Barron Heating AC Electrical & Plumbing Blog: Archive for the ‘Natural Gas’ Category

Is Your Home A/C Ready?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Wes Diskin performing a Home Performance Assessment

The first step in purchasing an Air Conditioner

Before you buy an Air Conditioning Unit, you’ll want to be sure the cool air you’re paying for is not being lost through faulty ducts, home air leakage, and poor insulation. There is a lot a green air conditioning contractor can do to get your home A/C ready!

Now, adding air conditioning CAN be as simple as calling the HVAC company to install a unit. But, as with all things HVAC, the most simplistic answer is not the smartest answer in the long-run. Having diagnostic tests run on your home (or a home performance test) is the only way to know the condition of the home and therefore the only way to install the most cost-effective, comfortable, energy efficient, and healthy air conditioning possible.

Here’s a sample run-through of what you should expect before an A/C install. Be sure to choose a Heating & Cooling company that has a thoroughly trained Home Performance team.

Assess the Current Situation: Furnace, Fuel, Investment

The first thing that should happen is to look at the heat delivery system currently in place. If the furnace and ducting system test well and are in good shape, it’s possible to use the ducting that’s already there. If not, ductless may very well be the way to go. Ductless also offers the option of zonal A/C, which can be handy for certain homes.

Next, it’s important to think about the fuel type. Folks who have natural gas as their heating fuel can pretty easily add an A/C unit to the existing system (if it tests well) and go with a less expensive installation cost. However, if a homeowner is using a more expensive heating fuel like electric, propane, or oil, it probably makes more sense to convert the whole system to a forced-air or ductless heat pump (which both include A/C) because the efficiency of the heat pump technology will allow that new system to pay for itself rapidly.

Diagnostics are Key

A Blower-Door Test is the key to understanding air flow patterns and problems. What is the heat gain in the home?

To be truly A/C-ready, you’ll want a trained Home Performance Technician (all estimators at Barron can do this) to run diagnostics on your house. They will use a blower-door, an infrared camera, a smoke-puffer, and/or other devices as needed to test the air flow and leakages in your home. There are a lot of questions to answer, such as:

  • What is the heat gain in the home?
  • Where does the sun come in, which direction is the home oriented, what kind of windows are in place?
  • What is the condition of the attic?
  • How much and in what rooms are there air leakage problems?
  • Can the ducts be used effectively (are they leaky?)
  • How much insulation is in the attic, crawl space, and walls?

Without first answering these questions (and taking action to address them), there is no way to ensure you’re dollars spent on conditioned air are being spent effectively. Attic insulation is especially important, as attic temperatures can run very high, making it harder for your A/C unit to do it’s job. If you’re using ducts to deliver your A/C, having them sealed tightly is also a pretty huge deal. Because duct-work is pressurized, leaky ducts can lose massive amounts of conditioned air; not to mention leaky ducts can carry in a bevy of nasty particulates from your insulation or dirty crawl space. A knowledgeable HVAC contractor will be able to apply the principles of building science to your specific home, to get a whole-house perspective.

The Benefits of A/C Readiness

Taking the time to truly be A/C Ready has the obvious benefit of getting the most bang for your buck, but it can be nice to see all the ways and angles that your home, health, and pocketbook will benefit from looking at the big picture. Having your home tested (with Home Performance) and analyzed for A/C Readiness in the end will mean:

  • You’re investing in a permanent and lasting change in your whole home, and not just adding an A/C unit that is more or less only a temporary fix (depending on the state of your home).
  • Any energy upgrades you make will prolong the life of the A/C unit, since it won’t have to work as hard, and there will be less repairs.
  • Big changes to the building envelope and energy upgrades can help when you decide to sell your home.
  • The equipment chosen is guaranteed to be properly sized for your particular home and cooling needs. Detailed diagnostics give us all the clues to choose the best possible system with dialed-in performance.
  • The air you breathe will be cleaner and healthier, which can often relieve certain types of medical symptoms suffered by you and your family.
  • You will be assisting the planet by creating a more energy efficient home!

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Low-Level CO Monitors Keep Your Family Safe and Healthy

Monday, May 4th, 2015

It just makes sense to discuss the major dangers of Carbon Monoxide with your HVAC company. Any malfunctioning combustion appliance, such as a furnace, water heater, room heater, or fireplace can be the culprit (along with generators, motor vehicles, and anything else exhausting post-combustion byproducts).

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a deadly, colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels. CO is often called the “silent killer” and is responsible for the most accidental poisoning deaths in the country. This is serious stuff. And though most people know that high levels of CO are deadly, it is less well-known that low levels of CO are also very detrimental to your health.

What Are the Dangers?

What is the best way to keep yourself and your family safe? First, you need to understand the difference between a CO Alarm and a Low-Level CO Monitor? Those in-the-know often refer to the first kind as a “Death Alarm,” because by the time it actually goes off, the amount of CO in your home is at near-deadly levels. If your CO Alarm goes off, do not check the alarm, do not try to find the source of CO, do not pass GO, Go straight outdoors, and call 911.

Here is a typical Carbon Monoxide Alarm (or death alarm). These can be picked up at nearly any general store for about $15-$40. If your CO alarm cost somewhere in that ball park, you have reason to be concerned.

Research shows that long-term exposure to low-levels of CO can cause permanent brain damage and neurological damage. It can also compound many health problems such as heart and lung disease, anemia, diabetes, asthma, depression, and learning and concentration problems.

Some people are more susceptible to CO poisoning, such as: children, fetuses, those with compromised immune systems, and the elderly. Many of these people also happen to be those who are at home the most. It is understood that indoor air quality is already usually much more polluted than outdoor air, but if you have an unknown low-level CO leak, your air quality could be in seriously bad shape.

What Can You Do?

  1. Install at least one low-level CO Monitor like the one pictured here. These usually cost between $125 and $200. Your HVAC professional should have these available. It should be installed at eye-level and battery powered in case of a power-outage.
  2. Maintenance. The importance of following guidelines for yearly (or more frequent in some cases) maintenance on your appliances cannot be underestimated. Be sure to ask your technician to check CO levels with an electronic CO Analyzer. Also ask for an inspection and leakage test on the heat exchanger. It’s also a good idea to have your chimney inspected as a possible source of CO problems. Lastly, be sure all appliances are venting to the outside of your home.
  3. Check your garage. Cars emit huge levels of dangerous CO, so having an attached garage is usually not a healthy thing. Unfortunately, many people have attached garages. So, there are a few things you can do (short of detaching your garage). First, do not let your car idle in the garage. At all. Even with the garage door open. CO can still get trapped, and still infiltrate your home. Next, have your garage tested for air leaks into living space and seal seal seal! Last, you can install an exhaust fan in the garage to force out those toxic gases.

If you are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, call your HVAC contractor and they can walk you through all of the CO safety precautions. But either way: DIY or through a contractor, it is really important to double check this critical health and safety issue for yourself and  your family.

Check out this very informative video about Carbon Monoxide.

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Water Heaters: The Real Deal on Tankless v. Tank

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Take a look at the following terms: Tankless Water Heater, Standard Natural Draft Water Heater, Standard Induced Draft Water Heater, and On-Demand Hot Water. Do they all make sense to you?

If you’re like me, you thought you understood them. Tankless…. pretty obvious, right? NO TANK. But like most things, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. There’s actually a pretty big debate when it comes to whether to tank or not to tank. And, because hot water accounts for 20% of people’s energy bills (on average), it’s something to seriously consider. Let’s walk through some of what a Tankless is and is not to dispel some common misconceptions.

What Tankless is…

Tankless is small, compact, efficient with it’s energy use, and (whoa) this one’s big: endless hot water. My sixteen year old self could have really used one of these. Also, they’re just pretty cool technology. There’s basically a long coiled pipe inside a small (briefcase sized) box on the wall. When the water enters, the pipes heat up and when the water leaves the box, it’s hot!

This is all well and good, except that like most really nifty things, they come with a price. Tankless Water Heaters are, on average, about twice as much money as a standard tank. That’s a big investment. But IS it an investment? This is where the debate comes in. Unlike a lot of energy-saving home purchases (of which we are big advocates), the point where monthly savings on hot water add up to pay off your investment of a Tankless can be about the time it wares out from old age (around 20 years), particularly when using natural gas.

What Tankless is not…

Tankless is not On-Demand hot water. This was news to me. Something as high-tech and expensive as Tankless should come with all the bells and whistles, right? The truth of the matter is that Tankless takes slightly longer to deliver hot water to the tap unless a recirculating unit is installed. The water comes into the box cold (as opposed to the constant heating of a standard tank), so when you turn on the tap to wash your hands or take a shower, it will take about 5 seconds more to receive that heated water. The water has to work it’s way through that coil until the coil has reached operating temperature.

Tankless is also not always the most cost-effective choice in a replacement situation. What? Yes. While the constant-heating of a standard tank is energy-intensive, and seems inefficient, if you’re family is using up all the hot water in the tank throughout the day, it’s basically acting like a tankless. Let’s say a family of 4 is taking a couple showers, a bath, a load of dishes, and a load or two of laundry per day (this is, coincidentally what our day often looks like at home). With our 40 gallon tank, we are using that sucker up, over and over.

Another thing to consider is that while neither technology is exempt from occasional repairs and annual service, Tankless is less forgiving of missed maintenance.

Here is one of our service techs, Colin, servicing a customer’s Rinnai brand tankless water heater. He is descaling the heat exchanger due to mineral deposits coating the heat exchanger surfaces and acting as an insulator decreasing heat transfer. The severity of this condition depends on water quality but it happens in all applications and on all water heaters (tank or tankless).
Most people know that corrosion is a big issue with standard water tanks, but clearly, it is something to watch for in tankless models, too.

Standard Tank (induced or natural draft)

If you are considering purchasing a Standard Tank Water Heater the big thing to remember is that though the various models and types look similar on the outside, they are definitely not all created equal. The main things to think about are: Fuel-type, Draft-type, and Warranty Length.

Fuel-type: Natural gas is significantly more affordable than electric or propane in most places. Natural gas models are more expensive up-front, but the investment pays off fast. In fact, the savings you’ll see in your energy bill (around half as much) will usually make up the difference in cost (between electric and gas) in about a year. Oil-fueled Water Heaters exist too, but are rare because of the very high cost.

Draft-type: A natural-draft water heater means that the combustion gases (including carbon-monoxide) come out the top of the water heater naturally, and therefore have the risk of back-drafting. These water heaters are fine, but are best installed outside the building envelope. Having one of these in your home could be dangerous. In some situations, the water heater cannot be replaced with a standard atmospheric vent water heater due to newer mechanical codes. Talk to your HVAC professional to be sure. Induced-draft means that the gases are driven out of your home through a pipe and fan-system, which can be much safer.

Warranty Length: A longer warranty length may not sound like an important factor at first, but it really shows how confident a manufacturer is in it’s product. The warranty-length neatly bundles a lot of the questions regarding internal options of tank-style water heaters. This piece from Consumer Reports has a ton of GREAT information. They go through all the nitty-gritty like internal tank features, safety concerns, and even specific brands. But the most concise info I took away from it on water tanks is: “Those with longer warranties tend to have larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting metal anodes.”

Quick List of Pros/Cons

So the easiest answer to the whole question of what kind of water heater is best is: It depends on your family and your needs. Let’s break it down into a pros and cons list for convenience:

Tankless – Pros

  • Endless hot water
  • Energy Efficient (only heating the water used; better combustion)
  • Compact, space-saving
  • Easier to service (descale corrosion)
  • Longer life (about 20 years)
  • Decent ROI for propane-fuel homes

Tankless – Cons

  • Up-front cost (about twice as much as a standard tank)
  • Natural gas customers don’t see an ROI, because energy savings don’t make up for the cost
  • Slightly longer wait time to receive hot water

Standard Tank – Pros

  • Natural Gas models are fairly energy efficient (not quite so much as tankless)
  • Up-front cost (about half as much as a tankless)
  • Not as much of a delay in hot water reaching the tap in most homes

Standard Tank – Cons

  • Constantly heating a huge tank of water (that may not be getting used throughout the day). Inefficient (for some families).
  • Corrosion issues and mineral build-up occur within the tank and can’t always be seen or remedied
  • Not Efficient
  • Require a lot of space
  • Shorter lifespan (7-12 years)

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Selecting Heating Fuel and System Types

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Selecting the fuel and heating system best suited for your needs depends on the following factors:

  • The cost and availability of the fuel or energy source
  • The type of appliance used to convert that fuel to heat and how the heat is distributed in your house
  • The cost to purchase, install, and maintain the heating appliance
  • The heating appliance’s and heat delivery system’s efficiency
  • The environmental impacts associated with the heating fuel.

Fuel Costs

One somewhat simple way to evaluate heating options is to compare the cost of the fuel. To do that, you have to know the energy content of the fuel and the efficiency by which it is converted to useful heat.

Fuels are measured in physical units, such as gallons of oil or propane, cubic feet of natural gas, or kilowatt hours of electricity (kWh). They are also measured by heat content. In the United States, the most commonly used value for expressing the energy value or heat content of a fuel is the British thermal unit (Btu). One Btu is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water 1°F, when water is at about 39°F. One “therm” is 100,000 Btu.

The chart below provides a list of typical heating fuels and the Btu content in the units that they are typically sold in the United States.

Fuel Type                 No. of Btu/Unit

Fuel Oil (No. 2)        140,000/gallon

Electricity                  3,412/kWh

Natural Gas               1,025,000/thousand cubic feet

Propane                      91,330/gallon

Wood (air dried)*      20,000,000/cord or 8,000/pound

Pellets                        16,500,000/ton

Kerosene                    135,000/gallon

Coal                           28,000,000/ton

The efficiency of the heating appliance is an important factor when determining the cost of a given amount of heat. In general, the efficiency is determined by measuring how well an appliance turns fuel into useful heat. (The condition of the heat distribution or delivery system also affects the overall system efficiency.) Many types of space heating appliances must meet minimum standards for efficiency developed by the U.S. Department of Energy. This next chart provides average efficiencies for common heating appliances.

Environmental and Efficiency Considerations

In addition to cost, you might consider the environmental impact of your heating fuel. You probably generate more greenhouse gases by heating and cooling your home than by any other activity, including driving.
Burning natural gas, oil, propane, wood, or pellets in your home with a high-efficiency furnace or boiler can be a very efficient way to deliver heat to your home. Of all these choices, natural gas burns cleanest.
In the NW, due to hydro power, using a heat pump is one of the most cost effective and clean ways to heat your home.

Of course, the cleanest fuel for heating your home is solar energy, which produces no pollution at all. In most homes, solar energy will merely supplement the main heating and cooling source, although many are building homes that aim to consume net zero energy over the course of a year.

Choosing a Heating and Cooling System

When choosing a heating and cooling system, there is no one answer; it’s largely a personal choice. For existing systems, your choices are pretty much set by the limitations of replacing the system with something significantly different. But for a new home, if your building contractor doesn’t impose limitations, the choices are wide open.

Choosing between systems depends in part on your fuel options, but also on your preferences. Here are some questions you might consider:

  • Do you want a central air conditioning system? If so, are any heat pump options—particularly geothermal heat pumps—practical for your home?
  • If you don’t want central air conditioning, could a baseboard hot water system or a radiant heating system meet your needs?
  • If you need to cool your home but don’t want a central air conditioning system, could a room air conditioner, or a ductless mini-split system meet your needs?

Answering these questions, and exploring the information in the heating, cooling, and heat pump sections of this Web site, should lead you to an answer

Posted by Wes Diskin

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