Improving Home Heating and Cooling Energy Efficiency

Wool blanket with knotted fringe tassels

Our special feature on greener choices around the home kicked off with a guest post on improving the energy efficiency of an existing home with small changes and targeted renovations. This week, we’re taking a closer look at the energy efficiency of home heating and cooling. Perfect timing, since it’s chilly mid-winter here and sizzling summer for our readers up north. No matter what your season or your weather, keeping comfy without breaking the bank (or the planet) is always great!

Home Heating and Cooling Systems

Upgrading Home Heating and/or Cooling Equipment

Switching to more efficient systems (e.g. opting for a more efficient form of heating or upgrading to a new system with a higher energy rating) is an “easy” way to reduce consumption without changing habits. It usually also requires substantial replacement investment for equipment and installation. If your current system is very inefficient, outdated, or you’re doing other major work, it might be worth the plunge. For many of us though, being smarter with what we have is more doable in the near term until necessity or the value equation makes major change a higher priority. 

Using Home Heating and/or Cooling Equipment More Efficiently

Using your existing systems smarter is something that you can start doing today with minimal cost and effort.  It’s a great place to start improving your home heating and cooling energy efficiency. 

Routine Maintenance and Cleaning

Routine maintenance, such as keeping filters clean or scheduled servicing, can help systems operate at higher efficiency. It can also help your equipment last longer before major repairs or replacement.  In many cases, it will also make the equipment safer and healthier for your family, too.

Programmable Thermostats and Controllers

Using a timer or programmable thermostat can save you energy and money, but only if you use it wisely.  Having control over different zones (e.g. living areas vs. sleeping areas) helps and individual room controls are great. Technology is changing in this space all the time. In addition to more conventional controllers, smart systems are becoming more affordable and versatile.   Investigate what options might work with your specific home heating and/or cooling system.

Adjust Your Temperature Settings

Turning down (or up if you’re air conditioning in summertime) the temperature settings by a few degrees can make a huge difference.  Health authorities currently recommend a daytime minimum of 18C and a little cooler for sleeping. Beyond that, it’s all about comfort. For winter, bundle up and invest in a few cosy blankets instead of raising the settings. I’m a big fan of winter woolies and having a giant nest of blankets.  Our current home has gas hot water radiant central heating (already installed when we bought). Although it isn’t a green energy source, it works surprisingly well and is quite efficient.  I particularly like the combination of thermostat control with the ability to manually adjust or isolate individual heaters. 

For summer, look at alternatives to keeping cool before switching on the air conditioning (if you have it). If I can’t get enough natural cross-flow with windows and doors, fans are one of my favourites.  Check out the Energy Wise suggestions for efficient settings on your air conditioner, including selective settings to use less energy than full operation. 

Reduce Leaks and Drafts

Rather than just throwing more effort and expense into heating and cooling, looking to the house itself is a great starting point for improvements.  If a building retains heat (or vice versa), it will naturally require less effort and energy to regulate the temperature. Draughts, leaks, and cracks are a good starting point with opportunities for quick wins and inexpensive fixes, temporary or permanent.

Having grown up in a far colder climate, I was shocked when I first moved to Australia (which does get chilly in winter and bakes all summer) as how incredibly “leaky” our relatively modern first home was. There have been plenty of quick fixes in every house of all ages/types we’ve lived in since, both there and in other countries.  As a plus, you can make gains if you can’t alter the property itself – even a simple stuffed draught stopper at the door helps (and might also deter a spider or two…eek!)

Adding Insulation and Buffers

Full or partial insulation (or replacement insulation) can be a worthwhile investment, but not always practical for existing homes. There are many different types of insulation for different purposes and locations. Research what might work for your location and style of home (and budget). 

Older homes, like ours, often lack access to the wall cavities unless claddings are removed which is prohibitive unless doing other major works. On the plus side, they often have ready access to attics and under the floors.  I am consistently awed at the emptiness inside the walls in houses here. Although I have to say that the big old native New Zealand timber boards inside our current walls were AMAZING to see. 

Small adjustments, adding like rugs and carpets, can also help to buffer chilly floors from above and feel great underfoot, even if your house is snug. I am a fan of hard floors for easy cleaning, but I do love a gorgeous rug! It can really make a space, can’t it? 

Improving Efficiency of Existing Windows

Windows are another huge thermal transfer area that can benefit from draught-stopping and insulation. Upgrading windows can be seriously expensive, especially in an older or heritage property. Our old house still has many of its original sash windows. They are part of its charm as well, but also it’s inherent inefficiency. Surprisingly, single pane glass is also still common here, even in newer properties (!!!).

Adhesive window films are an inexpensive DIY option to improve existing windows. We’ve used both thermal film (handy for reducing UV fading too) and frosted films in different homes for different applications. The frosted film is great for locations where you want added privacy, such as bathrooms or windows directly facing a neighbour, without shutting out all the light and heat.

Using full heavy curtains (or snugly fitted thermal blinds) can help trap heat in winter and block hot summer sun. Our curtains and blinds definitely get a workout! I chase the sun in winter and hide from it in summer. In a previous home (different style in a different climate), we had exterior shutters installed. Not only did they let us lock-up like a fortress, they made an enormous difference in the summertime by blocking heat, filtering sun, and allowing us to maintain both airflow and security.

A Little Help from Nature

Our current home is not air-conditioned, and we rely completely on airflow (augmented with fans when needed) and our window coverings to manage temperature. Using airflow and cross-ventilation during summer really helps, especially if there is a nice breeze.

Deciduous shade trees can help shield your home from hot summer sun (and look great while they consume carbon); however, be conscious of root spread relative to foundations and underground services. Consider neighbours if properties are close together, don’t forget about the autumn clean-up factor, and remember to keep your gutters clear.

A Fresh Footnote

Since this post was first shared on the blog, options have changed significantly for controlling home appliances, equipment, lighting, and more. We’ve moved yet again though, so haven’t incorporated any of these at the old villa we were renovating when this post was written. Our new home was a fresh build, with lots of clever (and efficient) elements added during and after construction. As a mini spoiler, we’ve included concrete floors and solar orientation to help with natural heating and cooling, and lots of cross-flow ventilation. Stay tuned for future posts!

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Our current feature topic is greener choices around the home. This month’s posts explore home energy efficiency, with a focus on doable changes for real life improvements in your existing home and budget. Check out the full mini-series:

Improving Home Heating and Cooling Energy Efficiency

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