All fired up about more efficient home furnaces

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Q: I read a newspaper story about new energy standards for home furnaces and wonder how this affects me. Does this mean that I need to replace my current furnace now?

A: I can always tell from my e-mails when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issues new standards for appliances and other products. Readers want to know if this means that their current appliance is now substandard or otherwise needing to be replaced soon.

DOE sets minimum energy standards for a number of products, requiring manufacturers to meet certain levels of energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, they announced an increase in the energy efficiency standards for residential furnaces and boilers.

While these new standards have no effect on your current appliances, they do help ensure that when it's time for replacements like a new furnace, consumers will be getting products that will save them money on their energy bills while further helping improve the environment.

In the case of these new furnace and boiler standards, which will go into effect in 2015, DOE estimates that Americans will save the equivalent of all energy used by 2.5 million households in a year.

Raising standards does often add somewhat to the purchase price of the new products, but energy savings will be greater than these additional costs over the lifetime of the appliances. An increase in cost of a furnace that meets the new standard might be around $200, for example, but it should actually pay that back and then save the household more than $200 over the system's lifetime.

If your current furnace is working fine, there's no need to worry about the effect of new energy standards today. But it is a reminder that when it's time to buy new appliances, choosing the most energy-efficient ones -- even if their purchase price is higher than the others -- usually results in significant energy savings that save money for many years during the product's lifetime.

Q: You wrote an article recently about the importance of sealing the hatch to an attic. I checked ours and could feel drafts blowing all around the access door. I'm not very handy but I thought this might be one job I could so myself. What's the easiest way to fix this?

A: I'm not too handy either, but some simple guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency make me think that even I could do this. And it is important to do because unless the attic access hatch is as heavily insulated as the rest of the attic, you'll waste a lot of heated or cooled air into the attic.

It sounds like your attic access door is the type that just sits on some molding, so you'll really just need to tighten this seal as well as add some insulation above the door.

Stop by a local hardware or building supply store and buy some self-sticking foam weatherstripping. You ought to have some of this at home to use around doors and windows anyway, and it's one of those inexpensive home fixes that can pay back big dividends in energy savings.

Because your attic hatch is the type that rests directly on the molding, cut some 2 1/2-inch wide wood strips to fit on the perimeter of the opening and nail them in place. This gives you a wider surface to use, and you can then put the weatherstrip tape along the top edge of the boards to create a tight seal for the door.

Then mount some hook-and-eye latches onto the side of the wood strips, positioning the hook fasteners so that the weatherstrip will be compressed slightly when they are latched. Cut a piece of insulation board the same size as the attic hatch and glue or nail it to the back of the hatch.

Now when you close the attic hatch, with the insulation on back of it, it will shut snugly on the weatherstrip material, and you will get a tight fit by using the hook-and-eye latch rather than just having the access door sitting on the molding.

For those of you whose homes have pull-down stairs or a door to the attic, treat this like it is a regular door to the outside of your home and use the weatherstrip material around its edges. You should also put a piece of rigid insulation on the back of the access door.

I think you'll notice the impact of a simple do-it-yourself project like this in a very short time. Anything you can do to stop the unwanted flow of air between the home and the attic will cut down on energy costs and help make the house feel much more comfortable.

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