Heating and Cooling Your Home for Less

When you think about heating and cooling your home, do your thoughts turn to money and energy efficiency? The more efficient heating and cooling systems are, the less they cost to run. That means your utility bills can be lower. Energy efficiency is good for the environment, too.

Before you invest in a new system, ask about the EnergyGuide label — it lets you know how energy efficient a model is compared to others like it. Products that meet certain energy efficiency criteria will have the ENERGY STAR logo. If you want to increase the efficiency of your system but you’re not in the market to replace it, consider a professional or do-it-yourself home energy assessment. It can show you how specific fixes — like sealing air leaks or beefing up insulation — could help you save money and boost efficiency.

Think “Efficiency”

More than half of the energy use in a typical home goes toward heating and cooling it, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). There’s plenty to consider when you look at new heating and cooling systems: the latest options, the cost to buy them, how much energy they use, and the cost to operate them.

By choosing the most energy-efficient equipment that meets your needs, you may be able to spend less money to heat and cool your home. And it’s good for the environment, too; energy efficiency can reduce air pollution and help conserve natural resources.

Here’s how to tell how efficient a system is:

Once you know which systems are appropriate for you, tools are available to help you find out about the energy efficiency of specific models:

  • The EnergyGuide label. Anyone selling heating and cooling systems — central air conditioners, furnaces, boilers, and heat pumps — has to let you know how much energy a product uses, as well as how it compares to similar models, at the point of sale. Manufacturers provide that information on a product’s EnergyGuide label. But depending on how you shop, you may not see the actual product and label, so the information might be on a website, a fact sheet, a brochure, or a directory. If you don’t see the information, ask for it. The EnergyGuide label is required by the Appliance Labeling Rule, which is enforced by the FTC.
  • The ENERGY STAR logo. This logo means the product meets certain energy efficiency criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency and DOE.

How Else Can You Save on Energy?

Being an energy-smart consumer means getting the most from the energy you use. You can:

Do a home energy assessment.

It will tell you how efficient your heating and cooling systems are and where your home is wasting energy — say, through air leaks or under-insulated attics and ducts. Your utility company may offer free or low-cost energy assessments, or it may recommend a local company or organization to do them. Check with your state or local government energy or weatherization office for recommendations, or visit energysavers.gov for more resources.

  • A professional assessment with special equipment like blower doors and infrared cameras might cost several hundred dollars. Before you choose a company, be sure to get several references, and check the company record with your local consumer protection agency. Make sure the auditor uses a calibrated blower door and does thermographic inspections, or else contracts with another company to do them. Your assesment should include specific recommendations you can implement.
  • A do-it-yourself assessment is an option. For more on how to do it, visit DOE’s Energy Saver website, or use the online tool at hes.lbl.gov.

Seal air leaks and insulate:

  • Seal air leaks around windows, doors, and places where pipes and wires come through walls. Check existing caulking and weatherstripping for gaps or cracks.
  • Check ducts for holes and gaps where sections have separated and air may be leaking. You can seal some leaks yourself with mastic sealant or metal tape (don’t use duct tape). Hiring a professional to repair leaky ducts can be a good investment.
  • Bring your insulation up to DOE-recommended levels where your energy assessment shows it’s needed.

If your home has very old or inefficient windows, think about replacing them.

Look into special energy efficiency offers.

Ask your local utility or system salesperson about cash rebates, low-interest loans, tax breaks, or other incentives for buying energy-efficient products, and how you can qualify.

Notice the small stuff.

Small savings add up. Other energy-saving ideas include:

  • Lowering your thermostat in winter and bumping it up in summer before you go to bed or head out for the day, or getting a programmable thermostat to do it automatically.
  • Checking filters for forced-air furnaces, heat pumps, or air conditioners as recommended to see if they need to be cleaned or replaced, and checking that fireplace dampers are closed when you don’t have a fire going.
  • Considering a budget-billing program, if your utility or oil company offers it. While you won’t actually pay less, a budget-billing plan spreads your costs over the whole year, protecting your budget from seasonal spikes. If you’re on a fixed income or have trouble paying your utility bills, contact your utility company. There may be energy assistance plans.

If you use heating oil, consider shopping around to make sure you’re getting a good price. Research a company and its service before you sign a contract. If you live where you can choose your natural gas provider, shop for a good price on gas.

Shop smart for “energy-saving” products and services.

Be skeptical of gadgets and products that promise drastic reductions in home cooling costs or extreme energy savings. Verify product claims with an independent source you trust. Resist high-pressure door-to-door sales calls for furnaces, windows, and other home improvement products. Find a contractor who’s licensed and reputable, and remember that the Cooling-Off Rule gives you three business days to cancel a contract if you sign it in your home or at a location other than the contractor’s permanent place of business.

Source: Federal Trade Commission: www.consumer.ftc.gov

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