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Reduce Fossil Fuel Use: Consider an Air-Source Heat Pump

If you are looking for a way to reduce your fossil fuel use while saving money, an air-source heat pump (ASHP) might be a valid option. While this technology has long been popular in warmer southern climates, the colder winter temperatures in the north make it more challenging to extract heat from the freezing outdoor air. Despite this, technological advancements over the past few years have made ASHPs an efficient source of heating in colder climates as well.

ASHPs move heat into a building by circulating a liquid refrigerant between an indoor handling unit and an outdoor radiator. The heat pump heats the liquid by first pressurizing it, pumping it inside from outdoors, and then circulating it through the home’s heating system. The liquid is then depressurized and cooled, after which it travels to the outdoor radiator where the process begins again. ASHPs can also be used to cool buildings through a similar process in which the warm inside air is cooled by the refrigerant, which has been depressurized. The liquid is then sent outside and pressurized, as well as being cooled by the ambient outdoor temperature. The Department of Energy provides a more detailed explanation here of the many different types of ASHPs for those of you who are interested in the more technical aspects of the process.

Energy and Cost Savings
When installed properly, ASHPs can produce between one and a half and three times more heat energy for a home than the electrical energy they use. The Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships found that by replacing entire units in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions with air-source heat pumps, the annual savings are approximately 3,000 kWh or $459 when compared to electric resistance heaters and 6,200 kWh or $948 compared to oil systems. When they are used to displace oil, meaning that the oil system remains but is used less frequently, the annual savings is around 3,000kWh or $300. These prices of course depend on the current costs of electricity and oil. The federal government offers a tax credit for ASHPs and a number of states offer rebate programs.

The Right Heat Pump for Your Home
There are a number of options when it comes to choosing the right ASHP for your home, but the most commonly used in retrofits are ductless, mini-split heat pumps because they do not require a ducted heating system. According to the Department of Energy, this type of heat pump also provides a way to heat room additions without extending or installing distribution ductwork. The main advantage to using this type is that one outdoor unit can be connected to as many as four indoor units (meaning it can be used in four different zones or rooms). The typical installed cost ranges from $3,000 to $5,000.

It is also important to choose the right model – one that matches your climate. The traditional way of determining this is by using the EnergyGuide label, which denotes the model’s heating and cooling efficiency. Heating efficiency is determined through the heating season performance factor (HSPF) and cooling efficiency is determined with the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). Because the HSPF does not include low temperature testing below 17 degrees Fahrenheit, Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships developed the cold-climate ASHP specification, which requires manufacturers to report down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. You should consult these ratings when choosing your ASHP.

Winterizing a Vacant Home

Whether you are shoring up a shore house for the winter, battening down the hatches at your summer cabin, or simply planning to leave your home for an extended period this winter, there are a few must-do steps to take that will help ensure your spring or summer return is not met with disaster.

Plumbing System
The single most important chore is to prepare your plumbing system for freezing conditions by thoroughly draining all pipes and tanks. First, locate and turn off the main water valve, usually located at the water meter. If you are unsure where the valve is, simply call your plumber or do a little internet research to find it. Next, working from the top floor down, open all sink faucets. When in the basement, open laundry tub faucet (where all upper faucets eventually drain) and empty hot water tank. Return to upper floors, open all tub and shower faucets and flush toilets. After just a few minutes, all pipes and drains should be fully cleared and ready for the winter freeze. An added measure for homes in climates with extended freezing periods, pouring a little antifreeze into the drains is a good idea. Some homeowners choose to be extra cautious and blow air through the plumbing systems with an air compressor, but this can be a somewhat involved process. Calling a professional for this task is usually the best way to go, and generally only costs a couple hundred dollars if the system is drained beforehand. Don't forget to shut off the valve for outdoor plumbing (if it is separate) and drain outdoor hoses.

Heating and Power
Even if you plan to visit the home periodically, it is best to disconnect any propane tanks and all natural gas in the home (must be done by the utility company). It is always a good idea to leave the electricity on with light timers and motion detectors, as this discourages potential burglars, but if you must turn off the electricity, be sure that battery operated smoke detectors are functioning properly.

Other Indoor Considerations
To avoid critters setting up shop, be sure to close and seal (with plastic and/or duct tape) all fireplace dampers, dryer vents and, of course, any pet doors. Stuffing spaces around plumbing pipes (especially under sinks) with steel wool is a great way to keep out rodents and scattering mothballs throughout helps to deter a variety of pests. Finally, unplugging and thoroughly cleaning the refrigerator (and leaving the doors open) will avoid molds and mildew from growing.

Outdoor Considerations
Locate and remove any overhanging branches to avoid potential roof damage and clean gutters/downspouts thoroughly. Removing fallen leaves from under or near the home and storing firewood a safe distance away helps to keep mildew, termites and other pests from getting too comfortable. Scheduling regular plowing or snowblowing is always a good idea, as it sends the message that the home is not vacant for an extended period. It also helps to avoid potential liability if there are shared sidewalks or if the home is being shown by realtors.

If money is no object and security is a looming concern, you can consider outfitting your home with smart technology. Remote surveillance and control can help ease your mind and also be very convenient if you're not doing a full-on shut down. You can raise the heat before a visit and operate lights and a security system from wherever you are. Whatever your plans, following the simple steps listed above will avoid a whole host of potentially costly problems and allow you to relax over the winter months.

Gearing Up for Cold Weather Ahead

There are very few places in the U.S. that weren't hit hard last winter. Even the generally calm, suburban Philadelphia neighborhood where I lived was plagued with multiple ice storms that down many power lines and rendered the roads impassable.

Folks in Boston faced record snowfall at 108.6 inches and one storm has come to be known as the January 2015 North American Blizzard (unofficially named Winter Storm Juno). To predict this early in the fall what we'll face this winter would be an exercise in futility, but being prepared for whatever comes is never a waste of time.

When asked what they wished they had done to better prepare for last year's historic storms, homeowners in the northeast part of the country tell me the following, in order of importance:

Purchase a Generator:
Losing power for even a day or two can be a hardship. Heat and hot water is lost at the time when it is needed most and the food on which you so diligently stocked up can be spoiled in just a few hours. Last year, millions of people across the U.S. lost power for a week or more and in some cases, it cost human lives. Whether you live in an area prone to tornadoes, tropical storms or severe snowfall, owning a generator will never be a regrettable decision. Since operating a generator is much more than plug-and-go, click here for a basic guide to purchasing the right machine for your needs.

Purchase a Snowblower:
While shoveling snow is an excellent cardio workout, it can also be dangerously strenuous for those not already in relatively good physical shape. The second most popular lament from ill-prepared homeowners was that they wished they had a snowblower for the storm of 2015. As one property owner tells us, It's not just the lazy factor - it's removing the snow quickly and thoroughly from driveways and sidewalks to avoid potential injury to those walking about. "It just gets to be too much," another makes note. "Sometimes it's better to just wait until all the snow has fallen and get it in one fell swoop."

Better Insulate the House:
Even for those homeowners who never lost power, the hardship came in the form of hefty energy bills. With furnaces working overtime and more people stuck in the home, heating and energy bills can be a disaster of their own kind. One very simple and affordable way to avoid energy loss is to pick up a few tubes of caulk and find the areas around the house where air is entering or escaping. Hovering a candle around door and window frames is the tried and true way to locate drafts, and sealing them up will make a marked difference in your level of comfort and your energy costs over the course of the winter. Another very simple and effective trick is to wrap your water heater to avoid heat loss. Quilted moving blankets are a great choice, but any old blanket will do.

Maintain the Gutters:
If cleaning the gutters is something that ends for you after the first major dropping of fall leaves, you may want to reconsider your plan. When snow and ice amounts surmount what your gutters can handle, it is important that they are as clear and free as possible. In addition to leaves, there is a lot of dirt and debris that can accumulate in your gutters - debris that can cause major problems once frozen in the system. A thorough initial cleaning at the end of October is a great start, but taking a peek once a month through the end of February can help avoid damage to the gutters - as well as to the roof. There are some inexpensive gutter tools out there that will avoid the dreaded ladder, but the first major cleaning should ideally be done by hand.

While we can never truly outsmart Mother Nature, we can surely be better prepared to take her on. We wish everyone a happy 2016 winter and hope that these simple tips can help make it as safe and comfortable as possible. Let it snow!

Buyer Beware:
Tread carefully when an A/C emergency strikes

A recent report from CNN Money showed that only 22% of Americans have any type of adequate savings - and the bulk of these savers are millennials (those born somewhere around 1980). If you happen to be among the 78% without a healthy nest egg or even a small cushion, you know that something like a central air conditioner or furnace breakdown can be devastating. At a potential cost of upward to $10,000, even using credit cards or financing options can add another $300 or $400 to your monthly bills. And, with the myriad of options and diverging professional opinions, it can be very difficult to make a sound and informed decision on how to proceed.

The following is what I learned from watching my friend, Kate, try to navigate the very frustrating world of central A/C replacement. It is my hope that the information will save others from the stress my friend endured when an early June heat wave coincided with an air conditioning breakdown.

The first thing to do when experiencing trouble with your central air conditioning is to check the filter. A clogged filter can cause serious - and sometimes permanent - problems with the unit. While the filter can be found in different places depending on the unit, it is generally located behind the only panel that can be opened without unfastening screws. It should be clean enough to see even dim light through it, and if it is not, replace it ASAP. A/C units are generally located in dusty basements and a common source of debris (as in my friend's case) is dusty cat litter from boxes kept nearby. Filters should be checked every two weeks and in the case of a dusty basement - every week is best.

If the filter is clean and your problem persists, check out the condensate pump. When the pump has failed, you will generally see puddling - sometimes quite a bit - around the base of the unit. If the water accumulation is especially bad after the unit has been turned off, it is often times the condensate pump. This is an surprisingly easy part to replace, and since it is only about $55.00 at your local home improvement center (and refundable), it is well worth the time and effort to give it a try. My friend replaced hers in less time than it takes to cook most microwave dinners, so even if you consider yourself severely challenged mechanically, you really can do it yourself. Click here to learn how to replace your A/C condensate pump.

If neither the pump nor the filter is the culprit, it's time to call a professional. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of Kate's frustration. If you don't already have a trusted HVAC person, the single best way to start is by asking friends, family or neighbors for a referral. If you get nowhere with that tack, use popular referral websites like Angie's List, Home Advisor or Renovation Experts. Simply doing a blind internet search with your zip code may lead to a local gem or, on the other hand, a laundry list of unvetted "contractors" that could cost you a lot of time and money with bogus "estimates." A good example of bad business is the first technician that came out to evaluate my friend's job. He was from a well-known national plumbing franchise that offers "free" estimates. Upon arrival (6 hours late) the technician proceeded to hem and haw, and tell her what she already knew: her unit may be at the end of its lifespan. He told her that to actually open the unit and do any real diagnostic work would cost $200. So, this outfit will come out to shake your hand and scratch their head for free, but if you want a diagnosis, it will cost you.

What I learned is that gone are the days of a truly free estimate or diagnosis, so be very wary of those claiming they are free - unless they come recommended.

The next thing to consider carefully, is that if your unit is, in fact, reaching the end of its lifespan (generally about 15 years), you will most likely need to replace it. It is tempting to engage in some trial and error with refilling coolant or changing coils, but since coolant can run upward to $100 per pound, it is just not worth the gamble.

After another technician from a local company gave my friend an estimate of $10,000 to replace only the A/C unit (she was considering replacing the furnace at the same time), she finally decided it was time to call the local big box home improvement store. They contract with reputable HVAC companies and offer financing options if you have their credit card. They also come out to do a full diagnostic check for only $99 and will try to save you money by doing some trial and error. The estimate to replace both the A/C and heating system was a relatively fair $7500, but the thing to watch for is the upsell. The salespeople are there to make money and will slip in unnecessary options like extended warranties, carbon monoxide detectors and high-end filters. Being aware of the nonessential costs shaved $300 off of the total and my friend was fairly comfortable with spending the $7200 to replace the entire system.

It was at the final hour, however, that a neighbor stepped in, recommended a reputable local contractor and Kate got her entire system replaced the next day for a flat $5000 - with a 10 year warranty on labor and parts at cost. She and her family are now cool as cucumbers and she got the best possible price.

For me, the question that still remains is how can there be such a disparity in the cost of A/C replacement. From $10,000 for just the air conditioning to $5000 for both units seems a bit suspicious. After poking around and asking various companies with no vested interest in securing the job, it turns out that this is, very much, a business where in some cases unscrupulous parties take advantage of people in desperate circumstances. And, apparently the biggest tactic used to scare people away from lower estimates is by discrediting the units they are selling. From what I have learned, there is no one brand of A/C or furnace that outshines another, and all of them come with a manufacturer's warrantee should it simply be a dud.

So, the takeaway is to thoroughly do your research and be prepared to spend some initial money on estimates (getting at least three is the best way to go). And, if you follow the bullet points below, you will save money in the long run.

1) Check first to see if the filters are clean and that the condensate pump is functioning properly.

2) If replacement is necessary, look first for an HVAC person that comes recommended from a friend or family member. Look secondly to trusted referral sites and finally consider your local big-box home improvement store. And, if a company tells you they offer free estimates, be sure to ask if it is for a full diagnostic test.

3) Know your home's square footage and learn what ton-size unit is appropriate for your space. Selling units that are larger than necessary is a common upsell practice.

4) Don't feel guilty about getting at least three estimates and have them carefully outline, in writing, the cost of each item, the brand of unit and the labor. This way you can compare estimates more easily and readily see if you are being sold unnecessary parts or services - including a unit that is too large or too costly.

If you take your time and "keep cool" during the process, you can save yourself thousands of dollars and still have a solid, quality A/C and heating unit for many years ahead.

Don't touch that dial!

What Does Google's Purchase of the Nest Mean?

The $3.2 billion sale of Nest to Google has raised eyebrows -- and a few concerns. Will my heating habits get pushed to my Google + profile? Are Google ads going to stream from my heating vents? Probably not, but the move does suggest a tipping point for the rise in smart homes, smart home appliances and -- most importantly -- the smart grid.

As Quartz indicates in a recent piece about the purchase, when the world's biggest information-organizing company takes over a device that can track heating habits and power consumption, an acceleration towards a more efficient and responsive smart grid seems imminent.

If you're new to Nest, take a few minutes to brush up on your knowledge of the game-changing device. A digital thermostat that "learns" your heating habits and adjusts to energy usage to help reduce heating bills, Nest was widely hailed as the best great device in the smart home industry.

As a giant consumer of electricity, no one has more interest in power management than Google. But this latest acquisition reveals an ambition to expand that interest across the residential markets, which bodes well for advocates of a smart grid.

Nest is transforming how we think of home heating control.

The Nest is Next: Turning Home Control Upside Down

It should come as no surprise that the future of home control comes from the same mind that created the iPod. Tony Fadell's Nest is redefining home control, much like the iPod and the iPhone have redefined our connection to music, the internet and the connected world.

Nest came about as Fadell was tackling his dream home project and growing frustrated by the lack of home control options on the market that were smartphone app-ready. Balking in the face of $500 HVAC control that were clunky and unresponsive, he and software developer Matt Rogers cofounded Nest and released a digital thermostat of the same name in October of 2011.

With Nest's second generation thermostat now on the market (it became available in October 2012), the company is getting some high praise for a device whose round design is a throwback (deliberate or not) to the analog thermostats of old.

Nest is light years ahead of any competition in the space. The simplified design features a knob you can turn to adjust the temperature and a display. That's it. No up or down arrows. No "program" or "end of day" buttons to click and hold and fiddle with to set programs and schedules. That's what the app is for.

That's if you need to do any setting at all. The best part of Nest is that it "learns" the occupants' schedules within a few days of installation and will start automatically adjusting the temperature accordingly. It can also detect when the house is empty, and will lower the temperature then, too.

Preliminary estimates suggest Nest has already save owners from using 225 million kilowatt-hours of energy -- or $29 million in energy costs.

Not bad for a device that costs about $200.

Keep cool within the sheets!

Hot at Night? Try a Bed Fan

As heat wave after heat wave sweep across the States, homes everywhere are looking for better and cheaper ways to keep cool, particularly at night. The office space may provide AC during the working days and the pool or swimming hole some respite in the after-hours, but keeping the bedroom cool for a full 8 hours becomes everyone's priority when the sun sinks but the mercury doesn't.

For those who can't afford an AC or would prefer to save money at night, Brookstone has introduced the Brookstone Bed Fan with wireless remote. A bed-specific product, the fan is designed to tuck in between the top and bottom sheets and lowers body temperatures through "variable speed and targeted airflow."

The selling point for the Brookstone Bed Fan is the ease with which the unit can be placed to cool just one or both occupants of a big bed. That and the wireless remote, which lets you control the fan without having to get up from the cool comforts of the bed.

The Fan sells for $99.99. Would you buy one?

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