Hot and Cold: The Most Important System in Your House

The heating and cooling system in your house is important in many ways to the livability of your home:

  • It is usually the most expensive system in your house.
  • Your heating and cooling system is often the largest user of energy in your home.
  • Without heating and cooling, most homes will become unlivable in short order.
  • They are hundreds of options in heating and cooling that can save you money and keep you comfortable.

Different Types of Heating and Cooling

There are a large number of options in heating and cooling. Understanding the differences can make it easier to have conversations about your needs and wants.

  • Heat Pump – A heat pump exchanges hot and cold with the air or the ground into the home. In essence, it will move heat out in the summer and heat in the winter. Sometimes, they are used to col the home, while the system is also attached to a furnace for the winter.

  • Furnace – A furnace burns some types of fuel or energy to create heat. This is pushed into the house using forced air, or, less frequently, hot water baseboard heating.

  • Air conditioner – An air conditioner is the most familiar form of a heat exchange. Using a compressor and circulator, the air conditioner takes heat out of the air and pushed outside. This is the same principles as refrigerators.

Furnaces – Introduction and leading brands

The basic idea behind a furnace dates back to the first caveman. The idea is simple: expend energy by burning and you will create heat. Contain the heat and you will be more comfortable.

Today’s furnaces are more efficient at heating a home than anything that have ever been created. They burn wood, coal, oil, natural gas, liquid propane gas, or electricity, where the burning happens remotely.

Oil has become much less common in recent years. Natural gas, because it is now found in abundance and is inexpensive, has become the fuel of choice in many areas.

Wood is still burned in rural areas, but is frowned upon in urban areas because the smoke accumulates and can make a city unbreathable.

Coal, as a home heating option, has become nearly extinct. It is still used to generate electricity, but home delivery has all but disappeared.

Natural gas is now, most often, the fuel of choice. With most people in cities and towns, they are able to get natural gas directly to their home. In rural areas, there aren’t the natural gas lines, so liquid propane is delivered to the home.

The rating on furnaces that is most important is AFUE (Annual Fuel Efficiency Rating). This is a number that simply tells you what percentage of the fuel used is wasted. For example, a furnace with an AFUE rating of 90 uses 90% of the fuel for heat. 10% is wasted through loss up the chimney, etc.

The leading brands of furnaces are, in the US, household names: Carrier, Trane, Lennox, Goodman, Bryant, and others. Each of these brands offers furnaces in every range of efficiency from 80% to 99%. Obviously, the price increases as the efficiency does, but the most efficient furnaces also qualify for significant tax credits.

This article talks in-depth about how central heating and air conditioning systems work.

Air conditioners – An introduction and leading brands

Many of the companies that make furnaces also make air conditioners. In fact, these systems are often connected to the same air ducts to provide heating and cooling at the right time of year.

An air conditioners is made up of a couple of basic parts that accomplish a single goal: to move heat from one space to another. Technically, air conditioning is cooling air, but removing heat. The effect is the same as far as we are concerned; the room will get colder and the hot air is moved outside. The a/c pushes hot air over cold coils, making the air colder and moving the heat to the outdoors.

There are several basic types of air conditioners: windows, in room, and central. A window air conditioner, as well as a wall a/c, are put into a window as a solid unit. These are portable and can be placed in single room. A wall air conditioner is a similar unit that is placed into a hole in the wall to avoid needing to take up window space. An in-room unit sits on the floor of a room with the heat pushed outside through a vent pipe. These are even more portable, usually on wheels. A central a/c is place both inside and out. It uses the house’s air duct system to put cold air into the home with an intake vent placed in a central location of the home.

Deciding which type of air conditioner to purchase is fairly easy. If you have ducts in your home, you can purchase a central a/c system and have a much more comfortable home. If you don’t have ducts, but don’t want to put a hole in a wall, you can use a window air conditioner. If you want a minimal impact on your home, you can use a portable unit that sits on the ground.

These units are rated by EER (energy efficiency rating) and SEER (seasonal energy efficiency rating). In short, the EER is how the system performs at any given moment, whereas SEER is how the unit performs over time. The least you need to know is that the higher the number, the more energy efficient the unit.

Here is an article on central furnaces and a guide to purchasing one.

Heat Pumps: It’s not the Seventies Anymore

When heat pumps were first sold, they were loud and inefficient. A home was, at best, tepid and the unit sounded like a jet engine. Things have changed.

Heat pumps, as described above, move heat from one space to another. In the summer, it will take heat out of the house and transfer it to the air or, in the case of a geothermal unit, will transfer the heat to the ground. If you purchase a reversible heat pump, it will do the opposite in winter. A geothermal unit will take heat from the ground and transfer it into your home.

The thing that makes a heat pump incredibly efficient is that it doesn’t actually make any heat or run a compressor. It simply moves heat from one space to another. This allows it to use a heat exchange instead of heat generation.

Geothermal heat pumps are a highly specialized unit. They can be installed by a homeowner, but generally, it will be easy to let a professional do it. Both an air and a geothermal heat pump require duct work in your home, so that is the first consideration.

Here’s an article that explains that difference between a heat pump and air conditioning.

Finding the Right HVAC Contractor

If you are looking for a great HVAC contractor, the first place to start is right here on www.qualitysmith.com . Use the search function to find a few contractors in your area. Once you have found some candidates, you can begin the vetting process.

Stat by looking online for reviews. Remember that the angriest and happiest people leave comments. The people in the middle rarely put up notes. As you read through reviews, look for trends. Do they continue making the same mistakes over and over? This might indicate a significant weakness.

Once you have found two or three possible contractors, ask them to give you a written estimate. It’s vital that the estimate is in writing and that it details what they will be doing. You will need to compare them with each other.

As part of their bid, ask for their contractor’s license number, their liability insurance information and their worker’s compensation insurance information. These are all very important.

  • Every contractor must be licensed. If they don’t give you license information, they are probably not legal. Doing business with them is likely to end up badly.
  • Their liability insurance is designed to protect you if they do something wrong or burn down your house. Without it, you might end up powerless to recover from something that they have done.
  • Worker’s compensation insurance covers employees that work on your home. If an employee is hurt while working on your land and there is no worker’s compensation insurance, you may be liable for medical bills and damages.

You know the old saying, “Trust, but verify.” Call the state to make sure that the license is in good standing. For the insurances, call the insurance company to verify that the policy is in effect and paid up.

If any of these items seems wrong or a contractor won’t provide them, don’t do business with them, period. This includes someone referred by a business. A referral doesn’t make the store liable. Even if Home Depot or Lowe’s sends someone to you, ask for all of this information or you might find yourself out in the cold.