Understanding Options in New Heating and Cooling Systems

Maintain Your Heating and Cooling EquipmentMaking a Change? Choose the Right Equipment

It’s a good idea to do some research on options for a new heating or cooling system before your current one breaks, so you can make an informed decision if you need to act quickly.

How much energy you save will vary based on your use and climate, with colder regions saving more with ENERGY STAR heating equipment and hotter regions saving more with ENERGY STAR cooling equipment.

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Furnaces are the most commonly used residential heating system in the United States. Running most often on gas, but sometimes on oil, propane, or electricity, furnaces deliver their heat through a duct system. Furnaces that have earned the ENERGY STAR have higher AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) ratings. AFUE is the measure of heating equipment efficiency, represented as a percentage. Most furnaces that can qualify for the ENERGY STAR will be “condensing” furnaces where the transfer of heat is so thorough water or condensate is a byproduct of combustion. This condensing occurs with systems over 90 percent efficient. Another feature of efficient furnaces is a highly efficient blower motor (commonly an ECM, Electronically Commutated Motor, or another type of “advanced main air circulating fan”).


A boiler heats your home by burning gas, propane, or oil to heat water or steam that circulates through radiators, baseboards, or radiant floor systems. Boilers do not use a duct system. Boilers that have earned the ENERGY STAR have higher AFUE ratings. Features that improve boiler efficiency include electronic ignition, which eliminates the need to have the pilot light burning all the time, and technologies that extract more heat from the same amount of fuel.

Central Air Conditioners

Most residential central air conditioners are called “split-systems” because they have an outdoor component with a condenser and compressor and an indoor component with an evaporator coil. It’s very important to replace both of these units at the same time. Installing a new outdoor unit without replacing the indoor unit is likely to result in low efficiency, and may lead to premature failure of the system.

ENERGY STAR qualified central air conditioners have higher SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) and EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio) ratings than today’s standard models. SEER is the most commonly used measurement of efficiency for air conditioners. It measures how efficiently a cooling system will operate over an entire season. EER measures how efficiently a cooling system will operate when the outdoor temperature is at a specific level (95 degrees F).

The central air conditioner also needs a blower motor—which is usually part of the furnace—to blow the cool air through the duct system. The only way to ensure that your new air conditioner performs at its rated efficiency, is to replace your heating system at the same time. It’s especially recommended if your furnace is over 15 years old. If you purchase a new energy-efficient air conditioner but connect it to an older furnace and blower motor, your system will not perform to its rated efficiency.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps provide both heating and cooling in one integrated system. Electric Air-Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs). ASHPs, often used in moderate climates, use the difference between outdoor and indoor air temperatures to cool and heat. ENERGY STAR qualified ASHPs have higher SEER and EER ratings than conventional models. They also have a higher Heating and Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF), which measures the heating efficiency of the heat pump.

Geothermal Heat Pumps (GHPs).

GHPs are similar to air source heat pumps, but use the ground instead of outside air to provide heating, cooling, and often water heating. Because they use the earth’s natural heat, they are among the most efficient and comfortable heating and cooling technologies currently available. Although initially expensive, you can achieve significant cost savings on energy bills. GHPs are most often installed in new homes and require a duct system.

Get an ENERGY STAR Quality Installation

Replacing your old heating and cooling equipment with new, energy-efficient models is a great start. But to make sure that you get the best performance, the new equipment must be properly installed. In fact, improper installation can reduce system efficiency by up to 30 percent—costing you more on your utility bills and possibly shortening the equipment’s life.

Make sure to ask your contractor if his or her work meets ENERGY STAR Quality Installation guidelines.

These guidelines, based on the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s (ACCA) quality installation specification, require:

  • Proper Sizing of Equipment– Installing the right size equipment for the home is essential to getting the best performance and comfort. Many homeowners believe that bigger is always better when buying new heating and cooling equipment. In reality, a system that’s too large will not keep your home comfortable because of frequent ‘on/off’ cycling. Incorrect sizing can also put stress on system components and shorten the equipment’s life. With an ENERGY STAR Quality Installation, your contractor will make sure that you get a system that is the right size for your home.
  • Sealing Ducts  – To help ensure that your new system delivers the heated or cooled air to all the rooms of your home, contractors using ENERGY STAR Quality Installation guidelines will evaluate your duct system to identify leaks, and then seal them using mastic, metal-backed tape, or an aerosol-based sealant. In some instances, your contractor may advise you that it is necessary to replace or add ducts.
  • Ensuring Proper Refrigerant Charge – Incorrect refrigerant level can lower efficiency by 5 – 20 percent and can ultimately cause premature component failure, resulting in costly repairs. With an ENERGY STAR Quality Installation, your contractor will verify that the refrigerant level in the system is correct.
  • Optimizing Air Flow – If air flow in your heating and cooling system is too high or too low, you may experience comfort problems and higher utility bills. With an ENERGY STAR Quality Installation, your contractor will test air flow and make any needed adjustments for optimal performance.

When purchasing heating and cooling equipment, choosing energy-efficient products is a step in the right direction. However, asking the right questions of your contractor and making sure your equipment is properly sized and installed are also important elements to ensure that your new system performs at optimal efficiency.

Whether you want to schedule an annual equipment maintenance check-up or you’ve decided that you need to purchase and install new heating or cooling equipment, you will need to hire a contractor.

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