A Little Label Distrust Could Make You a Better Consumer: Going Beyond Certifications to Choose an Eco-friendly Air Conditioner or Heater
Does anyone besides me see a contradiction in terms in the phrases “eco-friendly products” and “eco-friendly consumer?” Of course, there are times when we all need to shop for certain items. But sometimes I think that the main reason for the plethora of green certifications and standards for consumers is to give us permission – permission to consume to our heart’s content as long as what we consume is certified “green.”
Do You Really Need It?
It’s always worthwhile to ask ourselves whether we really need to go shopping at all – for a “green” product or any other product. Is it something that we can live without? If the item you are shopping for is an air conditioner or furnace, the answer may be “no, we can’t live without it.” But if the air conditioner or furnace is not for new construction, but is meant to replace an older model in an existing home, the question “do we really need it?” becomes more legitimate. If your older furnace or air conditioner is fairly efficient, has been well-maintained, and is only a few years old, the amount of energy you will save by replacing it may be small. In general, if your air conditioner is less than ten years old, and your furnace is less than 15 years old, the energy saved by a replacement may not be worth the damage to the environment that is incurred whenever you buy a new product and throw away an old one.
What Does the Certification Mean?
The Energy Star label comes from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. To receive an Energy Star certification, an appliance must be more energy efficient than the average appliance on the market. The requirements for Energy Star certifications change periodically as technology changes and appliances become more energy-efficient in general. At the moment, the EPA is reviewing the requirements for a furnace to receive an Energy Star certification. The standards will differ according to whether the furnace being purchased is for use in the northern or southern U.S. Currently, the EPA is considering requiring that furnaces in the South have a 92 percent or greater AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) rating, and that furnaces in the North have a 95 percent or greater AFUE rating, if they are to meet Energy Star requirements.
For an air conditioner, on the other hand, you will want to know the SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating. Whole house air conditioners sold in the U.S. are currently required to have at least a SEER 13 rating. To meet Energy Star requirements, air conditioners must be rated as at least SEER 14.
How to Be a Green User of Your AC or Furnace
No matter how energy-efficient your appliances are, they will not run at their peak efficiency if they are not well-maintained. You will need to check and change your air filters regularly – at least every three months, but more often if they get dirty faster. Dirty air filters slow down the flow of air and make your system work harder, using more energy (and costing you more money).
In addition to those regular air filter checks, you should also be sure to tune up your heating and cooling equipment once a year. You may need to hire a contractor to complete some of the following steps:
- Check your thermostat settings. If possible, use a programmable thermostat to keep you comfortable when you are at home, but reduce energy use when you are away. Make sure that your heating and cooling ducts are sealed. If air is escaping from your ducts, you may be losing as much as 20 percent of the potential efficiency of your furnace or air conditioner.
- Tighten your system’s electrical connections.
- Lubricate your system’s moving parts. Without lubrication, friction increases and, again, your system must work harder to accomplish the same amount of heating and cooling. Check the condensate drain. A plugged drain can greatly reduce the efficiency of your air conditioner. It can also cause flooding.
- Check your system controls, especially the starting cycle. Make sure that the system starts, operates, and shuts off without any difficulty.
- Clean the evaporator and condenser coils on your air conditioner.
- Check the amount of refrigerant in your air conditioner. Too much or too little can both make your system less energy efficient.
- Clean and adjust the components of the blower in your system. If there are any problems with the airflow, your system may be losing up to 15 percent of its potential efficiency.
In your furnace, check all the connections, along with gas pressure, burner combustion, and the heat exchanger.
But there is more to using your air conditioner and furnace in an eco-friendly way than simply maintaining your equipment in good condition. Think about whether you truly need to air condition or heat your home to the degree that you normally do. Do you need to air condition or heat every room that you normally climate control? Or could some rooms be shut off? Having an Energy Star certified air conditioner or furnace is not a license to refrigerate your home in the summer, or to bring your home to a balmy tropical temperature in the winter. If you can find ways to stay comfortable with warmer summer temperatures and cooler winter temperatures, you’ll not only be reducing your carbon footprint, but also saving money on energy bills. An even more radical option is to downsize your home, and live comfortably in a smaller space – you’ll save money on energy bills and be doing something good for the environment.
Becoming an educated label reader can sometimes seem a little bit obsessive, especially for the average consumer who has many demands on his or her time. But I think that if you take an interest in appliance labels, and start to investigate how appliances can affect the overall energy efficiency of your home, you’ll be stunned at what you may discover – you’ll find that taking the time to check out those labels was well worth it.
George Rollins is a home enthusiast at FurnaceCompare.com, a site that not only has extensive information on furnaces, boilers and air conditioners, but also includes consumer reviews and tips on choosing HVAC contractors. George has a passion for educating consumers on home renovation and improvements, as he feels that the right information helps consumer choose more wisely.
Still fighting the Winter chill? Or already thinking about Summer heat? Either way, we have you covered: check out our current listing of ENERGY STAR air conditioners, energy efficient space heaters, and even dehumidifiers.