Keep Home Cool With Energy Efficient Strategies
Filed at 3:15 p.m. ET
Find yourself sweating inside your house during the long, hot days of summer? Are high utility costs enough to make you perspire on their own?
Strategies such as eliminating air leakage, upgrading attic insulation, and installing a new air conditioning system and ceiling fans help keep your home cool efficiently, and can help save on energy costs in the process. On average, heating and cooling a home costs about $1,000 a year, nearly half the total energy bill for the house, the Environmental Protection Agency reports.
Through 2010, a federal tax credit is available for energy efficiency upgrades for insulation, windows, central air conditioners and heat pumps.
The credit refunds 30 percent of the purchase price for energy-efficient products, up to a total of $1,500. Homeowners can use the tax credit for cooling systems, and many local power companies offer rebates for installing more efficient products.
There are many ways to make sure your home stays cool in the best way possible, without buying a new air conditioning systems or adding ceiling fans.
First, check to make sure your attic is properly insulated. An uninsulated attic allows too much cool air to escape and too much warm air to enter. Adding or updating the insulation is one of the easiest ways to make a home more energy efficient.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, upgrading inefficient insulation in the attic of a two-story, 2,000 square foot home in Chicago can cost around $1,000, but the tax credit lowers that cost to $700.
Added to an energy efficient rebate from MidAmerican Energy in Chicago for up to $600, the cost can drop to $100. That project will save about $51 in annual utility costs, the NAHB said.
Another tip is to cover windows with shades or blinds, to keep hot sunlight out.
Homeowners can also plant trees to give the home shade. West-facing windows are important to protect because it's typically hotter in the afternoon. Other shade options include overhangs and awnings.
FINDING THE RIGHT PRODUCT
Decide if you need room air conditioners or a central unit. Homes with many rooms would benefit from a central unit, while studios apartments or efficiencies will be more likely to have units in individual rooms.
Also, check the condition of ceiling fans and pick out rooms that would benefit from the added circulation of a new ceiling fan, such as living rooms and bedrooms.
Cooling systems vary in cost, depending on the system size and price the contractor will charge for installation. But count on spending at least $2,000 for a new central air conditioner. Adding ducts to the home will bring the cost up even more.
Room air conditioners typically cost between $150 and $600, depending on the size and model.
When considering buying a central air conditioner or heat pump (which both cools and heats a home), homeowners should ask a local contractor to check for leaks in the house that allow cool air to escape. The contractor evaluates whether ducts need to be sealed, insulated or replaced, and whether windows and doors are properly sealed.
Holes hidden in attics, crawl spaces and basements should be sealed.
The key measurement of a central air conditioner is the SEER rating (officially the ''Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio). The higher the rating, the higher the energy efficiency.
SEER ratings of 14 to 21 are becoming more common, but the system typically gets more expensive as you move up the SEER scale. Proponents of high-SEER systems stress that savings on utilities outweigh the cost.
When looking for energy efficient products, check if they carry an Energy Star rating by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA began using the rating in 1992 as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through better energy efficiency. It includes more than 60 products, which are listed on the EPA's Web site, www.energystar.gov.
The more reliable products are among the most well known in the industry -- Trane, Rheem and Ruud, according to a July 2009 product reliability survey of more than 32,000 readers of Consumer Reports magazine. Other brands include General Electric, Carrier, Lennox and American Standard.
Nearly two-third of readers in the Consumer Reports survey who had a problem with their central air conditioning said the unit broke down for a day, and about one in three reported a complete system failure. About half of those reporting problems spent $150 or more to get cool again, Consumer Reports said.
For ceiling fans, blades sizes range from 29 to 54 inches, with the most popular being the 52-inch model, according to the EPA. Smaller rooms need a fan size of 29 to 36 inches, while the larger rooms take 50 to 54 inch fans.
Standard mounts come with a 3 to 5 inch ''downrod'' -- the metal pipe that extends from the ceiling bracket down to the fan. Longer mounts are available for higher ceilings.
Here's a good tip from the EPA. In summertime, use the fan in a counterclockwise direction, which forces cool air down and gives the feeling of a breeze. In winter, a clockwise direction at slow speed produces an updraft that pushes warm air down into the room.
The easiest way to ensure a long life for the cooling system is changing the filter regularly -- once a month is a good starting point.
Cooling coils should be cleaned at least once a year. Cooling systems in homes with furry pets that shed hair will be more susceptible to getting dirty and potentially malfunctioning.
Make sure the contractor you choose to install your air conditioning system or heat pump is licensed and insured.
The product should have a warranty as well, so fill out the correct paperwork to ensure that you are covered.
Many sellers and installers of air conditioners should have maintenance agreements in which the consumer pays a yearly fee for visits from repairmen to make sure the product is working correctly.
BY THE NUMBERS
So far this year, combined U.S. factory shipments of central air conditioners and air-source heat pumps have totaled more than 2.7 million, down 18 percent compared with January to June of last year. That's according to the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute.
The struggling economy may be a reason for this drop, but companies like Rheem are seeing more buyer activity due to the tax credit, said Carrol Basham, an assistant product manager at Rheem.