Monday, May 26, 2008

Air Conditioners and Swamp Coolers

Since it's summer, one of the topics I've been writing on is air conditioners. If you've got one, it's time to tune it up. If it's too far gone, it's a great time to install a new one. The SEER ratings are high, Energy Star abounds, and if you live in the U.S., you've probably got a tax rebate.

Another thing to do in the spring or early summer is tune up the thermostat. Hardly anyone does this.

The thing about A/C units is that there's many options. Do you want to cool just the living room during the day but the bedroom at night? Get a portable air conditioner. How about cooling just one room all the time? Consider a window-mounted unit.

During my research, I delved into the world of swamp coolers, or evaporative coolers, as they're also called. I've never lived in the desert so I didn't have first hand knowledge of them. But I was surprised to learn how closely they resemble the cooling towers that I've worked with.

A swamp cooler is very simple compared to a central air conditioner. A central unit has a condenser unit, evaporator coils, and a closed system with refrigerant and oil. A swamp cooler is just a box with water soaked blanket pads hanging inside.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Choosing the Proper Home Insulation

Of all the energy-saving, utility bill-cutting approaches that are employed in the modern home, insulation is the best publicized. Why? It's the cheapest method of making your home energy efficient. Attic insulation, wall insulation, floors and crawlspaces, it's all recommended. But which type is the best for the job? The answer, it turns out, is, "It depends".

Which Kind of Insulation is Best?

This depends on:
  • Your budget - How much will you spend VS how much you'll save on utility bills.
  • What's available locally - This can affect how much you'll pay for material.
  • The area to be insulated - Different areas of the home have different needs.
  • How much insulation needs to be installed - How much square footage will be covered?
  • Method of application - Will you roll it out? Will an insulation contractor spray it?

R-Value Considerations

An insulation's R-Value is it's resistance to heat flow (out in the winter, in during the summer). The higher the number, the better. The insulation's data sheet or packaging will give you a number, but there are other factors to consider.

For example, fiberglass batts installed between exterior wall studs will give you a certain R-Value, but heat will still flow through the studs. This is an example of thermal bridging. Little can be done here except using insulating sheathing or using an alternative framing technology such as SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) or ICFs (Insulated Concrete Forms).

Density also has an effect. For example, fiberglass batts will only give the rated insulating value if they are normally "fluffed out", not compressed into a smaller space than they were designed for.

Types of Insulation

  • Blanket insulation - This may be purchased in either batts or rolls. In areas such as attics, rolls are easier to install. Batts work well in walls between studs. The paper tabs are stapled to the studs to keep the batts from settling down over time, victims of the force of gravity.
  • Blown-in loose fill insulation - This is usually rock wool, cellulose, or fiberglass. It works well in attics and requires pneumatic equipment. Either an insulation contractor can be hired or you can rent the equipment and DIY.
  • Foam insulation - This can either be open-celled or closed-celled. This type is also sprayed on. The open-cell insulation allows for moisture to move through it but has a lower R-Value than closed cell.
  • Radiant barrier - This can either be a powder that is mixed with latex paint or a radiant barrier foil product. The radiant barrier paint can be sprayed on the underside of the roof sheathing or rolled/sprayed onto walls. The foil is claimed to work better on the roof sheathing in the attic but some claim that it interferes will cell phone reception.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Implementing Energy Saving Strategies

The price of crude oil is up again today and most market analysts don't expect any relief soon. This will have a ripple effect across the whole energy sector, affecting natural gas and coal, for example. Our utility bills will be one victim of this trend. You can begin to take steps now to ease the pain.

Cutting your electricity use is especially important now, with more air conditioners being turned on. The first thing to do is to get started on the annual air conditioner tune-up.

To prioritize your energy-saving projects, you need to know where you stand. You can have a professional energy audit done, or simply follow your own energy efficiency checklist. Once you know where you stand, consider necessity and your budget.

If any of your improvements involve the attic, get after it before we get any further into the summer. I know; I made the blunder of spraying radiant barrier paint in warm weather.

Seriously consider installing ceiling fans in any room in which you spend any time. They'll pay for themselves and add serious equity to your abode. ROI for you financial types out there. Payback for the rest of us Joe Schmo's.

Here's a tip: if your refrigerator is an older model, this is the time to replace it. Refrigerators are huge power gobblers, especially if you have kids that have a hard time with the phrase, "No grazing, you're not a cow!" With the tax rebates being distributed, retailers are making some very sweet deals.

Check with your electrical provider; the price per KWh is not the same all day and night. There are things you can schedule, like running the clothes dryer, on off-peak hours. Now get out there and save, save, save!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Building Green with SIPs

My last post was about building green, which is really hot right now. I've been doing more research on the topic and it seems to be like more fuel efficient cars - research and development, as well as implementation, really kicks in when the economy makes it an attractive concept.

Which is totally correct; we live in a market-driven economy. It's interesting how much ado is made of pollution today without reflection on how much progress has been made in the past fifty years. Can you believe it; we used to have rivers that would spontaneously break into flames?

So we have moved forward. The trick is to keep moving ahead. Kudos to the building industry for making strides forward.

A very innovative new combination of building materials and building technology are SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels). The idea is simple - foam insulation sandwiched between two sheets of OSB (Oriented Strand Board).

The panels are designed and sized using residential construction software and the assembled off site. Once they're delivered to the new home or commercial building site, they're put together and taa-dah! You've got an almost completely air-tight structure.

Isn't it much more expensive than conventional building methods? Surprisingly, no. The streamlined process improves building flow and saves on labor (think framers). It also minimizes wasted material (cut-off sheathing, 2" X 4" studs, etc). Nobody likes to pay for extra dumpster-pulls!

Using SIPs puts the home or commercial building on the fast track to Energy Star certification. The final hurdle is to get more building contractors up to speed. But never fear, the innovators are busy doing that right now.