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Have you been putting off making energy-saving improvements to your home? Are you interested in reducing your carbon footprint and energy expenditures by making use of solar power, but are unsure about how to begin? Now is the time to act. Not only will you be prepared for the cooler months ahead, but if you make these improvements by Dec. 31, 2011, you'll qualify for up to $500 in federal tax incentives for each improvement you make. The federal energy tax credits offer homeowners who make energy-saving improvements to their existing, primary residences up to $500 credit per improvement toward the cost of materials and possibly labor on their 2011 federal tax returns. This credit does not apply to rental properties, vacation homes or newly-constructed homes. To apply for these credits, homeowners should complete IRS form 5695 and file it with their 2011 tax returns. These forms should be available in early 2012. Several heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) products are included in the tax incentive program. Among these are:
- Central air conditioning systems
- Oil, propane and natural gas furnaces
- House wrap
- Rolled and spray insulation
- Heat pumps
- Oil, propane and natural gas water heaters
- Electric heat pump water heaters
Do you ever feel drafts in your home? If you do, you definitely have air leaks. Even if you don't feel the drafts, you could still be losing heated and cooled air through leaks in your basement, attic, walls and door and window frames. These air leaks mean your heating and cooling system has to work harder to meet your thermostat settings, costing you money and potentially impacting your home comfort. Your basement and attic are often the biggest culprits of air leaks in your home. Unfortunately, when air can travel through both of these areas, it compounds the air loss by creating what is known as "the chimney effect." As outside air enters your basement, heated air rises through your home and is drawn into the attic. This makes your home feel less comfortable and causes your energy bills to rise. Follow these cost-effective steps to reduce energy loss in your home:
- Seal the large gaps in your basement and attic. Although small leaks will have an impact, it is the major holes that primarily contribute to the chimney effect. One way to spot leaks in the attic is to look for dirty insulation.
- In your basement, focus on the areas above ground where the foundation meets the floor above. Seal joists with caulk, or use spray foam for larger gaps.
- In both the attic and basement, seal gaps in holes made for wiring, plumbing and ductwork.
- Seal air leaks in door and window frames and consider installing weatherstripping in preparation for winter, especially if you have an older home.
- Add insulation to the attic to the minimum R-value rating of R-19 to R-30. The higher the R-value, the less heat will be transferred and the more money you will save.
Although much of the year is warm in Silicon Valley, there is nothing quite like a warm, cozy hearth in the colder months. Like any other heating system, you want your wood or gas fireplace to produce efficient heat with minimal emissions. Using the Burn Smart guidelines will help you select a fireplace that meets these criteria. Many California residents are environmentally conscious, especially when it comes to their homes and lifestyles. Lennox has developed its Burn Smart program to help consumers like you choose environmentally responsible hearth products for your home. In order to meet the Burn Smart criteria, a system must:
- Be highly fuel efficient
- Produce minimal emissions
- Be eligible for third-party certifications: Organizations, programs and agencies like the Environmental Department Agency, Energy Star, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) all have their own guidelines for efficiency and safe operation. Burn Smart products must meet at least one of these third-party guidelines in order to qualify.
Many people don't give their indoor air quality a second thought. But when you live in the Silicon Valley and run your air conditioner frequently, it is something you should be thinking about. Most people are concerned more about the effects of outdoor pollutants rather than the indoor air contaminants that are circulated throughout your home -- especially when the air conditioner is running and the house is closed up. Unwanted contaminants like bacteria, viruses, pollen and dust can have a negative impact on your family's health. Fortunately, there are three simple steps you can take to help improve your indoor air quality:
- Reduce pollutants at the source: Indoor air pollution is caused by factors such as: bringing outdoor pollutants inside; pets; smoke; appliances; and carpets. Although not all indoor air pollutants can be prevented, you can reduce them by taking shoes and jackets off when you come inside, regularly vacuuming, and having combustion appliances inspected for proper operation.
- Ventilate for fresh air: Removing stale, contaminated air and bringing clean, fresh air into your home is an important component of maintaining good indoor air quality. Open your windows to bring in fresh air on mild days, and use the exhaust fans in your kitchen and bathroom to remove old air and bring in clean air.
- Use an air cleaner: For the air contaminants that simply cannot be avoided, use a whole-house air cleaner to remove them. Integrated into your existing home comfort system, a whole-house air cleaner will efficiently circulate fresh air to every room in your home. There are different types of air cleaners that use filters, UV lights and ventilation systems to remove unwanted contaminants.
The cooling season is long in California's Silicon Valley, and energy costs are constantly increasing. That's why keeping cooling costs low is a priority for most homeowners. When it's time to upgrade your heating and cooling system, consider the many benefits of air-source heat pumps. Air-source heat pumps work by drawing heat from the air in one area and transferring it to another area. This means they can provide both heating and cooling by moving heat out of your home during the summer, and into your home during winter. In addition to the convenience of having heating and cooling in one easy-to-maintain system, there are a number of other benefits:
- Heat pumps are very efficient, mainly because they do not burn fuel to produce heat.
- You can purchase a heat pump with a very high SEER rating to provide high-efficiency cooling and reduce monthly utility bills.
- Heat pumps are perfect for areas that do not experience extreme winter temperatures. You will have efficient heating without having to invest in a gas or oil-powered furnace.
- Switching between heating and cooling mode is simple and fast.
- Maintenance is simplified with a single home comfort system.
- New heat pumps use refrigerants that are less harmful to the environment and do not contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.
It is a common misconception that good insulation is only important in colder climates. Even homes in warmer areas like the Silicon Valley require an adequate insulation system to keep cooling costs down in summer. Just as heated air can escape your home through leaks and poorly insulated areas, cooled air will do the same. Properly insulating your home is not as simple as just adding more insulation to the attic. Viewing the insulation in your home as a complete system will help you achieve maximum energy savings and home comfort. Your insulating system should include all of the following components:
- Air barrier: Sealing leaks in ductwork, exterior walls and the attic floor will help reduce air movement between the interior and exterior of your home. The less air that is allowed to transfer between conditioned and unconditioned spaces, the lower your energy costs.
- Gap filling: Insulating materials should be flush with the surface on which they are applied. This is not always possible in corners, near electrical and plumbing conduits or on uneven surfaces. Use appropriate insulating materials to fill these gaps.
- Moisture prevention: Excess moisture can not only damage your insulating materials, it can also create an environment for the growth of mold and mildew. Installing a vapor retarder on the floor of your crawl space and in the attic can help reduce moisture from entering your home.
- Drying potential: Even with vapor retarders, moisture may be able to reach insulated spaces. When this happens, you need to ensure that the insulation has the opportunity to dry. This is best achieved with proper ventilation in areas like the attic, crawl space and basement.
- Thermal bridges: If you are building a new home, minimize the number of structural components in walls. These are areas where insulation cannot be installed, so they are often weak places where heat is allowed to transfer between the inside and outside of your home.
Whether you are running the air conditioner or furnace, your ductwork is an important component of your home comfort system. If you are losing air through leaks or disconnected joints, you are losing money. Duct sealing is a simple and cost-effective way to reduce this energy loss and bring down your monthly heating and cooling costs. In many cases, duct sealing can be done on your own. However, ducts located behind walls and in the floors may require the services of a professional. Focus on the areas you can easily access, such as the attic, basement, crawl space and garage. Follow these steps to cut energy loss through leaks in your ductwork:
- Inspect ducts both visually and by feeling for air leaks when your home comfort system is running.
- Check all types of ductwork, including flexible tubing and the connection between ducts and air registers.
- Duct sealing should be done with a mastic sealant tape or other appropriate material. Duct tape is not a good material as it does not last as long as mastic sealant. Flexible ductwork may need to be replaced if it is torn or damaged.
- If your ductwork is located in areas that do not get conditioned air, add insulation to further reduce energy loss through heat transfer.
Installing a heat pump with dual-fuel capacity can help you save a bundle on monthly heating and cooling costs. During cooling season, high-efficiency operation helps keep electricity costs low, while in winter the ability to switch to a more efficient fuel source like gas or oil will generate even more savings. Dual-fuel systems have the ability to switch between a high-efficiency heat pump and a gas or oil-powered furnace when outdoor temperatures drop below a certain point, called the balance point. The balance point can be set and adjusted by your contractor so your heating system will automatically change to the most efficient type of operation. As electricity and fuel prices change, the balance point can be optimized to help you keep heating and cooling costs low. In addition to the money you can save on heating costs, new heat pumps with dual-fuel capacity have a number of other features that provide year-round benefits:
- New technologies have made new heat pumps significantly quieter than older units.
- A two-stage system provides even more efficiency, especially during the cooling season. When outdoor temperatures are mild, the heat pump operates at the lower stage, significantly reducing energy usage. When temperatures rise, switching to the higher stage ensures home comfort.
- Major improvements in technology mean greater efficiency when it comes to both heating and cooling your your home. With dual-fuel capability, you can achieve major energy savings in one system.
- Some systems are designed to be integrated with a whole-house dehumidifier, further improving home comfort while lowering cooling bills.
- New refrigerants do not deplete the ozone layer and are less harmful to the environment.
At some point, every homeowner has to decide whether to repair their heating system, or upgrade to a new model. There are pros and cons to each side, but it often comes down to financial factors. However, repairing an older system can often end up being more expensive than investing in new high-efficiency equipment. If you are experiencing the "repair or replace" dilemma, answer the following questions:
- How old is your existing equipment? Heating and cooling systems that are more than 10 years old are much less efficient than today's models. You can benefit from substantial monthly savings by upgrading.
- Does your equipment break down often? If you have to call a technician often, it may be time to consider an upgrade. However, if your heating and cooling system has been well maintained, you may be able to get another year or more out of it. Work with a qualified professional to evaluate the condition of your heating and cooling equipment.
- How frequently do you use your heating and cooling system? Air conditioners that are used for long periods of time endure a lot of wear and tear. However, heating systems may have a longer life because they are used less frequently.
- How long do you plan to use the equipment? When deciding whether to repair or replace, consider factors such as moving plans and upcoming additions or other construction. A new system may improve the value of your home if you are planning to sell, and adding rooms to your home will change your home comfort needs so sometimes it may make more sense to wait.
Every forced-air heating and cooling system has air filters to both improve indoor air quality and protect your home comfort equipment. These filters need to be changed on a regular basis to ensure good air flow, healthy indoor air and efficient equipment operation. When it comes to air filters, you have a lot of options from which to choose. Each filter is measured by a series of different ratings so you can select one that meets your requirements:
- MERV: Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value is a standard rating that applies to all air filters. In this case, efficiency refers to the filter's ability to remove contaminants from the air; a higher MERV rating means that a higher percentage of particles are removed.
- Filter resistance: This metric, also sometimes referred to as "pressure drop," indicates how your airflow will be impacted. If airflow is too restricted, the efficiency of your heating system will decrease and cause your energy bills to rise.
- Efficiency: In addition to the standard MERV rating, you may be provided with information about the initial efficiency and the sustained efficiency of an air filter. The initial efficiency applies only when the filter is new and clean; the sustained efficiency applies to the entire lifetime of the filter. Sustained efficiency is the more important metric because the filter will be in your heating system for up to a month; you want to be sure the filter is effective for the duration.
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