DIY Energy Audit, Part 2: Why Do Heat Pumps (sometimes) Cost a Fortune to Run?

After the first article, Matt collected his utility bills and other background information we need to get started. Here it is:

“Colonial 3,300 square feet. 3 adults one child. 2 Electric Heat Pumps: Large one in basement is Payne, Model Number PF1MNB048; Smaller one in mud room for rooms above garage has no name. Just has large number SA11694 and Model Number BCS2M18C00NA1P-1. Thermostat at 72 now and 70 in summer. Consumption Feb 2013 through Jan 2014 – kWh 5800, 4530, 2815, 1684, 1533, 2346, 1334, 1568, 1719, 3023, 5833, 7349”

I don’t even have to make a spreadsheet for this one!

What this tells us

We have a small-medium family in an average sized development home – no red-flags there.

However, the next items contain the keys to solving this mystery.

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How to diagnose your high heating bills and drafty home this winter

Part 1: Introduction to Winter Energy Audits

Here in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S., we’re getting hit by another deep freeze. Those in the center of the country are probably thinking we’re wimps for complaining about single digit temperatures, but hey, it’s all relative. For us, it’s darned cold!

I’ve been getting a number of questions recently, spurred on by the low temps and associated HIGH heating bills. People are asking: “Help! I got my latest heating bill and it’s astronomical. What can I do to reduce it?” or, the other side of that coin is: “Brrr! My family is freezing. I’ve got the heat cranked up but it’s still cold and drafty in some rooms. What can I do make it more comfortable?”

We’re going to walk through a virtual energy audit “live” so you can follow the thought processes and troubleshooting with me. Hopefully, this will allow many of you to go on to diagnose your own issues and end up with a home that is more comfortable, efficient and safe.

Along the way, drop your questions into the comments below the posts, and I’ll do my best to incorporate answers into the article or answer them in the comments.

Let’s get started!

Edit: rather than doing this as one humongous post, I’m going to break each section into a different post. This should make it easier for people to find the pertinent information and step through the process without it getting too overwhelming.

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Fujitsu – time to clean the air filters!

It’s definitely time to clean this air filter

After receiving a question recently about cleaning the Fujitsu’s air filters, I thought I’d better check mine. Good thing – yuck!

Fortunately, a quick spray down  in the sink and they’re good as new. Just remember to spray from the back side to blow the gunk out of the filter. Also, let the filters dry out before using them.

In addition to the two large mesh filters, there are a small foam and pleated filter below them. Clean and dry those and you’re good to go.

Insulating Basement Crawl Spaces

Spray foam on crawlspace walls

Crawlspaces – those nasty, damp, moldy spaces under your home that you dread entering. They’re one of the least understood parts of a home and the source of countless problems. In this post, I’ll review some of the worst problems and how to avoid them.

Crawlspaces often have two big issues:

  1. Water / moisture – leading to mold and wood rot
  2. Cold / drafty – leading to uncomfortable conditions and wasted energy

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Do you wonder why your house gets dusty so fast?

Do you have something like this in your attic?

Do you feel like your house is always dusty, in spite of how much you vacuum and clean? Have you tried all the tricks – HEPA vacuum cleaners, air cleaners, taking your shoes off before coming in the house, washing the dog…. all to no avail?

Chances are good that you’re being plagued by a leaky duct and air handling system.

When you have leaks in your ducts (virtually all duct are leaky) dust from the attic gets sucked into the ducts and distributed throughout the house. Even if you have an excellent filtration system on your air handler, the dust can be sucked in from places that don’t get filtered, and blown into your home, usually leaving fine gray dust everywhere.

Before you call in a heating/cooling (HVAC) contractor, there are a few steps that you can take yourself.

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5 Things to consider when replacing your heating system

A big old boiler

#1: Research replacement systems before your current system dies

Hopefully, you’re reading this before you need to replace your heating system. Other than buying a car, a new heating system is likely to be the biggest single item you’ll purchase for your home. And just like a car, you want to do your research before plunking down the the ten grand on something you’ll be living with for years.

Unfortunately, most people wait until their heating system dies – usually in the dead of winter. What ensues is an emergency phone-call to your “heating guy” who will either replace your system with exactly the same, inefficient, old unit you already have or whatever he’s got on the truck, most likely the latter.

You wouldn’t buy a car this way, would you? You wouldn’t call your car dealership and say “my car broke down, sell me what you’ve got. Maybe give me a few options for different cars.”

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Understanding and Evaluating Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are a bit of magic. But you use one in your home every day – your refrigerator. So if you can accept that your fridge works, somehow making 0 degree air from the 70 degree air in your home, plus some compressor action, then you should be able to accept that heat pumps can produce 95 degree air to heat your home while it’s 25 degrees outside.

I’m not going to subject you to a full lesson on thermodynamics and the refrigeration cycle. Instead, I just want you to accept the fact that heat pumps work on the same principles as refrigerators and air conditioners – they move energy from one place to another. In the process, they make one side of the system hotter and the other side colder.

Heat pumps, refrigerators and air conditioners all work the same way – they move heat from one place to another, amplifying the effect using a compressor and refrigerants.

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Are you unintentionally poisoning your family?

A missing barometric damper

A family friend recently told me of “issues” with their home heating system – “when it runs, the lights get halos around them from all the soot in the air.”

I couldn’t believe it when I heard this, and immediately warned him that the condition likely is making his family sick and could easily kill them. No joke.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is the “leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America” – it’s colorless, odorless and quickly affects your brain, knocking you out then killing you. In lower amounts, it can lead to chronic headaches, dizziness, depression, nausea and a host of other problems.

As we tighten up our homes to make them more energy efficient, we have to be particularly vigilant about keeping any combustion devices in the home tuned up and properly vented.

Let’s look at this in more detail….

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The Energy Geek Video 3: Ultra Efficient Heat Pump Review

I bumped this back up to top of the list since it’s one of the most popular posts I’ve ever done. I also just had the misfortune of losing ALL THREE indoor units during a recent storm and power surge that killed appliances all around my development. Argh! However, they’re up and running again, good as new.

I love these heat pumps! There’s one in the bedroom, one in the basement “party room” and one in the large, living room that’s full of windows – a space that has been uncomfortable for years.

After installing these systems, I don’t know how we dealt without them before. The summer comfort is waaay better than ever. And in our basement room, I turned off the main heating system and used the Fujitsu exclusively all winter.

Keep in mind that this is one special little unit. There are many mini-split systems on the market that look like this, but most of them are barely half as efficient as this one. They’re just not in the same league.

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