Ask Eartha: Making your home efficient during a Summit winter
October 31, 2014
With some snow on the ground now, how can I get my house warmer, and save money on my heating bill this season?
— Martin, Silverthorne
The first step is to figure out where your money is going. Whether you use natural gas, propane or electricity to heat your home, you are paying to convert energy into warmth. If your home isn't well insulated, the heat you pay for may be going directly out of your attic as if it were an open garage door. If your heating system is outdated or oversized, you may be using the fuel ineffectively. Getting an energy audit is the best way to know what you are up against and how to get the most for your upgrade dollars.
Do some of your rooms feel drafty? This might be a sign that you could use more weather sealing or insulation. Poorly insulated attics are common culprits in houses with high energy bills, but they aren't the only things to look for. Energy-efficient homes have more consistent and comfortable room temperatures.
Another symptom of a distribution system in need of help is when the boiler cycles on and off every couple of minutes all day long.
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Is your boiler room 100 degrees Fahrenheit year-round? You may need to upgrade or change your distribution piping. If your boiler is the heart of your home, the distribution system is like the arteries and veins. If you don't have excellent circulation to the rooms you live in, the side effect is an excessively hot mechanical room.
Another symptom of a distribution system in need of help is when the boiler cycles on and off every couple of minutes all day long. In an ideal system, the boiler would be on for about 20 minutes at a time. If your boiler cycles all the time, consider having a heating contractor provide maintenance. Preventive service is always less expensive than replacing components when they break.
Another cause of too much heat in a mechanical room may be the pumps used to circulate water. Most of the pumps in buildings today are set to one speed, turning on and off like a light switch. ECM (electronically commutated motor) pumps are the latest technology in circulators and let the motor speed up and slow down as if a gas pedal operated it. These intelligent speed-control motors can reduce your electrical consumption by 80 percent.
If your boiler is pretty old and you suspect you're spending too much money to heat your house, then just replacing the heart of your system could be the best place to start. However, you may be best served by adding heat emitters first. Heat emitters are devices used to release heat into a room. Common heat emitters are baseboard radiators, panel radiators, fan coils or in-floor radiant tubing. If you don't have enough heat emitters in a room you may have trouble keeping that room warm, causing the boiler to cycle more often.
Another reason to add heat emitters is to release more heat into the rooms instead of bringing it back to the boiler every cycle. New 95 percent efficient boilers are most effective if the water supplied to the rooms comes back much colder than it was supplied. If you don't have enough heat emitters, you aren't optimizing the efficiency of your boiler and may have uncomfortably cool rooms, too.
One simple do-it-yourself option to save energy includes adding programmable thermostats to your home. While these are often helpful, they are not silver bullets. If your house is heated with a furnace, a thermostat with a setback schedule may save you some cash. A setback schedule can keep the temperature lower during the day when you're away, then increase the temperature right before you come home. Keep in mind that if your house is heated with radiant floors, big swings in temperature settings won't necessarily save you any money. If you are home most of the time, setting back a radiant floor system more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit for short periods of time isn't that helpful.
Again, the best way to figure out why your home is cold or how to save money on your power bills is to start with an energy audit. HC3's Energy Smart Program works with local, certified energy auditors who can evaluate your home for about $150. These experts will provide you with prioritized recommendations on ways to save energy. Visit highcountryconservation.org for more information.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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