Energy Efficiency

By Nancy Moffett

As we head into the heart of winter in the Lehigh Valley, thoughts turn to keeping our homes comfortable while the winds howl and the snow falls. At the same time, we’re all trying to maximize the dollars we spend to keep the home fires burning.

We know that good windows and insulation play key roles in energy efficiency, but let’s concentrate on the biggest energy user…our heating and cooling systems (HVAC). Three of the Valley’s experts weigh in on how to get the most comfort while cutting energy use.


No matter what type of HVAC system you have, the number one action you can take to get the best performance for the least cost is maintenance. “Many people don’t realize that having your system serviced regularly is like changing the oil in your car,” says Rich Price, general manager for Curtis Total Service. “Just as maintaining your car helps it run better longer, making sure all the components of your heating/cooling system are working properly will extend its life and keep it running efficiently, which cuts down on energy use.”

Reduced efficiency on a typical three-ton, air-to-air heat pump unit can leave it functioning at only a two-ton level, Price explains. “Indoor and outdoor coils need to be cleaned to keep them at peak efficiency,” he says. Other areas that need attention are condensate line traps, wiring, relays, outdoor compressors, refrigerant levels and more. Because heat pumps pull heat out of the air and don’t work well when temperatures drop below 30°, it’s important that the supplemental heating system is working properly as well.

Since we use them all the time, we tend to take our systems for granted, but like anything electro-mechanical, it needs to be serviced, not only to save energy, but also to prevent catastrophic failure. Price recommends having heat pump systems serviced in spring and fall. Other types of systems may have different interval requirements. Check with the manufacturer or your service provider for guidelines.


A simple change that any homeowner can make is to install a programmable, set-back thermostat. According to Price, the savings that result can vary from seven to 12 percent, depending on the type of system in your home. “This is the least costly thing you can do,” he says, “and is fairly easy to set up.” The thermostat will automatically cut back on heating/cooling at pre-set times that reflect your family’s activities.

If you want to go several steps forward, consider a new product that allows you to monitor energy use throughout your home. According to Tom Kucsan, owner of Advanced Residential Systems, eMonitor™ can save 30 percent or more on electric bills by analyzing energy use in individual circuits and appliances and making recommendations to cut down use. Lighting, ranges, refrigerators, dryers, spas, phantom users such as cell phone chargers …anything that uses electricity can be tracked.

Of course, he says HVAC systems are the biggest energy consumers.

“You get feedback in real time with an on-screen display,” Kucsan explains, “from monitors on electrical circuits and appliances.” The ultimate goal is to alter house and human behavior to decrease use. After the monitor has been in place for a time, the company will create a plan to reduce consumption based on the findings. “This has been done in commercial realms by energy consultants,” Kucsan says, “and is now available to homeowners.” Recommendations may include replacing large energy users with newer, more efficient models; automating lighting and changing when and how residents use energy.


What about new, green ways to heat and cool? Carl Stanke, president of Lande Heating and Air Conditioning, points to tax credits and other incentives that reward howeowners for green improvements. Solar, for instance. “You can add thermal solar for heating water through evacuated tubes,” he explains, “giving you free energy.” The typical hot water heater costs $600 or more a year to operate. By adding a solar system, you may see savings of up to 70 percent. Initial cost can be up to $10,000, but with tax credits, you could see a five-to-six year payback. (Solar systems are not practical for gas or oil-fired systems.) And, with inevitable cost increases for electricity, future savings may be even more.

If you plan to stay in your home for a long time, consider a geothermal heat pump system. An underground loop pulls heat from the earth in winter and deposits heat into the ground in the summer for a high level of efficiency. Although the initial cost is high, savings over the long run can be significant.

If your current system needs repair and is more than 10 years old, it may be time to replace it with a new, more efficient one. According to both Stanke and Price, there have been significant HVAC system improvements in the last decade. New units can pump up efficiency to as much as 95 percent. On some models, indoor and outdoor sensors communicate for better function, and variable-speed blowers ramp down speed for longer runs. “These new systems even out the temperature throughout the house, increasing the comfort level while using less energy,” Price explains.

No one wants to have their home heating system fail during the coldest days of winter. Now is the time to take steps to assure that won’t happen and cut down your energy use at the same time.

Nancy Moffett and her husband Jeff are reaping the energy benefits of a geothermal heating system in their South Whitehall home. Nancy has written home-centered articles for such publications as Dreams magazine, which is affiliated with the Lehigh Valley Builders Association.

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