matches others.
Clean Your Air Ducts
Your home’s ductwork is like arteries. It feeds air to every room of your house, and if the system has a performance issue, multiple rooms could suffer.
Bad airflow in your ductwork costs you money. Clogged vents and narrowed duct pathways create hot and cold spots in your home, and also make your air conditioner work harder than it needs to. A thorough ductwork cleaning removes these buildups of dirt and grime, allowing your system to run smoothly and efficiently.
A thorough cleaning will address dust build-up on the blower, which will work more efficiently than a dirty one. It will improve airflow, and if the airflow is better, it will be more efficient.
Air duct cleaning is also a health benefit; you won’t be breathing in so much dust and bacteria.
Duct sealing is not usually a part of duct cleaning. In a typical house, however, about 20 to 30 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, holes, and poorly connected ducts. The result is higher utility bills and difficulty keeping the house comfortable, no matter how the thermostat is set.
An inspection of your ductwork could save you in the long run.
Read more: Air Duct Cleaning in Columbus, Ohio
Invest in a Dehumidifier
Whole-home dehumidifiers can definitely help. An air conditioner is dehumidifying the air as it cools. While dehumidifiers aren’t designed to reduce a room’s temperature, removing humidity can make it feel cooler and more comfortable.
If the air temperature is 80°F and the relative humidity is 80% percent, then the air temperature feels like 84°F. If the relative humidity drops to 60% and the temperature remains the same, the air temperature feels two degrees cooler.
Scientists from the Federal University of Technology, Akure, have found removing humidity from the air means your air conditioning unit runs more efficiently. As a result, an air conditioning unit won’t have to work as hard to make a home feel more comfortable, which should help to reduce energy costs.
(Of course, the longer the dehumidifier runs, the more electricity it will consume.)
Other Factors That Could be Affecting Your HVAC Bills
The size of the AC can definitely affect your bills. An undersized air conditioner is going to be working harder than it should to cool things off. It’s trying to cool a bigger house than it was designed for.
A three-ton unit will struggle in a home that needs a four-ton unit. It will run and run, but you’ll rarely feel that it’s providing enough cool on a hot, summer day.
An oversized unit will struggle in a different way. It will cool the house too quickly, then shut down. Then it will keep repeating that cycle. An AC that is constantly starting and stopping will use more electricity than one that stays on longer.
If you’re in the market for a new piece of HVAC equipment, make certain that your contractor of choice performs a Manual J Load Calculation, a series of measurements that include different parameters of your home. This is not just the square footage of a home, but includes several other parameters.
The important thing to remember is this: there’s a huge variance in heating and cooling needs based on those parameters. If a contractor is in a hurry and skips this calculation, there’s a very real chance you’ll end up with a system that does not meet your comfort needs.
Staying Cool in Columbus, Ohio
We have yet to meet the homeowners who wish to pay more for the HVAC portion of their bill. The good news is that energy ratings go up year to year. Equipment gets more and more efficient. So if you have to replace an AC or a furnace, almost by default you’ll wind up with a new unit that can help you save money.
The cost of heating and cooling is about 50 percent of your energy bill. Implementing some of our suggestions can at least lessen the impact. These tips may seem inconsequential, but small changes add up.
And if you’re looking to talk to an HVAC expert in Columbus, Ohio, we’re happy to answer your questions or provide additional information. We look forward to talking with you.