Home Maintenance Features: Air Conditioning


If your air conditioning unit is getting up there in age or you've noticed unusual sounds or excess humidity, buying an updated model can save you money, help cut down on air pollution -- and, of course, keep you cool.

The Environmental Protection Agency devised the Energy Star label to rate energy-efficiency in a number of household products, including air conditioners. It says that if one household in 10 bought Energy Star cooling equipment, some 17 billion pounds of air pollution would be avoided.Jay Webb, a remodeling contractor in Sacramento, Calif., where the temperature on summer days often soars above the 90-degree mark, says he gets a lot of requests to update air-conditioning units, especially when the temperature starts to climb.

"Often it's the people in older homes who need a new air conditioner," Webb said. "They either don't have air conditioning at all, or their unit is outdated."

Older units typically cool inefficiently and end up costing more than they should, which translates into higher energy bills.

The EPA says that if your cooling system is more than 10 years old, it might be time to upgrade to a unit that has earned the Energy Star label for high efficiency.

According to the EPA, properly sized and installed Energy Star air conditioner units that are supported by a properly sealed duct system save up to 20 percent in annual energy costs, and use 25 to 40 percent less energy than other new conventional systems.

Webb said that if you decide to buy a new unit before it gets too hot, you might also enjoy special pre-summer offers. You're also more likely to have quicker access to a contractor, and there's a better chance the equipment you need will be readily available.

So how do you know if it's time to replace your cooling equipment? The EPA says it might be time if you:

Have an air conditioner that is more than 10 years old. Consider replacing it with an Energy Start model. Just look for the label.

Frequently need repairs and your bills continue to rise. There's a chance your system is working inefficiently.

Notice that some of the rooms in your house are too hot or too cold. There may be duct problems, inadequate insulation or other equipment might not be functioning properly.

Have an empty house for most of the day and you don't have a programmable thermostat.

Have humidity problems. The culprit could be poor equipment operation, inadequate equipment, or leaky ductwork.

Hear a lot of noise. You might have an undersized duct system or a problem with the indoor coil of your cooling unit.

In addition, Webb suggests sealing the outer walls, ceiling, windows, and floors to help increase your home's energy efficiency. He says to add insulation, especially to the attic, seal air leaks to stop drafts and get full performance from your insulation.

The EPA also recommends the use of Energy Star windows and says that proper sealing and insulation can save you up to 10 percent on your energy bills.

The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy also suggests these tips:

Use whole-house fans to help cool your home by pulling cool air through the house and exhausting warm air through the attic. They are effective when operated at night and when the outside air is cooler than the inside.

Set your thermostat as high as comfortably possible in the summer. The less difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures, the lower your overall cooling bill will be.

Don't set your thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner. It will not cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling and, therefore, unnecessary expense.

Consider using an interior fan in conjunction with your window air conditioner to spread the cooled air more effectively through your home without greatly increasing your power use.

Don't place lamps or TV sets near your air-conditioning thermostat. The thermostat senses heat from these appliances, which can cause the air conditioner to run longer than necessary.

Plant trees or shrubs to shade air-conditioning units but not to block the airflow. A unit operating in the shade uses as much as 10 percent less electricity than the same one operating in the sun.