While spring is one of the most comfortable seasons, it is also the time to start implementing changes to keep out the summer heat. Once 90-degree days roll around, finding a contractor, or even an air conditioner, can pose a real challenge.
If you want to stay cool this spring and summer, take steps now— before the dog days arrive and you are in an urgent or emergency situation.
Go Straight to the Top
The place to start is in your attic. In the summertime, temperatures in the attic often climb to more than 140 degrees. This tremendous heat conducts down into your home. Though your downstairs floor may be comfortable, the constant flow of heat from the attic can bake your upstairs bedrooms.
Most people associate insulation with staying warm, not cool. But by increasing the insulation in your attic, you can make a tremendous difference in by both heating and cooling your home. A good contractor carefully air seals any leaks between the attic and the area below before installing insulation, such as around recessed lights, attic access doors and exhaust fans. The U.S. Department of Energy found that air infiltration can account for 30 percent or more of a home’s heating and cooling costs and contribute to problems with moisture. Air sealing saves you money and keeps the cool air inside during the summer— and the warm air inside during the winter. While the contractor is in the attic, he or she should check that any ductwork up there is sealed and well-insulated.
Efficient lighting and appliances are crucial in keeping a house cool. Incandescent and halogen lights use most of their energy generating heat instead of light. Not only does this mean you’re overpaying for lighting, but in the summer you’re creating a lot of unwanted heat in the rooms you’re trying to cool. Though it may sound trivial, incandescent lights can raise room temperatures several degrees. Replace incandescent lights with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). CFLs have improved greatly over the past several years. The humming and slow starts are gone. And CFLs are now available in different “colors” to give the warmer glows (without the heat) that many people prefer over the cool whites.
It's the Heat...and the Humidity
Have your air conditioner and furnace serviced at least once a year to confirm the units are operating safely and efficiently. Check the air distribution, too, to ensure you’re getting enough cool air delivered upstairs. Studies around the country show that on average as much as 30 percent of the air moving through a house’s ducts— air you’ve paid to heat in the winter and cool in the summer— escapes directly outdoors. Sealing and insulating ducts can significantly help in maintaining an ideal temperature.
If your air conditioner is at least ten years old, if it wasn’t sized properly or if it isn’t working as well as it used to, it may be a candidate for replacement. If you do replace it, be mindful that bigger isn’t always better.
Follow the guidance of the ENERGY STAR standard and the United States Department of Energy to see if your air conditioner is the appropriate size. Some contractors oversize the unit “just in case.” This pretty much ensures that you won’t be as comfortable as you should be. Systems that are too big can cool down your house quickly, but it’s more often the humidity that makes us uncomfortable. Also, a large part of what makes an air conditioner effective is that it dehumidifies the air. To effectively reduce humidity, you need a smaller system that runs longer and pulls a lot of moisture from the air. A unit that is too large cycles on and off, cooling the air but not dehumidifying it. And energy usage doesn’t have to increase. A smaller system uses less energy per minute, thus having it run longer doesn’t mean you’ll be using more electricity.
Hire an Expert
To truly find the trouble spots in your home, and to be sure that they are addressed properly, get a comprehensive home assessment by a certified Home Performance contractor. Let such a trained and certified crew install your improvements. The assessment should include blower door testing, an infrared scan of your home, an analysis of your utility bills throughout the year and a testing of the safety and efficiency of your air conditioner, furnace and water heater.
Many modifications that keep you cool in the summer also help you save money in the winter. Across the full year, it’s relatively common for homeowners who have made modifications to see energy savings of 40 to 60 percent. And with many states offering home energy efficiency subsidies, a return on investment can be realized within a year or two.