U.S. households spend more of their energy budget on heating than any other expense. According to the Energy Star program, heating costs make up 29 percent of the average energy bill, significantly more than the second highest energy expense -- cooling -- which accounts for about 17 percent of your budget. (See References 1) The big costs associated with heating mean that improving the efficiency of your heating system can translate into big savings.
Air-Source Heat Pumps
The U.S. government's Energy Star program allows products to use the Energy Star label if they meet stringent energy-efficiency requirements. Installing an Energy Star heat pump is one way to achieve considerable energy savings: The program estimates that Energy Star heat pumps are 20 percent more efficient than the models found in most homes. (See References 2)
Geothermal Heat Pumps
While air-source heat pumps depend on the temperature of the outside air, geothermal heat pumps use the temperature below the earth's surface, which remains almost unchanging, regardless of season. This below-ground temperature tends to be cooler than summer air temperatures and warmer than winter air temperatures. Geothermal systems have much higher energy-efficiency than air-source systems. Although much more expensive to install, geothermal systems are so efficient that the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that energy savings can pay for the installation costs in as few as 5 years. (See References 3)
Proper installation and maintenance greatly improves heating system efficiency. Even if you can't afford a new system, you may be able to save on your energy bills with some simple improvements to the system you have. Energy Star advises checking your air filter monthly and changing it at least every three months -- more often during high-use periods. Dirty filters force the system to work harder and increase your heating bills. Have annual maintenance done on your system to keep it running at its best. (See References 4) In the average home, 20 percent of the air that moves through the heating system is lost to leaks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sealing your ductwork to prevent leaks improves the system's efficiency. Likewise, insulating the ductwork in unheated attics or basements minimizes the heat lost as the air travels through these portions of the house. (See References 5)
Using Your System Efficiently
You can also change how you use your system to improve its efficiency. Many homeowners heat rooms that aren't occupied or expend energy heating a home during times of the day when occupants aren't home. Installing a programmable thermostat can save you on heating expenses by adjusting your thermostat to lower temperatures during times of the day when you aren't at home (see References 4). You can also adjust the thermostat or close vents in rooms that you don't use (see References 5).
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