Questions to Ask About Heating

In the past, energy efficiency has been a hard sell to both builders and buyers because it nearly always made houses more costly to build and buy. In recent years, however, building scientists have demonstrated that in taking a holistic or “whole house” approach to energy efficiency, houses can be much more energy efficient without significantly raising the cost of the house.

Houses can be more comfortable with better indoor air quality. This has gotten everyone’s attention. Many builders have jumped on this bandwagon and are actively participating in federally sponsored programs such as the Department of Energy’s Building America program or the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program

A builder who does not participate in an organized program for increasing energy efficiency can still produce an energy efficient house simply by sealing the ducts, locating them so that less energy is lost to the great outdoors, buying good windows and plugging up air leaks. Additional refinements will also affect comfort and lower those utility bills. Here are seven additional questions to ask any builder you are considering.

1. Who designed the heating and cooling system?

It looks deceptively simple, but designing a good one is part art and part science; you need an experienced mechanical engineer, not a heating and cooling contractor who did it on the fly. If the home is larger ask specifically how the contractor is going to balance or compensate for the longer runs to the far rooms. In larger two story homes, the homes will have a split system with two furnaces, to balance the heating needs.Large heating and cooling contracting firms generally have several mechanical engineers on their staff, but you should ask.

A poorly designed system can produce uneven air distribution (some of the rooms are too hot or too cold), unhealthy indoor air (some rooms get too much fresh air and others not enough), and unwelcome noise (poorly installed and/or wrongly sized duct work).

2. Was the mechanical system tailored to the orientation of each new house in a subdivision, or calculated for the worst case and then installed in all the houses?

If the calculations are based on the worst-case scenario, you could be paying for a larger system than your house requires. The oversizing will cause the equipment to cycle on and off constantly, which will shorten its useful life. Even worse, your discomfort may be acute. During the cold months the furnace will be constantly overshooting the temperature setting and turning itself off. You will be either too hot or too cold.

If the major living areas of your house face east or west — the worst-case scenario — and this was not taken into account when the system was designed, you will be uncomfortable to miserable.

3. Does the builder offer additional windows as an option?

In many cases, a buyer can add as many as six or eight windows to a production builder’s standard floor plan. This may greatly enhance the interior spaces, but it also adds to the heating and cooling load, so ask if the mechanical system has been appropriately modified.

4. If you are buying the end unit in a row of town houses, the house will have a large exposed end wall. Was the mechanical system designed to take this into account?

If your heating and cooling system is the same size as the interior unit next door, you will be very uncomfortable, especially if your end wall faces east or west.

5. Does the builder include an air exchange system or whole house fan? This fan will provide an air exchange with the outside air provided the home has fresh air inlets. Typically this fan will be controlled by a timer.

6. Where are the filters located?

All hot and cold air systems have filters that must be periodically changed or cleaned. When the filter is at a return grill, this is easy. But when the filter is in the attic or somewhere else that is fairly inaccessible, this becomes an odious chore that is often left undone.

You should also ask if the builder offers any filter upgrades. Standard issue in a production house (also known as a tract house) will almost surely be the “dollar filter” type that only removes the largest dust particles –about 7 to 10 percent of what comes through the ducts. The Cadillac of filters is the electronic type that removes about 80 percent of the dust that comes through. We recommend this type of filter if you have allergies.

Because some of the filters are sizable and can affect the installation of the air handler, you need to discuss any filter upgrades with the builder and his heat and air conditioning contractor before the sales contract is finalized.

7. What is the cost to upgrade to a higher efficiency furnace??

Today most contractors are using 80% efficient furnaces. Manufacturers make higher efficient furnaces but they are much more expensive and typically do not last as long. Models that offer up to 96% efficiency are available.  In our opinion,  the additional cost and long payback period make these models less attractive. Gas fired furnaces are the most popular method of heating the home.

8. Should you consider a heat pump instead of a furnace?  If you do not know how heat pumps work, an explanation can be found here,

To determine if your builder participates in the Department of Energy’s Building America Program, check its Web site: www.buildingamerica.gov.

To locate a builder who participates in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Homes program, check its Web site: www.energystar.gov (click on “new homes”).