Winter is mere moments away, so now's the time to focus on getting your home on track for the cold months. Admittedly, boilers, furnaces and heat pumps are not the sexiest of appliances, but without them, our homes would be a lot less pleasant. These behind-the-scenes workhorses do their jobs tirelessly, and each plays a distinct role in keeping our abodes warm and cozy.
According to Department of Energy research, most homeowners spend about $1,900 annually on home energy bills, with nearly half of that sum going toward heating or cooling. By purchasing more energy-efficient appliances, homeowners can save up to 20 percent a year on their power bills.
Boiler and Furnace 101
Boilers and furnaces heat homes. Most are powered by electricity, although in colder climates, oil boilers and furnaces can be smart picks. In the event of an electricity power outage during a snow or ice storm, oil boilers and furnaces can keep working independently.
Furnaces deliver heat via a duct system that's usually shared with an air conditioner. That's why central heating and air conditioner units are referred to as HVAC systems (heat, ventilation and air conditioning). Unlike the duct system of furnaces, gas or fuel-oil burners heat water to create steam that is circulated through radiators, baseboards or radiant floor systems.
Furnaces and boilers can work for decades, and according to Joanna Yarrow, author of , almost 80 percent of furnaces or boilers in the United States are close to 30 years old. Considering the energy these oldsters waste, it's time for an upgrade.
Energy Star–qualified boilers have an annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating of 85 percent, making them up to 15 percent more efficient than standard models. And Energy Star–qualified furnaces have an AFUE of 85 to 90 percent, which means that they're 15 to 20 percent more efficient than standard models.
So, even if Energy Star models cost more upfront, they're less pricey over the long haul because they're more efficient and thus can help you lower your energy bills.
Smart Shopper Tips
• Look for a boiler with "sealed combustion," which means it uses outside air to fuel the burner, reducing drafts and improving safety.
• Boilers with electric ignitions eliminate the need for a pilot light to constantly burn.
• Invest in a programmable thermostat that can be set at energy-saving temperatures for long periods, such while you're on vacation or at work. Energy Star–qualified thermostats come with four preprogrammed temp settings for weekend and weekday.
• The "size" rule of thumb for central air conditioners also applies to furnaces. Buy the correct size furnace for your square footage. Remember: Bigger is not necessarily better. If the system is too large, it'll go through frequent on/off cycling, which prevents proper heating. To determine which size you need, bring in a pro to calculate your home's heat gain/loss.
Heat Pump 101
A heat pump both heats and cools the home. In summer, it operates like a standard electrically driven air conditioner, collecting heat from inside the home, expelling it and then replacing it with cool air. In winter, the process is reversed so that it rids the home of cold air.
Air source heat pumps are typically used in moderate climates. They take advantage of the difference between outdoor and indoor air temperatures to heat and cool homes.
Geothermal heat pumps are especially popular right now because they are naturally eco-friendly and energy efficient. They extract heat from the ground in the winter, then transfer heat back into the ground to cool the house in the summer. At the core of the pump is a loop of refrigerant that's pushed through a vapor-compression cycle to move heat. "Geothermal heat pumps are 300 percent efficient: for every unit of electricity required for the pump, it provides three units of heat," explains Joanna Yarrow. Energy Star–qualified heat pumps have a higher seasonal efficiency rating (SEER) and heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) than standard models, making them approximately 8 percent more efficient than new standard models and 20 percent more efficient than older models.
Smart Shopper Tips
• Bring in a pro to determine the correct size heat pump for your home. Sizing should be based on the home's heat loss during cold weather and its heat gains during warm weather.
• Opt for the pump with the highest SEER and HSPF ratings that you can afford. It'll pay off over the long term.