Author Archive

Idling your car- it’s not ideal

January 28, 2011

It is cold outside. And dark. And you really don’t want to go to work.

I know how you feel.

How do you get over the winter morning blues? For most Americans the antidote involves a large cup of coffee and a toasty-warm pre-heated car.

But how much is that pre-heating costing you, not to mention the environment?

Every two minutes an idling car uses about the same amount of fuel to travel a mile. So for every two minutes you spend waiting for your car to warm up before you get in you are effectively adding an extra mile of gas onto your daily bill.  And worse, it puts a lot of additional wear and tear on your engine, beyond what the odometer says.

But don’t engines need that time to warm up in the morning?

Maybe in Grandma’s day, but modern engines need no longer than about 30 seconds to warm up in most climates. If you live somewhere really cold, it makes more sense to invest in an engine bloc heater than to leave your car idling in the mornings.

So what is a cold, disheartened, winter-morning-hater to do? Suck it up. Leave your hat, scarf and gloves on for the first few miles. It’s not so bad and it makes the coffee taste better.

While we’re on the topic of vehicles I’ll add this warning: Never idle a vehicle in your garage, even if the door to the outside is open. The exhaust fumes can leak into your home and cause a significant risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning to you and your family.

Service agreements – a smart way to save.

January 25, 2011

Expensive things, like cars, come with a warranty, which is the manufacturer’s guarantee that your purchase will keep on working the way it should for the life of the warranty… IF you uphold your end of the bargain. When you buy a new HVAC system, read the fine print of your warranty, and you will find that in order to keep it valid you must have the unit serviced annually.

Is this just a scam for these companies to get more money out of you?

Actually, no. There are two very good reasons to make sure you have your heating and cooling system checked and tuned annually.

First, if there is a problem with your HVAC system it can become a serious health risk to you and your family. A licensed contractor can ensure that carbon monoxide is not leaking into your home.

Second, the cost of annual maintenance has been shown to pay for itself in operating cost savings during the peak season alone.

Together, these are reasons that the EPA and DOE recommend annual maintenance on your system—you should do it whether under warranty or not.

So it makes sense to have your HVAC system maintained each year, and if you’re looking to save some money it makes sense to enter into a service agreement.  This ensures your  heating and cooling system operates safely and efficiently and your protect your warranty.  Even better, service agreements allow for planned visits during regular hours, and thus we can plan for and control costs and offer special services and priority treatment to customers who sign up for these plans.  Check out the extra perks we offer to service agreement customers here at GreenHomes.

Radiant Heat… Convective Heat… What’s The Difference?

January 10, 2011

There are a lot of different ways you can heat a house. Though there are huge differences in individual approach and ultimate efficiency, pretty much all systems fall into two categories: Radiant Heat and Convective Heat.

Radiant Heat refers to the infrared heat that hot bodies emit. If you put your hand near a fire you can feel the heat even if the air around you is cold, this is because of the radiant heat of the fire.  Or say you’re standing outside on a winter’s day.  It’s 30 degrees out, but you’re standing in the bright sun.  And now you step behind the house into a shadow.  It’s still 30 degrees out, but you feel colder.  That’s because you’re not directly receving the radiant energy from the sun. Underfloor heating, as we discussed last time, is a great example of a radiant heating system.

Convective Heat relies on the movement of air to warm a house, usually aided by the use of ducts, filters and fans. Forced Air Heating (a type of convective heating) is the most widely used heating scheme in Northern America. It has the advantage that the ductwork can double as a delivery system for cool air in summer.

All heating schemes have their pluses and minuses and it is important to carefully consider the specifics of your home before making any decisions. You will want to think about the size, architecture and existing infrastructure of your house, local climate, and the cost and availability of fuel, amongst other things. We highly advise that you talk to a professional HVAC contractor before deciding on a new heating system for your home, as an improperly sized or spec’d furnace or boiler can end up costing you in utility bills.

And this concept extends beyond your HVAC system to what we call the “shell” or “envelope” of you home, the walls, windows, attic, and foundation.  The better air-sealed they are, the less convective heat loss you have.  And the better insulated they are, the warmer the inside surfaces stay, and the less they suck the heat out of you through radiant heat loss.  (I didn’t talk about conductive heat loss, the third transfer mechanism, but I’ll work that concept in in the future.)

The point is this.  If you’re looking around for options for future renovations or new construction keep tuned to this blog. Over the next few weeks I’ll go over the basics of different heating schemes as well as touch on some innovative new designs that are pushing the envelope of energy efficiency in the home.

Heating From The Floor Up

January 8, 2011

Radiant floor heating has been around for centuries, and has recently been swinging back into favor. The Romans used a type of under-floor heating, called hypercaust heating, in their communal buildings from at least 25 BC. Pillars held the floor several feet off the ground creating a gap through which hot air and smoke, generated in a special ‘stoke-hole’ fire room, was piped. The smoke was vented through flues in the walls to small vents on the roof of the building.


These are the pillars that once held up the floor to a massage room in the Roman Baths, Bath, UK

A refined version of the Roman hypercaust system is available on the market today and is commonly referred to as air-heated radiant floors.

Air is no longer the favored medium for heating floors, giving way to electric and hydronic (liquid) systems. Electric cables or tubing for hot fluid are embedded in the floor and the heated floor warms the contents of the room through radiant heat transfer (i.e. is heats objects directly rather than heating the air between them).

Floor heating has several advantages over the more common forced air heating system. Because energy is not lost through ducts floor heating is usually more efficient than forced air systems, and there is no need to move air between rooms so it can be advantageous for allergy sufferers. Hydronic systems use very little electricity, so can be a good choice for those living in areas where electricity is very expensive.   People rave about the winter-time comfort on in-floor heating.  And because the distribution is embedded in the floor, you have tremendous flexibility with furniture placement–you don’t have to worry about blocking air vents, raditors, or baseboard heating.

Of course, nothing is without drawbacks and radiant floor heating is no exception. The thermal mass of floors can be large, which means that it takes a considerably longer to heat or cool them, making timed temperature changes more difficult.  Depending on the efficiency of your home and the mass of your floor, you make not be able to turn down the system much at night.   Also, using your floors to heat your house leads to more limited choices in flooring materials. Any flooring that insulates the room from the floor (e.g. carpets, luxurious rugs) decreases the response time of the system and the constant heat dries and cracks solid wood floors that weren’t properly acclimated.  Perhaps the biggest downside, though, is the absense of ductwork makes air-conditioning with a traditional central air system more difficult.

Home Heating Options

January 7, 2011

It is usually around this time of year that people start to realize that they need to do something about their home heating system. You have probably already received your first major heating bill of the year, and are no doubt conscious of the fact that things are only going to get worse in the months to come. So what are your options?

Many people are surprised to find that a well-qualified and equipped HVAC contractor can successfully complete work on your house in the dead of winter. If your wallet is already feeling the strain of the heating season the first thing to do is to have a home energy audit.   And contractors who use IR technology to complete energy efficiency audits are actually happy to do this in winter because the high contrast in in-door to out-door temperature (generally) leads to high quality IR images.

In many cases increasing insulation in your attic and walls, and sealing cracks and gaps that allow hot air to escape and cold air to enter, will have the most bang for your buck, and can lower your bills more than replacing the heating system in your house.  There are some cases, however, when forking out the dough for a new heating system is the best bet.

Choosing a heating system is not nearly as easy as it sounds—especially since many homes have systems that weren’t properly spec-ed, sized, or installed. The local climate, the architecture and existing infrastructure of your house, the cost of the system, and the cost and availability of different fuels will all come into play in your decision. The many choices available and the long-term nature of your decision is why it is important to have a professional guiding you through the process.

Even if you are a competent handy-person and have done your research in order to choose the best system for your house, it is advisable to have a professional install the unit, or at the very least do a comprehensive check of your work to ensure the safety of your home. Carbon Monoxide in the home is extremely dangerous and not something worth risking.

If you need a new heating system for your home you might be a bit baffled by all options available to you. In the next few week I’ll explain some of the more common heating systems available to you.

Properly Disposing of Christmas Trees

December 28, 2010

It is tempting. On one side of the room you have Christmas tree – its decorative days over, loosing its needles, obviously in need of being put out of its misery. On the other side is fireplace – a lean, mean burning machine. Why not just do the obvious thing and burn your used Christmas tree in the fireplace?

Here’s why not – Firs, Pines and Spruces (the most popular Christmas tree species) all have high sap content and burn quickly and explosively. This can cause a chimney fire, or at the very least, rapid creosote build-up in your chimney. The small explosions in the fireplace can also wreak havoc on your living room and furniture.

So do yourself a favor and recycle your Christmas tree. Call your local waste removal company to learn about your options. Most counties will remove a Christmas tree from your curbside for free in the two weeks following Christmas for recycling. Some counties have alternate programs for using dead Christmas trees for erosion management.

Adjust Your Thermostat For Savings

December 8, 2010

One of the most prevalent (and maddening) myths about home heating is that turning the thermostat down at night and when you’re not home doesn’t save energy. Let me be clear – this is false.

The idea behind the myth is that once a house is warmed to the temperature choice (say 68 degrees F) it takes less energy to keep it at that temperature than it would to turn down your thermostat (in the winter) and let it cool by 10 or fifteen degrees when you go out, then reheat it when you come home later.  Likewise at night when you go to bed.  The idea is kind of like fuel conservation in your car. When you are stopping and going around town your fuel efficiency is much worse than when you are cruising on the highway.

But your house is not a car (thankfully).

The simple truth is that the amount of energy you use to heat your home is directly proportional to the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperature. We all know this intuitively – in a cold winter it costs more to heat your home to the same temperature than it does in a mild winter. So, if you let the temperature in your house drop (many suggest to 55 degrees F) while you are out of the house and sleeping in your cozy bed at night you will absolutely use less energy.  While it does take a little ‘extra’ energy to raise the temperature back up, this is less than the energy you save.  The actual savings you’ll see depend on a variety of factors, but a good rule of thumb is that you can save about 2% for every degree you lower the thermostat in the winter.

And a final word of advice – when you turn your thermostat back up don’t set it higher than the temperature you want, it won’t make your house warm up any faster and you will most likely forget to adjust it later, turning the exercise into a money-waster rather than a money-saver.

Here at GreenHomes America we usually advise customers to set back their thermostats by 10 degrees F when they are not home, or are asleep (unless you have extenuating circumstances such as an infant, ill, or elderly family members, in which case you should defer to your doctor’s advice). For the best reliability, and a toasty warm house upon waking or arriving home, a programmable thermostat can be used… more on them next time.

Keep Your Chimney In Top Condition For Safety

December 6, 2010

Even if you don’t use your fireplace to heat your home, it is tempting to light a fire at this time of year. There is something about having a wood fire in the living room that can make your home feel very cozy and festive (even if a typical fireplace can actually rob your home of heat—more on that another time!). But, as with any part of your home heating system, your fireplace and chimney need attention to make sure you’re not putting yourself and your family at risk of a potentially house-threatening and life-threatening fire.

The US Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates that every year roughly 25,000 chimney fires occur in the US, resulting in about ten deaths, one hundred and twenty injuries and $115 million in damages. Luckily, it is quite easy to ensure that you don’t become part of these statistics.

Most chimney fires occur due to the ignition of creosote, which is the black residue that builds up as the smoke from your fire passes up the chimney. Each year you should have your chimney inspected by a professional and, if needed, have it cleaned to prevent a chimney fire.

Finding a professional to inspect your chimney is easy. There is no national licensing requirement for chimney sweeps, so what you need to look for is membership in the National Chimney Sweep Guild and/or Chimney Safety Institute of America certification. Both of these organizations have codes of ethics and adhere to the guidelines put forth by standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. You can use the ‘look-up’ functions on the NCSG or CSIA webpages to find an affiliated chimney sweep in your area.

Smoke Alarms – New Features Make Them More Tolerable

December 3, 2010

This is the last thing I’m going to say about fire alarms for the foreseeable future…

The leading cause of smoke alarm failure is inadequate power supply, and many times this is due to the unit being disabled by the owner. Smoke alarms can be annoying because if they are installed too close to the kitchen they can be triggered when there isn’t really a fire to worry about. This is what experts call a ‘nuisance’ alarm. Unfortunately nuisance alarms can be so much of a nuisance that the owner disconnects them, rendering them unable to assist in detecting a fire.

Then again, it is incredibly annoying to have to deal with a fire alarm whenever you want to use your kitchen, so what should you do?

If possible, move the unit a few feet further away from the cooking area, in many cases this will solve the problem. If this isn’t possible, or you are still getting nuisance alarms, try replacing the unit with a new alarm that has a ‘hush’ feature – a handy little button that mutes the alarm for 10 seconds, which is usually long enough to clear the air of the smoke that triggered the alarm in the first place.

Remember that you should never disable the alarm by removing the batteries as you might forget to replace them again.

Smoke Alarms – Important Recall Information

December 2, 2010

While we’re on the topic of smoke alarms, check to make sure you don’t have any of the following smoke alarms installed in your house…

All of these units have been recalled due to a possible inability to detect fires.

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