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Heating

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Types of Heating Systems

A variety of technologies are available for heating your house. In addition to heat pumps, which are discussed separately, many homes use the following approaches:

  • Furnaces and Boilers

    By far the most common way to heat a home.

  • Wood and Pellet-Fuel Heating

    Provides a way to heat your home using biomass or waste sources.

  • Electric Resistance Heating

    Among the most expensive ways to heat a home.

  • Active Solar Heating

    Uses the sun to heat either air or liquid and can serve as a supplemental heat source.

  • Radiant Heating

    Can draw on a number of energy sources, including electricity, boilers, solar energy, and wood and pellet-fuel heating.

  • Small Space Heaters

    Less efficient than central heating systems, but can save energy when used appropriately.
    While forced-air heating systems rely on the same type of ducts used by heat pumps and air conditioners, water and steam heat systems use radiators that only deliver heat.

  • Heat Distribution Systems

    Heat is distributed through your home through a variety of ways whether forced-air systems, central air-conditioning, heat pump systems, radiant heating, steam radiators, or hot water radiators.

Cooling

Types of Cooling Systems

Central Air Conditioners

Central air conditioners circulate cool air through a system of supply and return ducts. Supply ducts and registers (i.e., openings in the walls, floors, or ceilings covered by grills) carry cooled air from the air conditioner to the home. This cooled air becomes warmer as it circulates through the home; then it flows back to the central air conditioner through return ducts and registers.

Air conditioners help to dehumidify the incoming air, but in extremely humid climates or in cases where the air conditioner is oversized, it may not achieve a low humidity. Running a dehumidifier in your air-conditioned home will increase your energy use, both for the dehumidifier itself and because the air conditioner will require more energy to cool your house. A preferable alternative is a dehumidifying heat pipe, which can be added as a retrofit to most existing systems.

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Types of Central Air Conditioners

A central air conditioner is either a split-system unit or a packaged unit.

In a split-system central air conditioner, an outdoor metal cabinet contains the condenser and compressor, and an indoor cabinet contains the evaporator. In many split-system air conditioners, this indoor cabinet also contains a furnace or the indoor part of a heat pump. The air conditioner's evaporator coil is installed in the cabinet or main supply duct of this furnace or heat pump. If your home already has a furnace but no air conditioner, a split-system is the most economical central air conditioner to install.

In a packaged central air conditioner, the evaporator, condenser, and compressor are all located in one cabinet, which usually is placed on a roof or on a concrete slab next to the house's foundation. This type of air conditioner also is used in small commercial buildings. Air supply and return ducts come from indoors through the home's exterior wall or roof to connect with the packaged air conditioner, which is usually located outdoors. Packaged air conditioners often include electric heating coils or a natural gas furnace. This combination of air conditioner and central heater eliminates the need for a separate furnace indoors.

Choosing or Upgrading Your Central Air Conditioner

Central air conditioners are more efficient than room air conditioners. In addition, they are out of the way, quiet, and convenient to operate. To save energy and money, you should try to buy an energy-efficient air conditioner and reduce your central air conditioner's energy use. In an average air-conditioned home, air-conditioning consumes more than 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, causing power plants to emit about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide and 31 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

If you are considering

Adding central air-conditioning to your home, the deciding factor may be the need for ductwork.

If you have an older central air conditioner, you might choose to replace the outdoor compressor with a modern, high-efficiency unit. If you do so, consult a local heating and cooling contractor to assure that the new compressor is properly matched to the indoor unit. However, considering recent changes in refrigerants and air-conditioning designs, it might be wiser to replace the entire system.

Today's best air conditioners use 30% to 50% less energy to produce the same amount of cooling as air conditioners made in the mid-1970s. 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.

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Proper sizing and installation

are key elements in determining air conditioner efficiency. Too large a unit will not adequately remove humidity. Too small a unit will not be able to attain a comfortable temperature on the hottest days. Improper unit location, lack of insulation, and improper duct installation can greatly diminish efficiency.

When buying an air conditioner, look for a model with high efficiency. Central air conditioners are rated according to their seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). SEER indicates the relative amount of energy needed to provide a specific cooling output. Many older systems have SEER ratings of 6 or less. The minimum SEER allowed today is 13. Look for the ENERGY STAR® label for central air conditioners with SEER ratings of 13 or greater, but consider using air-conditioning equipment with higher SEER ratings for greater savings.

New residential central air conditioner standards

went into effect on January 23, 2006. Air conditioners manufactured after January 26, 2006 must achieve a SEER of 13 or higher. SEER 13 is 30% more efficient than the previous minimum SEER of 10. The standard applies only to appliances manufactured after January 23, 2006. Equipment with a rating less than SEER 13 manufactured before this date may still be sold and installed.

The average homeowner will remain unaffected by this standard change for some time to come. The standards do not require you to change your existing central air-conditioning units, and replacement parts and services should still be available for your home's systems. The "life span" of a central air conditioner is about 15 to 20 years. Manufacturers typically continue to support existing equipment by making replacement parts available and honoring maintenance contracts after the new standard goes into effect.

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Other features to look for when buying an air conditioner include:

  • A thermal expansion valve and a high-temperature rating (EER) greater than 11.6, for high-efficiency operation when the weather is at its hottest
  • A variable speed air handler for new ventilation systems
  • A unit that operates quietly
  • A fan-only switch, so you can use the unit for nighttime ventilation to substantially reduce air-conditioning costs
  • A filter check light to remind you to check the filter after a predetermined number of operating hours
  • An automatic-delay fan switch to turn off the fan a few minutes after the compressor turns off.

Water Heaters

Selecting a New Water Heater

You have a lot to consider when selecting a new water heater for your home. You should choose a water heating system that will not only provide enough hot water but also that will do so energy efficiently, saving you money. This includes considering the different types of water heaters available and determining the right size and fuel source for your home.

Types of Water Heaters

It's a good idea to know the different types of water heaters available before you purchase one:

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  • Conventional Storage Water Heaters

    Offer a ready reservoir (storage tank) of hot water.

  • Demand (Tankless or Instantaneous) Water Heaters

    Heat water directly without the use of a storage tank.

  • Heat Pump Water Heaters

    Move heat from one place to another instead of generating heat directly for providing hot water.

  • Solar Water Heaters

    Use the sun's heat to provide hot water.

  • Tankless Coil and Indirect Water Heaters

    Use a home's space heating system to heat water.