Home Heating & Air Basics

When we're talking comfort at home, it's not just about feeling good, it's about spending money wisely. After all, space heating is the largest utility expense in the average American home, accounting for slightly less than half of all home energy usage. Here's what you need to know.

Some would argue that it’s the car or the computer that sets us apart from our technologically backwards forebears. But no way! It’s the ability to control the temperature of our surroundings, thumbing our noses at Mother Nature’s hot-and-cold flashes. And when we’re talking comfort at home, it’s not just about feeling good — it’s about spending money wisely. After all, space heating is the largest utility expense in the average American home, accounting for slightly less than half of all home energy usage. And when the warm summer months arrive, cooling a home with air conditioning can account for more than half of a home’s energy consumption. 

What Do I Need to Know About HVAC?

Some HVAC units use natural gas to heat homes, while others rely on oil burning — the former spend about $800 per year on heating, while the latter can cost a homeowner up to $1,800 per year. It’s important to know the construction and aspects of your home system so that you can diagnose any issues and more easily consult with an HVAC professional. It’s also important to understand the components of a comprehensive HVAC system:

  • Furnace: This unit, most commonly found in basements, regulates the heat through a heat exchanger, and is responsible for heating the air in your home.
  • A/C Unit: Located outside the home, the air-conditioning unit runs on electricity and uses coolants and a compressor to chill the air.
  • Ventilation Ducts: Built throughout the walls, floors and ceilings of your home, it’s the job of these ducts made from lightweight metal to move air evenly through the home.
  • Thermostat: This component regulates the entire system, telling it what in-home temperature is ideal, and what different components to activate in order to achieve that temperature.

What HVAC Work Can I Do Myself?

So there are the basics, like maintaining clean vents in your home — a quick sweep with a specialized brush can go a long way. And it’s also important to maintain a fresh air filter in your system. Not only is doing so remarkably simple, but doing so will both provide cleaner air in your home and let your HVAC system work more efficiently, saving money. A bonus? Less sweeping, dusting and vacuuming — if you’ve noticed more dust bunnies around the house, that may be a sign that your air filter has reached its limits and needs replacing.

You can also maintain the exterior components of an HVAC system. Make sure that the units are clear of brush, vines and any other debris that may have fallen, including dead leaves and limbs.

Can I Upgrade a Thermostat Myself?

Installing a digital thermostat in a home’s HVAC system, which allows for programmable cycles and predictable temperatures, is easy enough to do on your own. This also leads to a savings in utility bills by allowing a homeowner to customize the settings depending on time

The US Department of Energy says it’s a common misconception that it is harder for an HVAC system to heat a cool house than it is to maintain the temperature of an already warm one. This means that when you leave the house for work or go to bed, you should drop the thermostat, and the opposite holds true for summertime cooling. The DoE doesn’t recommend shutting off the system completely, but it recommends holding a thermostat at 68ºF in the winter, and lowering it to 55ºF when away or asleep; it recommends 78ºF in the summer, and raising up to the mid-80s when away. This will save you from 5 to 15 percent a year on heating and cooling costs, depending on where in the country your home is located.

An HVAC professional can advise you on the specific settings that will work best for your region of the country and the construction of your home. You can shop online or in local home improvement stores, as well as electronics mega-stores, for potential thermostat upgrades. Many new digital models marketed as “smart” thermostats will allow you to access, monitor and control your home HVAC system from a smartphone or tablet.

When Should I Hire a Professional?

Understanding that HVAC work is serious and complex work, you’re probably going to want to turn to a professional to get the job done properly. Kudzu can help! Take a look at our HVAC professionals listings to find a reliable contractor.

The physics of airflow is more complex than you might think, and there’s more to it than just making sure vents are properly placed when a home is constructed. A professional will come equipped with special tools that can monitor your home for potential air leaks, and advise on work to be done even beyond the immediate system (windows, doors, and other structural weakness). An HVAC professional will also have special tools designed to identify leaks in ducts and tubing, and the knowhow and experience to patch them completely. Any replacement of furnace or air conditioning parts, or of the installation of an entire system, should be done by a professional.

What Should I Look for in an HVAC Professional?

An HVAC professional should carry both workman’s comp and liability insurance. This covers any potential injuries to the professional and anyone on the crew for personal damages — while most HVAC work is not dangerous, there can be occasional risk involved with wiring, and injuries can happen in the cramped, unfinished attic spaces. Liability coverage protects your home and possessions — just imagine what would happen if a worker stepped in the wrong attic spot and put a leg through a ceiling.

And of course, a high star rating on Kudzu indicates a reliable professional who consistently does good work.

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