Cooling your home can be an expensive proposition, but there are things that every homeowner can do to help lower their electric bill when it comes to cooling their home each summer. On hot summer days, your home's A/C system really gets a workout. Properly maintaining it on a regular basis will allow your A/C system to properly cool your home without breaking the bank.
Regular maintenance of air conditioning systems is the most important chore to do. Regularly changing your air filter helps prevent unneeded wear on your A/C system, helps ensure a good amount of air flow, and helps keep your home cleaner. Fiberglass woven air filters typically should be replaced monthly, however paper element "pleated" air filters are better. The "pleated" type of air filter should last b/w 60 and 90 days and tends to better block the dust that the fiberglass filters allow to pass through. Also, a dirty or wet air filter prevents needed air flow through the A/C system which can lead to an iced-over indoor coil and little to no cooling of the home. I’ve seen a few iced-over coils in my home inspection travels; they are essentially an ice cube larger than a soccer ball and totally encapsulate the indoor coil. A home owner runs and runs the A/C and can’t figure out why the home doesn’t cool down.
Air conditioners work by moving heat energy from the home's interior to the exterior using a refrigeration cycle; this is the same process that your refrigerator uses to cool it's interior. Using an exterior compressor and condensing coil and an interior evaporator coil, the refrigerant (R-22 Freon in older units and R-410A in newer units) changes states (back and forth between liquid and gas states through the refrigeration cycle) to absorb heat from your home's interior and release this heat to the home's exterior via the exterior condensing coil. As of the year 2020, Freon (R-22) will no longer be available if your system needs to be recharged, so budgeting for A/C replacement is wise now if you have an older (R-22 using) system.
An A/C system that does not properly cool the home is often related to one of three issues: (1.) low refrigerant charge, (2). dirty air filter (preventing proper air flow), or (3.) inadequate air flow around the exterior compressor unit.
Having your A/C system serviced annually by a qualified HVAC professional is important. Just like a car, A/C systems can work more efficiently and tend to have fewer failures or expensive repairs when regularly serviced and maintained. When A/C systems are serviced, the technician will check the system’s components and its refrigerant charge to ensure all items meet manufacturer operation specifications. A programmable thermostat can also help save energy dollars.
Ensuring that there is at least 24” of clearance around the A/C system’s exterior unit is also important. For proper operation, a good amount of air flow is necessary for reliable and efficient operation. A common issue that I run across during home inspections is vegetation in contact (or close contact) with the A/C’s exterior unit. As part of regular exterior maintenance, I recommend trimming vegetation that is growing within 24” of the A/C unit. This may need to be done a few times per year.
The above photo is a thermal image of a central A/C system while operating. It shows an even heat distribution pattern on the exterior coil and is one indicator that the system is properly functioning. WIN Home Inspection can perform an infrared (IR) thermal scan of your home's major systems which includes your A/C system to help verify proper function.
Besides maintaining the A/C system itself, ensuring that your home is properly insulated can save you money that would otherwise go into running your A/C system longer. A good thing about insulation is that it will save you money in heating and cooling seasons. Current attic insulation standards in our area for a new home would be an R-38 (minimum). If your home was built prior to 2006, the amount of insulation in your attic is probably less than this current standard. Most older homes have low amounts of insulation and many have none. In most homes, however, adding insulation is relatively easy to do plus doing so can pay you back in lower energy bills by way of more efficient heating and cooling.
“R-value” is a material’s resistance to heat transfer through the material. The higher the R-value, the tougher it is for heat to pass through a material. Blown-in cellulose has an approx. R-value of 3.5 per inch. So, 10” of cellulose should provide about an R-35. Loose fill fiberglass has an approx. R-value of 2.5 per inch and fiberglass batt has an approx. R-value of 3 per inch. If installing additional insulation in your attic, make sure that needed ventilation, such as soffit venting, is not blocked by the insulation. I find insufficient attic/roof ventilation in many homes that I inspect. Cardboard or rigid foam baffles can be installed to allow for needed cool air flow into the attic at the soffit vents while still allowing a good amount of insulation. Blocking needed soffit vent air flow into the attic can lead to ice dams in the winter as well as a very hot attic in the summer. This can lead to an A/C system running a lot more than it needs to and a very hot attic (likely to exceed 140º F) can also lead to premature roof shingle wear.
In addition to sufficient attic insulation, make sure that the attic access location is also insulated. It makes no sense to properly insulate your attic only to leave the ceiling access panel or door uninsulated. Heat is always looking for cooler areas to move to, so an uninsulated attic access panel or door can render the attic insulation nearly useless. Adding a piece of fiberglass batt or rigid insulation at this location is relatively easy to do and can lower your energy bills and increase interior comfort. Most attic pulldown ladders are rarely ever insulated. Their covers are only a piece of thin plywood and have a very low R-value; this is a common location for heat gain or loss. Installing weather stripping where the access panel or cover closes is also suggested.
Run a dehumidifier between May and September. High humidity levels cause your A/C system to work extra hard as it has to extract large amounts of moisture from the household air while it also tries to cool your home. High humidity also makes the air feel warmer. A dehumidifier will also help minimize basement dampness and possible mold as well as helping to minimize conditions right for insect/rodent infestation in your home.
Don't air dry your wet clothing inside your home and clothes dryer vents should only discharge to the home's exterior. I sometimes see homeowners venting their clothes dryers into the home or basement for unknown reasons. Doing either of these things fills your home with extra humidity as the clothes dry.
Running ceiling fans in the rooms that you are using can help take some load off your A/C since the fans will help make the rooms feel cooler. You won't feel the need to drop your thermostat down a few more degrees. Running a ceiling fan consumes considerably less electricity than an A/C unit.
Plant deciduous trees in your yard at the south and southwest sides of your home. When the trees grow large enough, their leaves will limit direct sunlight helping to cool your home. In winter, these deciduous trees will lose their leaves and allow the sun to shine through to your home to help heat it on the colder days.
Ensuring that all doors, windows, and other exterior openings are properly caulked or weather stripped helps prevent gaps that cold/hot air as well as insects and water can enter. Keep drapes and blinds closed over your south and west facing windows. This will help minimize thermal energy from entering your home during the warmest hours (typically between noon and 5pm) of the day. Since energy costs keep on rising, each one of these items can help put less wear on your wallet.
© 2014 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI) and a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection provides a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.