Before air conditioners were widely available, many of us remember the spring ritual of taking down storm windows and replacing them with screens, which let the cool air in and kept pests out. After a cold winter, the spring air was refreshing. We were ready for the hot summer weather. In some areas of the country with hot/dry climates, where the temperature drops at night, a simple way to cool our houses is to open the windows at night; this allows cool air to enter, making for a good night’s sleep.
Because of wi-fi technology and sophisticated HVAC controls, we can do so much more nowadays to create a comfortable environment using the least energy. In a sense, we can “drive” our houses instead of going along for the ride.
While one goal for homeowners and renters is to heat and cool our houses with the least energy and carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, healthy indoor environments and comfort are equally important. A revered building scientist from Canada named Tony Woods, who air sealed houses for a living, famously said his best marketing tools are the black flies that infest some Canadian homes in the Spring. “I fix the leaks, add insulation where I can, and make the house more energy-efficient. But I also get rid of the flies and make the house more comfortable and healthy.”
Clean up the indoor air
The COVID-19 epidemic has taught us the importance of fresh air and proper ventilation. Building scientists recommend installing HEPA filters on newer HVAC systems and room air purifiers. HEPA filters screen out droplets that carry the COVID-19 coronavirus.
In the West and Southwest, summer brings wildfires and what they call in California “orange air.” The smoke particles are hard on our lungs, especially those with asthma and other respiratory challenges. During fire season, it’s best to keep the windows and doors closed at night in these areas. You can run your HVAC on “fan-only” to recirculate the air and filter it. Close any fresh air intake. The outside air is usually cleaner than the inside air, but not during fire season.
Replace the filters in your HVAC system this spring to avoid breathing the smoke from wildfires.
Tighten up your home
It is always good to plug the leaks in your walls, ceilings, and basements. But once your house is tight and efficient, you need to control the air coming in and leaving. You don’t want it coming unfiltered through your walls or through the recessed can lights in your ceiling from your attic. For an efficient, comfortable, and healthy house, the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program says, “Make it tight and ventilate right!”
Maintain your HVAC system
During the “shoulder season,” when homes are transitioning between winter and summer, it’s a good time to check on your HVAC system. That’s why many HVAC contractors—when they finally get a break from keeping their customers warm during the winter—stay busy inspecting air conditioning systems to see that they are correctly charged and ready to provide cooling efficiently.
A spring HVAC inspection is a good idea, but there are some things you can do at home, such as swapping out your air filter—equipment manufacturers recommend switching out a filter once, twice, or even three times a year. A dirty filter will make it harder to circulate air, making your air handler fan work harder and use more energy.
Clean the area around your outdoor unit to function correctly and efficiently. And if you look in the back of your refrigerator as part of your spring cleaning, make sure you clean the coils that shed heat. You will use less energy and increase the lifespan of your refrigerator.
Spring is a good time to have your HVAC system professionally serviced or schedule a whole home energy audit, complete with a blower door test to find leaks.
How is the whole home performing?
At any time of the year, it’s good to spend some time evaluating the overall performance of your home. There are programs such as Home Performance with Energy Star for existing homes. A participating professional will inspect your house, see how its energy use compares to similar homes, and recommend measures to improve your home’s “miles per gallon.” Every place is unique, but in general, think of maintaining the performance of your home by looking at a kind of “loading order” for energy efficiency.
1. Low hanging fruit: swap out your incandescent lights with LED, which use about one-third the energy and last about ten times as long.
2. If your dishwasher or clothes washer is finally giving up the ghost after years of faithful service, shop for an Energy Star model to replace it.
3. Seal the leaks. Have a contractor do something called a blower door test to measure and locate leaks to the outside. There are similar tests for duct leaks.
4. Add insulation in your attic after it’s been air-sealed. Think about having insulation blown into your walls from the outside.
5. If you want to remodel your home, have an energy expert advise you on how to get the most efficient bang for your buck. You might decide to make your attic be part of the conditioned space of your home and put the insulation under the roof deck, or seal off your crawlspace, making it what some contractors call a “mini basement.” If you have to open up walls, it is easier to seal and insulate that area.
That’s enough for now. In an upcoming article, we’ll look into “chimney balloons” and wastewater heat energy recovery systems. Stay tuned.
About the author: Jim Gunshinan is a science writer who covers energy and the environment. He was the editor of No Regrets Remodeling, Second Edition, a science blogger for a PBS affiliate, and editor of a magazine covering green home building and renovation. Jim lives in Walnut Creek, California.