Green Tip: How inefficient is your HVAC system exactly

Imagine your home on a blistering summer day with no AC or in the dead of winter with no heater. Based strictly on comfort, it’s a very good thing we have the luxury of both these systems. But your wallet might have a different perspective. Within most buildings, the heating and air conditioning systems consume the most total energy. These two dual forces of internal climate control can represent anywhere from 20-60 percent of a building’s energy draw.

A large proportion of this energy goes into the actual act of heating the furnace or spinning the fans. However, an unfortunately large amount of electricity also goes into overcoming the inefficiencies with our HVAC systems. Leaky ducts, bleeding pipes, and poorly insulated systems all create extraordinary inefficiencies that most people decide to overcome by simply ‘pushing harder.’

It’s somewhat akin to having an inner tube that pops and considering the best way to fix it is to inflate it faster than it deflates.

Sooner or later you won’t be able to ride your bike anymore.

What you need to know

How inefficient is your HVAC system exactly? According to a local HVAC firm in Maine, a ‘small’ amount of energy wasted on inefficient systems is around 10% of the total HVAC energy draw. An ‘average’ was closer to 25% and a truly ‘faulted’ system could waste as much as 75% of the HVAC’s energy draw.

These are huge percentages. If the average system wastes 25% of the HVAC’s energy draw through leaks, it means that anywhere between 5-15% of a given building’s total energy cost is wasted. Poof. Gone.

Luckily, there is an easy way for you to prevent your money from leaking out of your house. Getting your HVAC system (and your house in general) audited for energy efficiency is an easy way to stay on top of your electric bill.

Most utility services or HVAC specialists offer the audit for free (or at least very close.) However, the audit only achieves half the battle. In most situations, the auditor will only delineate where your system can be improved. You must then take on the next steps of actually making improvements to the system. These will often include re-taping the ductwork or an internal insulation layer.

The Savings


Of course, improvements will cost money up front. However, with assistance from rebates, incentives, and even occasional tax credits, most of the initial cost can be defrayed. Your improved system will save you much more than you spent on the improvements. A little work can recover up to 85% of your system’s energy waste. This saves anywhere from 4-12% of your total energy bill.

It should be noted that although HVAC improvements may only be needed every 5-10 years, annual HVAC inspections should be preformed to verify that a building’s system is working at a high level of efficiency. That way, if there is an issue with a building’s HVAC, one can catch it before it does too much damage.


Looking Deeper


Imagine if every building in the United States fixed their HVAC’s leaks and drops. Since buildings as a whole account for about 40% of the entire U.S.’s energy usage, sealing up leaky HVAC systems could save anywhere from 2-5% of the entire United State’s energy use. Imagine powering the entire city of Chicago with electricity. That is how much energy we could save by fixing every leaky HVAC system in the country. It’s mind bending.

Think about it


No one likes the idea of their money being wasted. An energy audit is an easy way to make sure that your money is only going towards heating or cooling your house, not the outside.

Once your HVAC system is running efficiently, you will be using less energy, reducing your green house gas emissions and saving money.

So as you get ready to turn on the heater for winter, take a moment to make sure it’s working efficiently.


by Tamara Perreault and Keith Heyde

Tamara and Keith are of Bowdoin College and Columbia University respectively. The two started a biotech and environmental consulting start up Abstract Algae over the summer of 2011



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