When it’s time to renovate, consider replacing HVAC systems and major appliances for maximum energy savings.
You’ve seen all the home-improvement shows on TV, and now it’s your time to overhaul everything outdated and annoying in your decor. You’ve picked out flooring, countertops, cabinets and paint colors. But have you thought about your home’s heating and cooling system or its hardest-working appliances?
Major renovations are good times to consider upgrading your home’s top consumers of electricity HVAC, refrigerator, water heaters, washing machine, dishwasher—even if your current models are still functioning.
Federal efficiency standards for home appliances have risen so much in recent years, newer models now leave the showroom ready to work smarter, says Brian Sloboda, efficiency expert for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. A 6- or 7-year-old fridge or washer may be working just fine, but the models that have come on the market in that timespan are likely to be more energy efficient, he says.
The benefits of upgrading? “More efficient performance from your appliances, cool new features, and you may avoid the high cumulative cost of repairs,” Sloboda says.
Do the math
One of the first things to consider in deciding what to upgrade is the age of your current appliances. To really lower your energy bill, start by replacing your oldest appliances, even if they’re still up and running.
“If your heat pump is more than 15 years old, you’ll get a real benefit from changing it out,” says Michael Smith, director of corporate strategy and emerging technologies for Central Electric Power Cooperative. “Any refrigerator over 20 years old, it’s time.”
When an indoor appliance gets to be 8 to 10 years old, Sloboda says, it’s a good time to look at how much more life it has in it.
Now, think about the size of your household. A heating and air-conditioning system runs most of the time, as does a refrigerator, regardless of how many people are in the home. But washers, dryers and dishwashers work harder in bigger households.
“If you are a family with kids, and you’re using the washer five to eight times a week, you might want to get rid of a 5-year-old washer and buy a newer, more efficient, Energy Star model with a larger tub to reduce the number of loads you do and save money,” Sloboda says. “If you are empty nesters, using your washer one or two times a week, you can keep that same appliance longer, because you won’t see as much savings.”
Big appliances and HVAC systems don’t come cheap—you could lay out $5,000 for a new air-source heat pump, for example, adding thousands more based on brand, size, features and whether ductwork also needs replacing; geothermal systems cost upwards of $20,000. But you can offset some of those costs with tax credits, rebates or other financial assistance that are available in your area for energy-efficient appliance upgrades.
The federal Energy Star website has details on tax credits available through Dec. 31 for residential energy-efficiency upgrades to heat pumps (air source and geothermal), air conditioners and water heaters, among other purchases. Programs in South Carolina that offer financial assistance for energy-efficient improvements can be found through the S.C. Energy Office's website and the DSIRE database for renewable-energy incentives.
You can also boost the return on your investment in appliances by using the yellow EnergyGuide labels and blue Energy Star logos to identify the most energy-efficient models (see "A shopper's guide to energy efficiency," below).
You want the most bang for your buck—that means choosing upgrades that can pay you back with lower bills. Energy experts suggest starting with the biggest power consumers in your home and working your way down.
The HVAC system
In South Carolina, one of the hottest states in the Sunbelt, maximizing efficiency in your air-conditioning unit should be a focal point. Heating and cooling accounts for about half of the energy used in most homes.
“The HVAC system is number one—the air conditioner, anything electric-heat related. If you’re going to spend money to upgrade somewhere, that’s where to do it,” Sloboda says. “You’ll notice the savings on your electric bill.”
Expect a useful lifespan of about 12 to 15 years for your HVAC system, Sloboda says. Maybe you’ve noticed signs that your HVAC system isn’t working well—higher utility bills, rooms that are too hot or too cold, damp or clammy indoor air, and musty odors. That doesn’t always mean it’s time for a new unit, according to Paul Parker, HVAC design consultant in North Charleston. Before replacing your system, have a qualified contractor assess your whole house to accurately diagnose possible ductwork leaks, gaps or deficiencies in insulation and the tightness of the building envelope. A home that’s leaking conditioned air will tax even the most efficient HVAC system.
“You could spend thousands of dollars [on a new unit] and not be any more comfortable,” Parker says.
While comparing price tags on new air-source heat pumps, look at a unit’s SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) number, which tells you how efficiently it cools.
The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the air-conditioning system, says Ford Tupper, energy auditor with The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. Higher numbers generally indicate systems with additional features that contribute to efficiency, such as variable speeds and variable-stage compressors, he says. The current minimum SEER is 14 for air-source heat pump systems; Energy Star-certified systems will be rated higher. For geothermal systems, cooling effectiveness is rated by EER numbers, starting at 18 and up for high-efficiency systems.
Balance the upfront purchase cost against the potential savings offered by a more efficient model. For air-source heat pumps, Sloboda says, “An 18 SEER is a good choice for maximizing efficiency without spending an obscene amount of money.”
To save a bit more, invest first in new or securely sealed ductwork, then buy a system closer to the 14 SEER standard. That way, you’ll enjoy a quicker return on your investment, says Parrish Neville, marketing manager for Palmetto Electric Cooperative.
If you’ve been eyeing a geothermal heat pump system, 2016 may be the year to pounce. There’s a federal tax credit of 30 percent for the installation of geothermal systems through Dec. 31 of this year. Plus, South Carolina is offering a 25 percent state tax credit on geothermal equipment and installation through Dec. 31, 2018.
“The call to action is that there’s a guaranteed 55 percent income tax credit in 2016” for installing new geothermal systems, says Steve Weitzel, S.C. territory manager for WaterFurnace, which manufactures and distributes geothermal heat pump systems.
Geothermal systems require a sizeable upfront financial investment—an average of about $24,000, Weitzel says, for a typical 3-ton system. On the savings side, a geothermal heat pump can save a residential homeowner 50 to 75 percent on heating and cooling, with a life expectancy about twice as long as traditional air-source heat pumps, he says.
The water heater
Right after heating and cooling, your home’s biggest energy user is likely to be the water heater. Life expectancy for this appliance is about 10 to 12 years.
The efficiency rating for a water heater is expressed as its Energy Factor. If a water heater has an EF of 0.94, for example, that means 94 percent of the energy going to the water heater from its power source is being converted to hot water, according to NRECA.
Standards vary by the size of the tank and the energy source, but, like a car’s mpg rating, higher numbers mean greater efficiency. The latest EF standard for 50-gallon electric heaters is 0.95; for 80 gallon electric models, 1.97. You can compare similar models by locating the label with the EF number on a new water heater.
Recent changes in Department of Energy efficiency standards for residential water heaters mean consumers may find it difficult to replace their traditional electric-resistance water heaters with a newer model in a similar size and style.
New standards that went into effect in 2015 have eliminated the manufacture of residential, large-capacity, electric-resistance models holding 55 gallons or more. Your local electric cooperative may be able to advise you on replacement options, especially if your current water heater is part of a co-op’s load-control program, which helps reduce demand for electricity during peak usage hours, saving all members money. Manufacturers are working to create a new category of grid-enabled water heaters, but these new models, when they become available, will be designed for installation only as part of a utility’s load-control program. (For details on the new efficiency standards and advice on replacement options, download the NRECA brochure “Product changes and disruptions for large electric water heaters.”)
Another option is installing a light-duty commercial water heater in an 80-gallon or larger size, Neville says. These units, not subject to the new standards for residential water heaters, are what Palmetto sells to members in its load-control program, he says. They may be a little more expensive and require care in setting the maximum temperature no higher than 120 F for residential use. And, as they are larger, they may not fit all homes, Neville says. In that case, a home that requires heavy hot-water use may opt for two smaller, 50-gallon residential water heaters. For smaller homes, a single 50-gallon unit may be sufficient, he says.
Another option, a heat pump water heater, offers high energy efficiency but with downsides, says Alan Shedd, director of energy solutions for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives.
While they use little electricity to operate, heat pump water heaters can cost about twice as much to install as electric-resistance units, and they require more maintenance, tend to be noisier and need open interior spaces with good airflow to function properly, he says.
“The simple takeaway is, there are installation issues you need to take into account,” Shedd says.
You may not think about it, but your refrigerator is working constantly. Over time, even once-efficient models use more energy as their motors wear out, Sloboda says.
Consider a fridge purchased in 1985, one of the most energy-efficient models then on the market—16 cubic feet, with freezer on top, refrigerator below. Using Energy Star’s online Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator, and plugging in local electric rates, the math shows that replacing that old fridge with a newer, energy-efficient model in a similar size and style could save nearly $200 a year in energy costs.
To maximize efficiency, look for the Energy Star label, and focus on size and style when choosing a new fridge. Avoid double-door models with door-mounted ice and water dispensers and internet access; look for a traditional, top-mounted-freezer model in the 16- to 20-cubic-feet range.
“The best style, from an energy standpoint, is the one nobody wants anymore—the old-fashioned models with the freezer on top and the refrigerator on the bottom,” Sloboda says.
How much difference does style make? On Energy Star’s 2016 list of the most efficient medium, large and extra-large refrigerators, top-mounted-freezer styles use an estimated 296 kilowatt-hours per year, versus 532 kilowatt-hours annually for French door models with the freezer on the bottom. Fewer kilowatt-hours used translates to lower operating costs. By way of comparison, that 30-year-old fridge above is using more than 2,000 kilowatt-hours a year.
Now, about that old refrigerator. If it’s still working, why not keep it in the garage or basement as a backup? Because, no matter where you move that energy hog, it’s still hogging energy and costing you money.
“Putting it in the garage is always a horrible idea,” Sloboda says, noting that outdoor heat and humidity put an added strain on a fridge working to maintain a constant temperature. “If you really need a second refrigerator, buy a smaller, Energy Star-rated refrigerator.”
The washing machine
How much laundry are you doing? With an upgraded washing machine, a family doing several loads of wash a week could see a savings on the monthly electric bill.
Energy Star-certified washers use about 25 percent less energy than conventional models and about 40 percent less water, according to energy.gov.
Again, consider the age of your current appliance—if it’s more than 10 years old, more efficient washing machines on the market will save you money.
Use those high-efficiency washers correctly to see the savings, Sloboda cautions. They use less water, so they need less detergent. Overload them with soap, he says, and you’ll make them work harder in the rinse cycle, decreasing your energy savings.
“They take a longer time to perform the same job, because they’re being more efficient,” he says. “But you’re getting double the bang for the buck—you’re using less water, and you’re using less soap, which are good for the environment and your wallet. And you’re using less electricity.”
Although there’s not much difference across comparable models of clothes dryers as far as energy used, you can still find savings by looking for the blue Energy Star logo. Features such as moisture sensors, automatic shut-off and low-heat settings help these dryers use 20 percent less energy.
“The best way to save money with a dryer is to buy a better washing machine,” Sloboda says. Buy a washer with the fastest spin cycle you can—when you bring the clothes out of the washer, they’re just kind of damp, and you can dry a whole load in 15 or 20 minutes.”
Like washing machines, today’s dishwashers use much less water to clean. According to energystar.gov, a new Energy Star-certified dishwasher can save an average of 1,600 gallons of water over its lifetime, compared to models dating back before 1994.
“A sensor makes sure the dishes are clean by checking the water to see if all the soap and dirt are gone,” Sloboda says. “They don’t use a lot of water in cycles. So it takes longer to clean, but it still uses less energy.”
A shopper's guide to energy efficiency
When you’re ready to shop for new appliances, the yellow and blue tags you see on new models are your key to maximum energy savings.
Bright yellow EnergyGuide labels help shoppers compare operating costs and energy use across similar appliances. If you’re trying to choose between two refrigerators with comparable price tags, for example, the EnergyGuide label will show you the range of annual operating costs for similar models, as well as an estimate of the annual electricity use, based on national averages. Those numbers are estimates; exact costs for you will depend on your local utility rates.
“There may be variation from where you live, but you can compare the relative costs across all models,” says Brian Sloboda, NRECA’s program manager for energy efficiency.
A few appliances—clothes dryers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, ovens, ranges, microwaves—don’t carry EnergyGuide labels, because there’s little variation in energy use between models.
As for specialized features—such as variable-temperature drawers in a refrigerator, steam-cleaning washers, touchpad controls—focus on the ones you’ll use and that fit in your budget. Think ahead about maintenance. Some high-end models with fancy features can tap your wallet down the road with expensive repairs.
“Most of the features you see advertised on appliances are not energy focused,” Sloboda says.
“There are so many different features, you can’t do a true comparison. That’s why the yellow label is so critical.”
Energy Star logo
The other color to watch for is blue. That’s the Energy Star logo applied to the most energy efficient appliances—those that exceed minimum federal energy efficiency standards. Often it can be found at the bottom of an EnergyGuide label. The choice between two comparably priced products may be easier if one has earned Energy Star certification—you’ll see savings faster on an Energy Star purchase.
Resources for shopping and saving on appliances
Making sense of appliance upgrades – A shopper’s guide to major appliances.
Blowing hot and cold – Technology and tax breaks make heat pumps an attractive option for heating and cooling South Carolina homes.
Wrap it up – Does your home have enough attic insulation for peak comfort and efficiency? Our guide will show you how to evaluate your home’s thermal barrier and insulation upgrade options.
Seal and save – Save 5 to 10 percent on your heating and cooling bills with a little caulk and some elbow grease.