With this year’s El Niño expected to bring both cooler-than-average temperatures and wetter weather to Texas this winter, it’s a sure bet you can can expect higher heating bills. A Do-It-Yourself (DIY) home inspection can help you save energy and money. To get started, we’ve put together a brief list of 9 problem areas to look out for as you prepare your home for cooler weather.
Your HVAC System
Most Texas homes rely on forced-air systems for cooling and heating. How well your maintain your Heating, Cooling, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system has a big effect on how efficiently it performs. Plus, understanding how well your home retains heat can also help you learn to save with a programmable thermostat.
1) Change Your Air Filter
Dust-clogged air filters not only restrict the air flow of your heating system, but they also reduce the system’s efficiency and life span. Disposable air filters are also more prone to buckling when they become clogged and wind up circulating all the dust, dirt, and allergens they’ve collected through out your home.
Change your air filter at minimum every three months (more often if you smoke or have pets). Keep in mind that while higher-rated MERV filters will trap finer particulate matter, they also can restrict airflow. That’s why it’s a good idea to use the type of air filter recommended by the system’s manufacturer.
2) Inspect and Maintain Your Furnace
Dust and other debris tends to collect in blower compartments especially if it (and the whole duct system) is leaky and the air filter is clogged. Inspect your system by turning off both the thermostat and the system’s breaker on your fuse box. Open the blower compartment panel and examine it for heavy coatings of dust. These can usually be cleaned with a brush or vacuum, but in some cases, the blower and motor will need to be removed, thoroughly cleaned, and lubricated if necessary.
Because blower fans cause vibration, check that the wiring connections are firm and snug. Loose connections can cause operation problems and even may cause component faults that result in expensive repairs.
For high efficiency gas furnaces, water condenses out of the exhaust after burning. If water fails to drain from the power exhaust, the furnace will not run. Find and detach the condensate tube from the power exhaust and allow any water trapped inside to drain into a bucket. Use a wet-dry vacuum to pull water from both downstream line and very gently from the upstream line. When the downstream tubing is clear, pour a cup of vinegar or bleach into it to prevent mold or fungus from growing and blocking the line.
Finally, when everything is cleaned and ready, test the system to be certain that it fires up and shuts down normally. This way, you can learn now if there are bigger potential problems instead of on a cold January morning.
3) Air-Seal the Ductwork
Drinking through a straw with lots of little holes in it doesn’t work because you can’t build up enough suction to pull the liquid through. The same thing applies to your duct work. A leaky return duct will pull in less air from the rooms it’s supposed to — and pull in air from areas it’s not (such as a crawl space with a dead possum).
On average, 20-30 percent of air moving through ductwork in a home leaks out through holes, gaps, seams, and disconnections, which makes some rooms chillier or hotter than you want them to be. Taking time to seal your home’s ductwork not only can save you money but also better controls dust, moisture, or mold problems.
4) Use a Programmable Thermostat
The idea that keeping a home’s thermostat set to the same temperature all day to save energy is a myth. Why? It ignores the inescapable detail of physics.
Newton’s Law of Cooling shows that the temperature of an object is proportional to the difference between its own temperature and the ambient (or surrounding) temperature. Heat moves towards cold, so during the winter, heat moves from inside your home to the outside. But as inside and outside temperatures approach equilibrium, the rate of heat conduction slows.
In other words, the cooler your home becomes, the slower it cools. As in, your home will lose heat much slowly when it’s 62° F than at 72° F.
For example: It’s 32° F outside, and you leave home for 8 hours. If you leave your thermostat set to 72° F, your furnace will run more often during that eight-hour period maintaining 72° F than it would if it were set back to 62° F for eight hours. Also, during the recovery phase when the furnace is heating the home back to up to the 72° F comfort level, the furnace doesn’t use as much energy as it would maintaining a 72° F temperature for eight hours.
By using a programmable or smart thermostat, you can save you on average up to $180 every year in energy costs.
In many Texas homes, the attic holds the home’s essentials: the water heater, heating system, insulation, and duct work. And this is exactly why it needs to be periodically inspected.
5) Air Seal Everything You Can
When heated air escapes from your living space into your attic, the stack effect pulls in colder air behind it through holes and gaps in the floor or walls. Sealing holes and gaps in your attic around plumbing or electrical lines slows down the stack effect and keeps more warmth down in the living area.
Seal around chimney flues and light fixture boxes, and look for signs of holes to seal on insulation covered by a fine dust.
6) Add More Insulation
A recent study concluded that 90 percent of existing U.S. homes are under-insulated. Many Texas homes have less than the recommended R-30 level of insulation (about 10 inches thickness) in their attics. The good news is that you can add addition insulation on top of your existing insulation and begin saving 20% on energy and enjoying more comfort right away.
7) Watch for Critters
Fall is a time for little woodland friends to look for winter shelter. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, bats, birds, and other varmints that get into your attic can damage wiring and contaminate insulation with their urine and feces.
Make sure attic air vents are secure and be on the lookout for any signs of animal nests. Cover any entry holes with hardware cloth. Thoroughly and carefully clean or replace any contaminated insulation and remove any dead animals as these can transmit disease.
Wind and Water
During a cold, wet winter, it’s important for your home’s energy usage (and your health) to keep that wet weather outside.
8) Fix Drafty Windows and Doors
Windows and doors that don’t close or seal properly let cold, moist outside air inside your home. This creates drafts that not only increase your energy usage, they also raise humidity that encourages mold and mildew.
Add weather stripping to doors and windows so they close snugly. Re-glaze or caulk loose glass and replace any broken panes. Find and replace loose or rotten frames and jambs, since these crumple easily, creating larger drafts and entrances for pests.
9) Clean Out Rain Gutters
When rain gutters overflow, that water can pour down the side of your house, allowing it to penetrate the sheathing and work its way into the wall. This can lead to rot in the home’s framing members, which then works its way into the crawl space and increases the home’s humidity.
In freeze-thaw cycles, clogged rain gutters can freeze and pull away from fascia boards or cause more severe damage to the roofing. With all the rain Texas has had and is expecting, keeping your home’s rain gutters and downspouts open and flowing will keep water woes away from your home.
With a little preparation and hard work, you should be able to complete most (if not all) of these tasks before the weather really gets cold in Texas.