Is a Heating Tune Up Really Worth the Cost?

heating tune up

Make sure your heating system is operating safely and at peak efficiency with an annual heating system inspection.

Although nearly all manufacturers recommend having an annual or bi-annual heating tune up performed by a qualified heating and A/C technician, far too many homeowners fail to have these inspections done.

We all know that exceeding an auto manufacturer’s recommended mileage for oil changes, and going years without a dental check up can have catastrophic results.  But when it comes to our home heating systems, many people have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.

The truth of the matter is, your home heating system is made up of a number of highly sophisticated mechanical and electrical components that require routine maintenance in order to perform at peak efficiency, and prevent premature failure.  A plugged drain line alone can  lead to hundreds of dollars worth of damage, and can create the ideal environment for mold growth which can lead to respiratory complications – especially for young children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions such as allergies and asthma.

What’s Included in a Heating Tune Up?

Equally as dangerous as not having your heating system tuned up on a regular basis, is having it inspected by a cut-rate contractor.  The service you can expect when you purchase a $29 Groupon deal is typically not going to be the same as what you’ll receive from an $80 heating tune up.  In short, you get what you pay for.  Any your family’s comfort and safety is no place to skimp on cost.

You should also be aware that the terms “tune up”, “inspection”, “maintenance” and “safety check” are often used to describe the various services performed by different heating and A/C companies, and comparing them isn’t usually and apples-to-apples proposition.

When scheduling your heating tune up, you should always ask what’s included for the price.  Any reputable heating and air conditioning contractor will be happy to provide you with a list of the systems and components.  You should also make sure that the heating and A/C company your considering is licensed and insured.  It’s also a good idea to read online reviews, including the company’s rating with your local Better Business Bureau.

Bottom line?  Having an annual heating tune up will protect you from the expense of unexpected repairs, and make your home a safer, more comfortable environment for your entire family.

Do you have thoughts on this topic?  Please share them with us by leaving a comment below.

Renewable energy: Solar in Texas

Here is a crazy fact for Texans to ponder as they enter the bright, sunny, brutally hot, and humid days of July and August:

According to a variety of sources, the massive southern sunshine that falls on Texas in one month contains more energy than all of the oil that has ever been pumped in the Lone Star State.

Holy solar eclipse Batman!

Is that true?

Apparently so. In fact, Texas has the largest solar potential of any state in the country but it lags far behind others in actually producing solar power.

This begins a series of posts looking at solar power in Texas as homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and elsewhere in the Lone Star State have expressed interest in it, what it’s all about, and it’s future as a viable renewable energy source.

Renewable Energy in Texas

Because homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas are interested in saving money on their monthly energy bill, in conserving energy when they can, and in becoming more energy efficient, we recently took at look at Texas’ renewable energy efforts.

Our post concentrated more on Texas’ wind energy capacity and progress than solar because, well, the state is much further along with wind than sun.

Here is how Texas ranks in renewable energy efforts, keeping in mind that the state is also the top producer of oil and natural gas:

  • No. 1 in wind energy capacity
  • No. 1 in wind energy-related manufacturing and services
  • No. 1 in wind industry employment and service
  • No. 2 in total renewable energy employment and service
  • No. 1 in biodiesel production
  • No. 4 in clean energy-related patents

Hmmm. Texas has cracked the Top 10 in solar-related manufacturing and services but it’s no where near its customary No. 1 or 2 position in the energy rankings.

Texas, however, is No. 1 in solar potential.

What’s up with that?

Texas’ wind generation is 12 times larger in 2011 than 2002. Wind’s share of the Texas Interconnection Region’s electric power generation was 19.7 percent at the end of 2013. Wind now comprises more than three-quarters of Texas’ renewable energy usage.

Texas Solar Development

But solar development lags far behind wind energy in Texas. Just drive through West Texas to see all the “wind farms” in operation, spinning its blades, generating energy, and placing it on The Grid for homeowners and businesses to use in cities such as Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. It’s not a huge amount of energy, truth be told, but it’s a promising start.

You’d think Texas would be at the forefront of solar energy development and production. It’s the largest state land mass-wise, meaning there is plenty of wide open spaces — not to mention sunshine across the vast state — for “sun farms” to operate and generate at least some energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy notes that Texas is home to a full 20 percent of the total U.S. potential for concentrated solar power generation and service, more than any other state.

Why is Texas So Awful at Producing Solar Power?

Only a small percentage of that solar potential, however, has been exploited. Cities such as Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas are largely shut out of solar, unless it’s at the private sector, while cities such as San Antonio and Austin are making some headway.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) notes that Texas has only about 200 megawatts worth of solar-power panels installed — less than New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York.
Massachusetts. Really?

Why is Texas so terrible at producing solar power?

Is it opposition from the oil and natural gas industries?

Is it because of a lack of investors and innovators?

It’s certainly not because of a lack of interest among consumers. Homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and throughout Texas are beginning to express interest in solar power and what it might be able to do for them.

Texas’ solar sector is floundering for a variety of reasons. Chief among them are policy choices and economic forces that have stunted solar’s growth thus far in the state.

Ten years ago policies supporting renewable energy were largely viewed through investments. Renewable energy had significant state-level success in attracting bipartisan support. But after a congressional struggle over the cap-and-trade climate bills, support in renewable energy was increasingly viewed as a political statement.

In Texas, a deeply red, conservative, and Republican state, there’s little appetite for restructuring its energy policies to find new support for solar.

Ironically, Texas is one of 29 states with a renewable-energy standard, which is a goal for generating a certain amount of power from sources like wind, solar, and other fossil-fuel alternatives.
When the standard was signed into law in 1999 it called for 2,000 megawatts of additional power generation to be brought online within a decade.

The rub: There was no specific requirement for solar power. Without that requirement, developers have overwhelmingly chose wind energy and its service segment over solar because investors are more familiar with it, it requires lower front-end costs, and it’s viewed as less risky.

Take a back seat solar.

Texas also lacks “net-metering,” a policy that has helped solar flourish in other states. Net-metering allows residential solar customers to earn full retail credit for excess electricity they sell back to the grid. It’s a policy in 43 states but not Texas.

Aside from politics, solar in Texas is also hurt by typically cheap electricity (compared with other states) and a mature service and support industry, making it hard for any solar-producing power plant to turn a profit, especially one with high up-front costs like those for a solar farm (which has almost no service industry to help support adoption).

The fracking boom also has stiffened competition for solar energy as the supply glut and resulting price dip in fuel prices has made natural-gas power plants a more attractive option.

Sunny Future?

Solar advocates insist that, with the right policies, solar energy has strong potential in Texas. It certainly has interest among curious homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and residents elsewhere in the Lone Star State who want to become more energy efficient and save money on their monthly energy bill.

Cities such as San Antonio and, to a lesser extent, Austin are having success with solar. San Antonio has 90 megawatts of utility-scale solar online and the service industry to support it, with another 15 megawatts from direct generation. The utility CPS Energy estimates there’s another 385 megawatts coming online over the next two to three years. That’s enough to rank San Antonio sixth nationwide in solar capacity.

Austin has just 16 megawatts online, but it’s something.

What sets San Antonio and Austin apart from other cities in Texas is their municipal utilities have more freedom to set independent renewable goals and offer rebates. Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston are more handicapped.

Ultimately, solar’s best hope in Texas will come not from policy but from technology.

The cost of solar panels is falling rapidly as scientists develop more efficient manufacturing models and cheaper Chinese equipment hits the market. Texas also has considerable public and private solar research efforts under way in the state.

Ultimately, as often happens in the Internet Age, technology and innovation force change. Even in Texas, it’s difficult to argue with a lower price tag.

Guide to What is Wasted Energy and How to Save

There is so much energy-related information available on the Internet it gets confusing. Lists, checklists, How To guides, Do It Yourself lists and videos, energy websites, manufacturer websites, blogs.

What’s good information?

What should be ignored?

In an effort to help Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners sift through reams of — or bytes, in this case — information, we’ve assembled a concise, at-a-glance list of What is Wasted Energy and How to Save Energy, organized by subject.

It’s a cause-and-effect, yin-and-yang way of looking at energy to help homeowners conserve energy, save money, and avoid costly service and repair to your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment. In no particular order of importance.


What is Wasted Energy?

  • Incandescent or halogen light bulbs.
  • Lights left on.

How to Save Energy

  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs or LEDs — a bit more expensive but readily available at home improvement centers, hardware stores, and retail stores throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.
  • Turn off lights!
  • Install smart technology in high traffic rooms that will turn on/off lights automatically. If you don’t want to mess with home automation, call a specialty company in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area for a service tech and/or salesman to visit the home for an assessment and quotation.
  • Install outdoor lighting with motion sensors or timers.

Water Heating & Piping

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Un-insulated water heaters and pipes.

How to Save Energy

  • Upgrade or install insulation to the water heater and pipes (images) — a low-cost, easy DIY project that will not necessitate a service call from a local HVAC and/or plumbing company.

Water Heater Temperature Setting

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Thermostat set to 125 degrees to 140 degrees.

How to Save Energy

  • Set to 120 degrees or lower; you can do this; if you prefer not to mess with it, have an HVAC or plumbing service tech make the adjustment for you during a winter or summer equipment check-up.
  • Take quicker warm/hot showers!

Electronics and Small Appliances

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Left on when not in use.
  • Electronics and small appliances draw power in a “sleep” state, known as “phantom” power or “standby”, which actually adds up by device, over time, and costs you money. Fractions of pennies add up to pennies add up to . . . you get the idea. Think about the number of these devices in your home — DVRs, cable boxes, TVs, computers and monitors, cordless phones and answering machines, motion sensors, among many more. There are all sorts of phantom power devices, gauges, and knicknacks available at Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas retail stores. HVAC service and repair companies can also recommend products for you to better understand and manage phantom power in the home.

How to Save Energy

  • Plug all appliances and small electronics into power strips that are conveniently located so you can turn off with one button when not in use. Power strips completely shut off power use, eliminating “phantom” power. (Smart power strips.)

Heating and Cooling Equipment

What is Wasted Energy?

  • HVAC systems that are older than 12 years.
  • HVAC systems that are not serviced for a few years. These can develop undetected inefficiencies that, if left unattended, can worsen over time.

How to Save Energy

  • Replace the aging units with new HVAC equipment; call a service and repair company in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and surrounding cities to understand your options, needs, and to do the installation.
  • Install a programmable or smart thermostat and actively use it control the temperature during the day.
  • Make sure the air conditioner has the proper amount of refrigerant or there are no slow leaks; this can be achieved easily with winter and summer system checkups by your HVAC service company.

Forced Air Furnace

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Dirty, clogged air filters on the air intake.
  • Not changing air filters on a regular basis.

How to Save Energy

  • Replace or clean air intake filters every month or two during high use seasons, like in the 100-degree summers in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.
  • If not every month or two, follow manufactuer recommendation — every quarter, twice a year, annually.

Electrical Outlets, Windows and Frames, Baseboards, Doors, Attic Hatch, Wall/Window Mounted AC Units

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Air leaks from gaps in deteriorating exterior caulk or weatherstripping; the caulk cracks or shrivels from the building materials.

How to Save Energy

  • Apply new caulking, seal, or weatherstripping — readily available at home improvement, hardware, and retail stores in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas stores.

Home Exterior

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Cracks and holes in the mortar, foundation, and siding.

How to Save Energy

  • Seal effectively with mortar or caulking to prevent any heat loss.
  • If there are significant cracks or holes, you may want to call a local builder or contractor for a consultation.

Attic Floor

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Poorly insulated floors with gaps.
  • Thin, aging insulation.
  • Insulation that’s been compromised by water leaks.
  • Recessed lighting fixtures and have not been properly sealed.

How to Save Energy

  • Upgrade insulation.
  • Add weatherstripping to attic hatch.
  •  Install an attic hatch cover.

Attic Vents

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Vent and interior air flow is blocked by mounding, clumping, or poorly distributed insulation.

How to Save Energy

  • Clear vents of obstructing insulation

Exterior Corners of the Home, Where Siding and Chimneys Meet, Where the Foundation Meets Siding

What is Wasted Energy?

  • Air flows into the home due to cracks and holes in the mortar, foundation, or siding.

How to Save Energy

  • Apply new mortar, sealer or siding to seal the leak.

Assessing Energy Efficiency

The Environmental Protection Agency offers an Energy Yardstick that provides a simple assessment of your home’s annual energy use and compares it to similar homes. All  you need to do is answer a few basic questions.

  • Your zip code.
  • Your homes square footage.
  • Number of full-time residents living in the home.
  • A list of all the different fuels used (electricity, natural gas, and so on).
  • The home’s last 12 months of utility bills (some utility companies provide a 12 month summary on a bill or through a Green Button file, which is a secure download.

R22 alternatives

To help Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners understand the phaseout of the air conditioning refrigerant known as R-22, we’ve assembled a list of frequently asked questions culled from local residents and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a previous post, we provided the background to what is happening with air conditioning refrigerant, why it is being phased out, what its status is today, and what homeowners need to know.

How can I find if my air conditioner contains R-22?

Most air conditioners have a nameplate on the unit that identifies the refrigerant it contains and other information, such as safety certifications and electrical ratings.

For a central air conditioner, the nameplate is usually on the outdoor condensing unit.

If a nameplate is not provided or is aged and not readable, check the owner’s manual. If you do not have the documentation, call the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas who sold you the system or services it.

If all else fails, write down the manufacturer and model number and visit the company’s website, send an email to or phone its customer service department.

Can I purchase a new home air conditioner that uses R-22?

Self-contained systems manufactured before Jan. 1, 2010, may be purchased, but these are usually window units.

New central air conditioning system that use R-22 are no longer being sold as of Dec. 31, 2009.

R-22 may not be produced for new air conditioning/refrigeration systems and instead will be limited to the servicing of existing systems.

Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners should be aware that supplies of R-22 are becoming limited, are only used to service older equipment, and is getting more expensive.

Should I stop using R-22 in my air conditioner?

No. You will not be required to stop using R-22 and you will not be required to replace existing systems.

The lengthy phaseout period provides time to switch to ozone-friendly alternatives.

Beginning in 2020, R-22 will no longer be produced, so homeowners will need to rely solely on recycled or reclaimed refrigerant to service any systems still operating after that date. Expect R-22 prices to continue skyrocketing as supply dwindles.

If you are unsure how the R-22 phaseout impacts your air conditioning and home, ask the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas service or repair tech who comes to your house for the semi-annual HVAC checkup. It is smart to know where you stand for planning purposes.

What if my air conditioner needs R-22?

You may continue to have your equipment containing R-22 serviced after 2010, although only a limited amount of new R-22 will be manufactured. Prices for an R-22 or freon “charge” are already skyrocketing.

After 2020, production of R-22 will be prohibited an only, recovered, recycled, or reclaimed supplies will be available for servicing existing equipment.
I own an AC that uses R-22. What can I do?
If you have equipment that contains R-22, the most important thing you can do is to maintain the unit properly. It is highly recommended to have your HVAC equipment checkout twice a year (usually in the Spring and Fall) by a service contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.
By doing this, you will spot leaks and can have them serviced or repaired sooner. Major leaks rarely develop in units that are properly installed and maintained.
If you do not already use a reliable HVAC contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, make sure the technicians you choose are EPA certified to service equipment containing R-22.
It is illegal to intentionally vent (release) any refrigerant when making repairs. Therefore, technicians are required to use refrigerant recovery equipment during service. Also, request that service technicians locate and repair leaks instead of “topping off” leaking systems. This will help ensure that your system operates at its optimal level, which reduces emissions of refrigerant and saves you money by reducing your household energy use and avoiding additional repairs in the future.
Are alternatives to R-22 available?
Yes, alternative refrigerants are available and widely used in the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry today.
Through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Program, EPA has found acceptable a number of alternatives to R-22 that do not deplete the ozone layer. R-410A, an HFC refrigerant blend, is the most common. Some common trade names for R-410A include GENETRON AZ-20®, SUVA 410A®, Forane® 410A, and Puron®.
The EPA maintains a full list of acceptable substitutes for household and light commercial air-conditioning.
How should I select a dealer or contractor?
Not all contractors are properly trained. When searching for an HVAC company in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, make sure you ask if its service technicians are trained in the use of alternative refrigerants because the transition from R-22 to systems that rely on replacement refrigerants has required the redesign of heat pump and air-conditioning systems.
How should I dispose of an appliance that contains R-22?
There are a number of options for disposing of appliances. If you purchase a new appliance, such as a refrigerator or freezer, your retailer like Lowe’s or Home Depot will likely remove the old one, although there could be a disposal fee. Ask at the purchase of new equipment.
Landfills, scrap yards, and metal recyclers may not accept appliances if they still contain refrigerant; if they do, they are still responsible for removing or verifying removal of refrigerant before they take custody.
The appliance cannot be altered in a way that will release refrigerant into the atmosphere before disposal. For example, appliance owners should not cut refrigerant lines or remove compressors in order to have their appliances accepted by a disposal facility.
The EPA requires the safe disposal of ozone-depleting refrigerants in appliances to ensure that they are removed safely and will not harm the environment. A summary of EPA’s appliance safe disposal program is available online or contact a Department of Public Works in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to see if they offer pick-up/drop-off appliance disposal options.
Tips for Preparing for the Future
In order to avoid the problems and expenses associated with the R-22 refrigerant phaseout, a growing number of homeowners are making the decision to upgrade their air conditioning systems sooner than they might have otherwise.
By making the switch to a cooling unit that utilizes R-410A, you can do your part to help the environment and relax with the peace of mind that rising R-22 costs will not impact you.
Here are a few suggestions for staying ahead of the curve and getting the most benefit from your air conditioner upgrade:
– Work with R-410A certified professionals – R-410A operates at higher pressures than R-22, which means that new air conditioners require HVAC service techs to follow different safety standards and techniques than before.
– Insist on a proper match – For homeowners with a split air conditioning system, it’s imperative that both sides of your system, the outside condensing unit and inside evaporator/air handler, are a good match. This means that you cannot simply install an outdoor condensing unit that utilizes R-410A and expect it to be compatible with an indoor evaporator that relies on R-22 refrigerant. Unless both sides of the system utilize the same refrigerant, your air conditioner will fail to run efficiently, and the excess strain on your system could lead to serious problems.

R22 Phase Out

The hot and muggy summer is in full swing in North Texas, and when the air conditioner starts to blow warmish air one thing immediately pops into the minds of Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners: The AC needs a blast of refrigerant.

But what does that mean, exactly?

And is refrigerant still used?

Isn’t it being phased out because of global warming?

In this post and the next we look at air conditioning refrigerant, also known as R-22, its status today, what the alternatives are for the future, and what you need to know, including retrofitting.

Refrigerant Background

Not that many homeowners care about the details, but this is what happened to air conditioning refrigerant as we know it.

The Montreal Protocol

An international treaty was signed in 1987 to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that were responsible for ozone depletion. One of those substances, a refrigerant known as R-22, is used in air conditioning and greatly impacts homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Texas, and, well, a large part of the United States and people in many other countries.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, as the treaty is formally known, is widely regarded as the world’s most successful environmental protection agreement. It is the only treaty with universal ratification as all 197 members of the United Nations accepted legally-binding obligations to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances, beginning in 1989.

The Montreal Protocol, as the treaty is more commonly known, set out a mandatory timetable for the phase out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), such as R22, by 2030. It has been further strengthened through five amendments — London 1990, Copenhagen 1992, Vienna 1995, Montreal again in 1997, and Beijing 1999, which determined phase out schedules and added new ozone-depleting substances to the original list.

All these actions and decisions, which impact homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, originated in Canada, England, Denmark, Austria, and China years ago. And now, nearly 30 years later, the end is in sight.

EPA Publishes Final Rule

This is what you need to know.

At the end of October 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a final rule adjusting the allowance system for the consumption and production of HCFCs in 2015-2019 (view Federal Register), which gives everybody a better understanding of what’s coming (or, in the case of R-22, not coming) . . .

  • Equipment manufacturers: Since 2010, the manufacture of R-22 reliant cooling systems is no longer permitted. They are actively manufacturing new air conditioning systems that use alternative refrigerants. However, they still have loads of air conditioners using R-22 installed worldwide.
  • Homeowners: Those with air conditioners or heat pumps older than three years old may be impacted, especially when it comes to replacing used or lost refrigerant in older systems.
  • Contractors, service and repair techs: They must work with homeowners to understand the status of their air conditioners, how the phaseout impacts them, what they may or may not need to do about it, either soon or in the near future.

If you are unsure of the status of your air conditioner and its use of refrigerant, the next time an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area AC contractor visits the house for a maintenance or service call, ask him for details and what to expect. It’s important.

R-22 and You (EPA)

Unless you’ve needed an air conditioner serviced, repaired, or replaced, you probably have never dealt with R-22, which is commonly found in the equipment listed below.

  • window air conditioner units
  • packaged air conditioners and heat pumps
  • dehumidifiers
  • chillers
  • central air conditioners
  • retail food refrigeration
  • air-to-air heat pumps
  • cold storage warehouses
  • ground-source heat pumps
  • industrial process refrigeration
  • ductless air conditioners
  • transport refrigeration
  • chest or upright freezers

Most Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners only will be concerned with central air conditioners. Again, if you are uncertain if your AC still uses R-22, ask your service or repair tech to explain it to you.

  • If you have an older AC unit, you probably still use R-22 — but the availability of replacement refrigerant is becoming scarce and more expensive (see below).
  •  If you have an older AC unit and plan to replace it in the near future, whatever you buy will use a different refrigerant. But what are your options?

Availability of R-22

The Clean Air Act does not allow any refrigerant to be vented into the atmosphere during installation, service, or retirement of equipment. Therefore, R-22 must be recovered and recycled (for reuse in the same system), reclaimed (reprocessed to the same purity standard as new R-22), or destroyed.

After 2020, the servicing of R-22-based systems will rely solely on recycled or reclaimed refrigerants. It is expected that reclamation and recycling will ensure that existing supplies of R-22 will last longer and be available to service a greater number of systems.

  • To give you an idea of the reduction: In 2011 there were 100 million pounds of refrigerant developed; in 2012, it was 55 million; in 2013 it dropped to 39 million. These numbers will continue to dwindle until 2020, when the manufacture of R-22 will be completely prohibited.
  • With the cost of R-22 supplies shrinking fast, the cost to purchase it is rising quickly. Even a seemingly routine tuneup could become expensive if the air conditioner’s refrigerant is undercharged.
  • By 2015, there will be a 90 percent reduction in the production of R-22.

Servicing existing units and retrofitting

Existing units using R-22 can continue to be serviced with R-22. There is no EPA requirement to change or convert R-22 units for use with a non-ozone-depleting substitute refrigerant. Such changes, called “retrofits,” are allowed if the alternative has been found acceptable for that type of use.

R-407C is allowed for retrofits but R-410A is not allowed in retrofits due to its higher working pressures. In addition, the new substitute refrigerants would not work well without making some changes to system components. As a result, service technicians who repair leaks to the system will most often continue to charge R-22 into the system as part of that repair.

EPA warns homeowners, home improvement contractors and air conditioning technicians of potential safety hazards related to the use of propane or other unapproved refrigerants in home air conditioning systems. Home air conditioning systems are not designed to handle propane or other similar flammable refrigerants. The use of these substances poses a potential fire or explosion hazard for homeowners and service technicians.

Installing new units

The transition away from ozone-depleting R-22 to systems that rely on replacement refrigerants like R-410A has required redesign of heat pump and air conditioning systems.

New systems incorporate compressors and other components specifically designed for use with specific replacement refrigerants. For instance, if a new outdoor unit is installed, it is likely that a new indoor unit will also be required. With these significant product and production process changes, testing and training must also change. Consumers should be aware that dealers of systems that use substitute refrigerants should be schooled in installation and service techniques required for use of that substitute refrigerant.

Next Up

Answering frequently asked questions from Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homeowners about the R-22 phaseout.

ASHRAE what to know about AC

If any organization knows a thing or two about air conditioning it’s the folks at ASHRAE, better known as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

Around since 1894 — when the idea of cooling air with a machine was still on the inventor’s drawing board — ASHRAE is a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment (Wikipedia entry).

The society and its members basically focus on building systems, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, refrigeration, and sustainability within the industry. In short . . .

They know how to keep Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas residents comfortably cool in the hot and humid Texas summers.

They know how to keep us toasty warm in the unpredictable North Texas winters.

In this post we look at a few things ASHRAE thinks consumers should know about air conditioning. Some of the items like service and repair we’ve discussed previously but they are worth repeating from the ASHRAE point of view.

What Is Air Conditioning?

ASHRAE says the first functional definition of air-conditioning was created in 1908 and is credited to G.B. Wilson. It is the definition that Willis Carrier, the “father of air conditioning” subscribed to when inventing the first actual air conditioner.

  • Maintain suitable humidity in all parts of a building
  • Free the air from excessive humidity during certain seasons
  • Supply a constant and adequate supply of ventilation
  • Efficiently remove from the air micro-organisms, dust, soot, and other foreign bodies
  • Efficiently cool room air during certain seasons
  • Heat or help heat the rooms in winter
  • An apparatus that is not cost-prohibitive in purchase, service or maintenance

How an Air Conditioner Works

The job of your air conditioner is moving heat from inside your home to the outside, thereby cooling you and your house.

Air conditioners blow cool air into your home by pulling the heat out of that air. The air is cooled by blowing it over a set of cold pipes called an evaporator coil. This works just like the cooling that happens when water evaporates from your skin. The evaporator coil is filled with a special liquid called a refrigerant, which changes from a liquid to a gas as it absorbs heat from the air. The refrigerant is pumped outside the house to another coil where it gives up its heat and changes back into a liquid.

This outside coil is called the condenser because the refrigerant is condensing from a gas back to a fluid just like moisture on a cold window. A pump, called a compressor, is used to move the refrigerant between the two coils and to change the pressure of the refrigerant so that all the refrigerant evaporates or condenses in the appropriate coils.

The energy to do all of this is used by the motor that runs the compressor. The entire system will normally give about three times the cooling energy that the compressor uses. This odd fact happens because the changing of refrigerant from a liquid to a gas and back again lets the system move much more energy than the compressor uses.

Air conditioners are fairly robust appliances, especially when you have an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area contractor service your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) at least once, if not twice, a year.

If you do not have an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas contractor conduct annual or semi-annual service checkups, problems arise that may continue undetected for a while, reducing energy efficiency, costing you more in electricity bills each month, and adding additional wear and tear on the equipment.

What is a Ton of Cooling

Before refrigeration air conditioning was invented, cooling was done by saving big blocks of ice. When cooling machines started getting used, they rated their capacity by the equivalent amount of ice melted in a day, which is where the term “ton” came from sizing air conditioning.

A ton of cooling is now defined as delivering 12,000 BTU/hour of cooling. BTU is short for British Thermal Unit (and is a unit that the British do not use) The BTU is a unit of heating – or in this case, cooling – energy. It’s more important, however, to keep in perspective that a window air conditioner is usually less than one ton. A small home central air conditioner would be about two tons and a large one about five tons.

What Goes Wrong

Unlike most furnaces, air conditioners are complex mechanical systems that depend on a wide variety of conditions to work correctly. They are sized to meet a certain “load” on the house. They are designed to . . .

  • have certain amount of refrigerant
  • have a certain amount of air flow across the coils

When any of these things changes, the system will have problems.

  • If you produce more heat indoors either from having more people or appliances or because of changes in the house, the air conditioning may not be able to keep up.
  • If the refrigerant charge on the system leaks, it lowers the capacity of the system. You will simply get less cooling and system will not be able to keep up when the load gets high.
  • If airflow across the outdoor (condenser) coil is reduced, the ability to reject heat outdoors is reduced and the again the capacity of the system may go down, especially at higher outdoor temperatures.

In dry climates such as the Southwest United States, the same issues happen with regard to the indoor (evaporator) coil: higher airflow helps, lower airflow hurts.

In humid climates, the situation is more complex. At higher airflows, there will be less dehumidification, leading to high indoor humidities. If the airflow gets too low, however, the evaporator coil may freeze. This makes performance worse and can damage the compressor until it fails – leaving you with an expensive repair bill and no cooling.

Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and North Texas are a combination of heat and humidity, which places extreme demands on air conditioners from late spring to early fall. That’s why regular service and maintenance is essential to maintain peak performance.

What Filters Do

Almost every air conditioning system has a filter upstream of the evaporator coil. This can be in the return grille or in special slots in the duct system and can be a fuzzy-looking or a folded paper filter. This filter removes particles from the air stream to both keep the air conditioning system clean and to remove particles from the air.

As the filter does its job, it gets loaded with more and more particles (dirty air filters). This actually has the effect of making it more efficient, but it also increases resistance and reducing airflow. When this happens, it is time to service or change the filter. How long it will take to happen depends on how dirty the air is and how big the filter is.

If you don’t change the filter, the air flow will go down, and the system will not perform well. Not only that, but if the filter is too dirty, it starts to become a source or air pollution itself.

If you take the filter out completely, you would solve the low air flow problem, but this victory would be short lived. The particles that the filter would have taken out will now build up on your evaporator coil and eventually cause it to fail. A new filter is a lot cheaper.

When you do buy a new filter, ASHRAE recommends getting one with a Minimum Efficiency Rating Value of MERV 6 or higher. These are available at home improvement centers, hardware stores, and other retail outlets throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

Maintaining the System

Routine maintenance such as changing filters can be handled by most consumers, but others tasks such as checking refrigerant levels, re-charging refrigerant levels, and servicing or repairing the compressor, evaporator coils, furnace, condensate drain, among others, should be handled by a knowledgable HVAC contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

Home Cooling by the Numbers

With the hot and humid summer clearly upon us in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, here is another way to look at home cooling. By the numbers.

Here we provide a quick scan on a few air conditioner numbers, provide Did You Know facts, and offer insight on ventilation, maintaining your air conditioner, and common AC problems.

By the Numbers

Nearly 50 percent . . . of the average household’s energy use goes to space cooling, more in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area due to extreme humidity and heat in late spring, summer, and early fall. That number is down from nearly 60 percent in 1993 thanks to more energy efficient equipment and an emphasis on making the entire cooling (and heating) ecosystem as efficient as possible.

Nearly 22 percent . . . of all energy consumption for cooling is made up of residential households, businesses account for the remainder. There are approximately 115 million households, averaging nearly 2,000 square foot (2014, Department of Energy).

More than $2,000 . . . it’s what the average household spends on residential energy annually (2009 figure), including HVAC and water heating.

Two-thirds . . . of all U.S. homes have air conditioners, more than three-quarters in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

$11 billion . . . is what it costs U.S. homeowners to power their air conditioners during the summer.

Did You Know

20 to 50 percent . . . You can reduce your home cooling costs by 20 to 50 percent by upgrading to higher-efficiency air conditioners when your aging units wear out.

Replacing air filters . . . is the quickest (and least expensive) way to save energy on home cooling.

When there is excessive humidity in the air . . . which happens frequently during the spring and summer in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas . . . our body’s inability to cool itself through perspiration is inhibited. Air conditioners make us feel cooler by reducing the amount of moisture in the air.

More than 20 percent . . . of all energy may be lost to air leaks, poor insulation, and inefficient cooling and heating systems.

Reduce heating and cooling costs 10 to 35 percent annually . . . by installing low-e storm windows and weatherstripping.

Save as much as 10 percent . . . on heating and cooling bills annually by simply turning thermostats back 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours a day.

About Ventilation

Ventilation is the least expensive and most energy efficient way to cool a home. It’s often an afterthought for homeowners here in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area because of the humidity and heat but it is, naturally, top of mind for homeowners in cooler climates.

Natural ventilation . . . relies on wind to create a “chimney effect” to cool a home. A simple natural ventilation strategy is to open windows and create a cross breeze.

Fans . . . circulate air in a room, creating a wind chill effect that makes us feel more comfortable. Ceiling and floor fans are commonly found in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area homes and require little amount of energy and no servicing or repair from air conditioning companies! Fans cool people, not rooms, so turn them off when leaving for the day.

Whole house fans . . . used to be a staple in Texas homes, although they are seen less and less in newer construction. These fans pull air through windows and exhaust it through the home’s attic and roof. To ensure proper sizing, safety, and performance, service professionals should design and install these fans. Surprisingly, even on the hottest days, whole house fans can provide sufficient cooling.

Help Maintaining Your Air Conditioner

Annual maintenance and routine servicing from your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area heating and air conditioning contractor helps improve your comfort, the equipment’s efficiency, and prolongs the life of the unit(s). It also helps lower your monthly energy bill.

Replace or clean air filters . . . can lower your AC’s energy consumption by five to 15 percent.

Checking the AC’s evaporator coil and cleaning it as necessary, which will be done by a service tech during a semi-annual checkup, is a great way to keep your equipment running at peak performance.

If coil fins are bent, use a “fin comb” to straighten. The comb can be found at any home improvement center in the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas area or, if you prefer not to mess with it, the service tech will do the work for you.

If you have a split system — some equipment outside, the rest inside — be sure to clean debris and leaves from the fan, compressor, and condenser. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this.

Occasionally pass a stiff wire through the unit’s drain channels to prevent clogs. If you don’t know where the drain channel is, ask the service tech the next time he is at your home. This is an easy thing to do and can be done when you routinely replace an air filter.

If you have window air conditioners, routinely inspect the window seals to keep cool air from escaping, which often happens as the seal cracks and becomes less efficient with age.

Common Air Conditioner Problems

So the unit isn’t cooling properly . . .

  • The refrigerant could be low or leaking. Call your heating and cooling service contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to inspect, repair (if needed), and recharge the system. It is not recommended that homeowners handle refrigerant issues because the service techs have the needed equipment, material, and knowledge the rest of us do not.
  • If you have a window unit, the thermostat sensor could be knocked out of position. It’s not a repair you need to call a service tech for — just carefully bend the wire holding the thermostat back in place to properly position it.
  • Even inside the home there could be thermostat issues. Check the thermostat to make sure it is properly seated and making flush contact at all connection points. In battery-operated units, it’s easy to pull the thermostat face off the wall, replace the batteries, then misalign the contacts when replacing the face.
  • Check your AC unit’s drain to make sure it isn’t clogged. A friend once responded to a call made by a house sitter when a clogged drain in the attic overflowed that the ceiling came crashing down.
  • Check for a dirty filter. Yes, it’s worth repeating over and over and over.
    When the unit isn’t turning on . . .
  • The compressor and fan controls could be worn from having the system turn on and off too frequently. Call your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area service contractor for this one.
  • Check that thermostat again. It may need new batteries or, depending on age, replacement entirely. It’s a relatively inexpensive upgrade that will help you manage energy usage and costs.
    When there is limited airflow . . .
  • Could be a ductwork issue. The ducts could be leaking air or be clogged or constricted. Again, an issue for a pro service tech.
  • Check for a dirty air filter. A clogged filter restricts airflow and decreases efficiency.

Origins of Air Conditioning

In a post earlier this month we looked at the history of air conditioning in Texas. Many of the pre-AC strategies used by the Mexican and Spanish inhabitants and settlers to the Lone Star state had to come from somewhere.

In this post we look at the history of air conditioning, where it came from, and how it makes our Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes comfortable in the hot, humid summer that’s now upon us.

Origin of Cooling Air

A Really Long Time Ago

The concept of conditioning air is believed to have come from ancient Egypt, where reeds or pieces cloth were hung in windows and moistened with trickling water. The evaporation of the water cooled the air blowing in through the window — assuming there was a breeze in the first place.

In ancient Rome, water from aqueducts was circulated through the walls of elite houses to cool them. Medieval Persia used cisterns and wind towers in an attempt to cool buildings.

A Long Time Ago

1758 Inventor extraordinaire Benjamin Franklin and Cambridge University professor John Hadley discover that evaporation of alcohol and other volatile liquids, which evaporate faster than water, can cool down an object enough to freeze water.

1820 Inventor Michael Faraday makes same discovery in England when he compresses and liquifies ammonia.

1830s Dr. John Gorrie builds an ice-making machine that uses compression to make buckets of ice. Gorrie blows air over the ice and patents the idea for cooling air in 1851 but has no financial backing and his dream for cooling buildings fades.

1881 After an assassin shoots President James Garfield, naval engineers build a boxy makeshift cooling unit to keep him cool and comfortable. The box is filled with water-soaked cloth and a fan blows hot air overhead and keeps cool air closer to the ground. The device can lower room temp by up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but it uses a half-million pounds of ice in two months. Garfield still died.

Modern Day Air Conditioning

1902 The first modern electrical air conditioning unit was invented by Willis Carrier in Buffalo, N.Y. While at Cornell University, Carrier began experimenting with conditioning air as a way to solve a problem for a publishing company in Brooklyn.

Carrier’s invention treated the air inside a building by blowing it across chilled pipes. The air cooled as it passed across the cold pipes. Since cooler air can’t carry as much moisture as warm air, the process also reduced humidity in the plant and stabilized the moisture content in the paper.

Reducing the humidity also had the side benefit of lowering the air temperature — and a new technology was born, not to mention industries for the manufacture, sale, and service of air conditioning equipment and systems. The Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America was formed and is still in business today.

Carrier has a large presence in Texas with manufacturing facilities for residential package units and commercial condensing and package units in Tyler, just east of Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas. Carrier products, service, and repair is readily available throughout North Texas.

1906 Interestingly, Stuart W. Cramer of Charlotte, N.C., is credited with coining the term “air conditioning,” using it in a patent claim he filed in 1906.

1914 Air conditioning is used in a home for the first time — the Minneapolis mansion of Charles Gates, although it may not have been used much as no one lived in the house and it was cold in Minnesota to begin with.

1931 H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman invented an individual room air conditioner that sat on a window ledge, a design that is seen in apartment buildings ever since. The systems cost between $10,000 and $50,000 — equivalent to $120,000 to $600,000 today!

1939 Packard invents first air-conditioned car but without dashboard controls.

1942 and beyond The U.S. builds its first “summer peaking” power plant made to handle the growing electrical load due to air conditioning. Residential sales grew dramatically in the 1950s (one million units sold in 1953) and 1960s, enabling the great migration to the Sun Belt in the southern part of the United States. Central air first appeared in the 1970s.

In the early 1960s, Don Dixon of San Antonio broadened the potential for the automotive industry when he invented an air conditioning unit that fit into Volkswagens, popular cars at the time that many considered “uncoolable.”

Imagine what life would be like today in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Texas, and the southern part of the U.S. had there not been central air conditioning and the service and repair industry that sprung up to support our desire to stay cool in the summer.

What Is An Air Conditioner?

The Parts List

The air conditioner consists of three major components and an important valve.

The evaporator (also called the evaporator coil). It’s inside the building and receives liquid refrigerant.

The condenser. It’s outside the building. It facilitates heat transfer.

The compressor. It’s with the condenser outside the building and is essentially a pump that pressurizes the refrigerant.

The expansion valve. It regulates refrigerant flow into the evaporator.

The evaporator, condenser, compressor, and expansion valve are monitored by service and repair professionals working for the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) company you hire in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to care for your cooling and heating equipment.

How An Air Conditioner Works

The job of the air conditioner is to transport heat from the inside of a room, or multiple rooms in a building, to the outside.

The air conditioner does not transfer actual air from a room or rooms outside the building.

In the summer, the system extracts heat from indoor air and transfers it outside, leaving cooled air to be recirculated through ducts by a fan.

A substance known as refrigerant carries the heat from one area to another.

The compressor outside charges the gaseous refrigerant into a high temperature, high-pressure gas. As that gas flows through the outdoor coil, it loses heat. That makes the refrigerant condense into a high temperature, high pressure liquid that flows through copper tubing into the evaporator coil located in the fan coil unit or attached to the home’s furnace.

At this point in the journey, the liquid refrigerant is allowed to expand, turning into a a low temperature, low pressure gas. The gas then absorbs head from the air circulating in your home’s ductwork, leaving it full of cooler air to be distributed throughout the house.

Meanwhile, the low temperature, low pressure refrigerant gas returns to the compressor to begin the journey all over again.

Again, the main components of an air conditioning system should be managed by the service and repair techs employed by the contractor you hire in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas. There are many other things that you, as a homeowner, can take care of regarding the equipment and your home’s energy “envelope.”

While the air conditioner cools the air, it also dehumidifies. That’s because warm pair passing over the indoor evaporator coil cannot hold as much moisture as it carried at a higher temperature. The extra moisture condenses on the outside of the coils and is carried away through a drain into the home’s plumbing or outside.

It’s not unlike on a hot, humid day in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas when moisture beads on the outside of a glass of cold tea or a bottle of beer.

By the way, this entire process takes advantage of a physical law known as phase conversation: When a liquid converts to a gas it absorbs heat (heat engines). Air conditioners exploit this feature by forcing special chemical compounds to evaporate and condense over and over again in a closed system of coils.

End of Lesson

Granted this is a lot more than the average Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowner wants to know about air conditioning, but at least you know where air conditioning comes from and what it entails.

British scholar S.F Markham wrote in the late 1940s, “The greatest contribution to civilization in this century may well be air conditioning.”

Energy Efficient Landscaping Pt. 3: Windbreaks

So as not to overlook one other aspect of energy-efficient landscaping for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homeowners, here’s a brief look at using landscaping for windbreaks, which offers benefits in both the summer and winter.

As residents know, Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area can be pretty windy all year — maybe not as blustery as Chicago or West Texas — but windy nonetheless.

A windbreak (general images) reduces heating costs by lowering the wind chill near your home and creating dead air space that insulates your home in the winter and summer.

Windbreaks to the north, west, and east of houses cut fuel consumption by an average of 40 percent, according to various studies. The Department of Energy reminds homeowners that strategic, energy-efficient landscaping can save you up to 25 percent of a typical home’s energy use, more when coupled with other measures taken like improving the energy envelope (air-tight sealing) and insulation.

Today, more and more people are looking for ways to improve their home’s energy efficiency, reduce consumption, and save money. Planting trees, shrubs, and vines may not seem like an obvious solution but every little bit helps, especially with Texas summers getting hotter and hotter.

Texas Winds

Winter winds in Texas usually flow from the north or northwest and accelerate the rate of air exchange between a house and the outdoor environment. Although living windbreaks have been utilized for many years in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, their value has increased with higher fuel costs and homeowners becoming more aware of energy-saving practices.

According to Texas A&M’s Texas AgriLife Extension Service, savings of up to 23 percent have been recorded when comparing completely exposed homes to those landscaped to minimize air infiltration.

Conversely, summer winds normally blow from the south or southwest with generally positive effects on human comfort in North Texas. Tall trees from the south and west can reduce the temperature while allowing breeze to pass beneath and through the foliage canopy.

Planning Windbreaks

What are windbreaks?

Windbreaks obstruct and redirect the flow of wind. As wind strikes an obstruction it can move over, around, or through it.

If you’re unsure of windbreaks helping your home become more energy efficient through landscaping, visit an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area nursery and talk with a customer service specialist, show him or her pictures of your home, maybe even schedule a home visit. A full-service nursery will be better equipped to answer your questions than someone working at a home improvement center like Lowe’s or Home Depot.

The Mechanics of Windbreaks

The extent of protection on the leeward side (the side sheltered from the wind)is related to the height and length of the windbreak. Impenetrable windbreaks create a strong vacuum on the protected or leeward side, reducing protection.

Windbreaks composed of living plants allow some of the wind to penetrate, which makes them more effective. The effective zone of protection for a living windbreak is approximately 30 times its height, although maximum protection occurs in a range of five to seven times the height of the planting.

In simple terms, if planning a windbreak 25 feet tall, it should be located 125 to 175 feet from the house to be most effective.

Useful Criteria for Planning Effective Windbreaks

Again, if you’re unsure how windbreaks can help your home become more energy efficient, visit an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area nursery and talk with a customer service specialist. A full-service nursery will be better equipped to answer your questions than someone working at a home improvement center like Lowe’s or Home Depot.

  • The optimum foliage density for the windward side is about 60 percent.
  • Windbreaks are most effective when the foliage extends to the ground, using evergreens, for example.
  • The width of the planting is important as it relates to penetrability. For most evergreen plants, two or three rows are sufficient but if deciduous materials are used (trees or   plants that lose their leaves in the winter), four or five rows may be needed. Stagger the rows.
  • Windbreaks work most efficiently when the length is 11.5 times greater than the mature width.
  • The height of the chosen plants should be varied to create rough windbreak edges.

Fall, late winter, and early spring are ideal planting times since adequate moisture and cool weather promote root growth before hot, dry weather.

Other Types of Windbreaks

In addition to traditional tree windbreaks, shrubs can also be used closer to the home for winter protection. This is more practical for small areas and subdivision lots where spaces does not allow for conventional windbreaks.

For this type of protection, use dense evergreen plants. They should be planted close enough to form a solid wall and far enough away from the home, about four to five feet minimum, to create a dead air space. The relatively still or dead air has much less cooling power than moving air, which can decrease the floss of heat through the walls.

Another way to moderate the temperature inside a home is to use rows of shrubs at the northwest side to protect it from cold winter winds as well as to direct summer breezes around it.

A full-service nursery can answer your questions regarding which evergreens to plant, how to prepare the soil, and other landscaping issues.

A Few Other Notes from the DOE

  • You can install a fence or wall in addition to evergreen trees to deflect wind over your single-story home.
  • Plant trees on either side of your home to direct cooling wind toward it in the summer.
  • Not that this is ever a problem in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, but it’s good to know: If snow tends to drift in your area, plant low shrubs on the windward side of the windbreak to trap snow before it blows next to the house.
  • Windbreaks also provide a barrier from sounds, sights, and smells; protection for livestock; an aesthetically pleasing landscape element; and a wildlife habitat.

Energy Efficient Landscaping Pt. 2

Using basic Earth Kind landscaping principles (example images) from Texas A&M University’s Texas AgriLife Extension Service can significantly modify micro-climate surrounding Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes make them more energy efficient while lowering utility costs.

Today, more and more people are looking for ways to improve their home’s energy efficiency, reduce consumption, and save money. Planting trees, shrubs, and vines may not seem like an obvious solution but every little bit helps, especially with Texas summers getting hotter and hotter.

In this post we look at providing protection from the sun, planting espaliers and vines, overhead structures, and ground covers, along with a few small-scale tips.

Quick Reminder

If you are unsure where to start, the next time a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor comes to the home for a service checkup, ask him to review with you the house’s major heat sources and how they impact cooling and heating equipment.

If the service tech is unable to help, there are energy specialists in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas willing to do an analysis. You can also call a landscaping company to give you an assessment from a different perspective.

Protection from the Sun

Studies have shown that trees reduce summer temperatures significantly. Shading the roof of your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home from the pounding afternoon sun by large trees can reduce temperatures inside the home by as much as eight to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Deciduous trees provide summer shade, then drop their leaves in the fall, which allows the warmth of the sun to filter through bare branches in the winter to help warm the home.

If you’re building a new home and the house can be situated to take advantage of shade from trees on the south and west exposures, energy expended for cooling can be considerably reduced.

However, if building a new home and strategically planting trees isn’t possible, then look for opportunities to add landscaping to the existing lot. A well-planned landscape can reduce an unshaded home’s AC costs by 15 to 50 percent.

To shade the roof or wall of a single-story home, plant 6- to 8-foot tall deciduous trees 15 to 20 feet from the side or 12 to 15 feet from the corner of the house. To be most effective, the canopy of the tree should extend over the roof.

Smaller trees like crape myrtles and redbuds can be planted closer to the house and used for shading walls and window areas. Deciduous trees to the south can screen 70 to 90 percent of the hot summer sun while allowing breezes.

Plant trees with crowns lower to the ground on the west if you want to shade from lower, afternoon sun angles.

Espaliers and Vines

In addition to shading roof areas, plants can protect walls from heat and cold. Vines, shrubs, and certain trees can be used as espaliers (plants trained to grow flat against walls). The foliage cover insulates walls against summer heat and cold winter winds. These are also highly effective in reducing noise and dust pollution as well.

One home in the Grapevine area, a suburb of Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, uses thick English Ivy to cover a west-facing, two-story brick wall. By the end of every summer, the ivy reaching from the ground to the eaves is burnt to a crisp from absorbing daily heat. Without the ivy, the wall and rooms inside are noticeably warmer.

When installing two new air conditioning units one recent summer, the homeowner asked service and installation techs if the ivy made any difference to the home’s energy efficiency. “Maybe I should just take it down,” he said.

“I wouldn’t,” the service tech said. “It may not look like it, but that ivy is thick and it takes an awful lot of the summer sun. Any little bit helps.”

There are several ways to support plants against walls. Some vines such as English Ivy have specialized roots that cling to masonry and wooden surfaces.

A word of caution: The “stickiness” of the English Ivy can harm wooden surfaces as it hastens wood decomposition and provides protection for termites and other insects. It’s not a bad idea to have the home sprayed for pests at least once a year, especially outside.

Vines that do not cling usually twine and must have support, which can be provided by trellises placed on or close to the house.

A third way to support shrubs and vines on a wall is to place mortar nails in the joints between the brick and securely fasten plant steps with small ties or similar materials.

Windows, as well as walls, may be shaded by vines on trellises. Deciduous vines such as Boston Ivy and Wisteria will allow the sun to penetrate during the winter.

If a quick effect is desired, annual vines such as morning glories, hyacinth bean, and moon vines can be planed economically from seed in early spring and will usually provide the needed shade in time for the hottest summer weather.

Overhead Structures

The use of landscape arbors and other overhead structures are another effective means of addressing energy conservation. These structures can be attached or adjacent to the home can shade walls and windows to reduce energy consumption and provide cool, restful sitting and viewing areas.

If wooden structures are used, the one or two inch lathe strips are usually spaced one to 1.5 inches apart. This spacing provides adequate shade while allowing air to circulate freely.

If vines are used as a partial or complete cover, the structure is referred to as an arbor. Grape arbors, once as common as patios are today, can serve as attractive, practical additions to the landscape.

Ground Covers

The temperature a few inches above turf or other ground cover plants is frequently 12 to 15 degrees lower than above asphalt and concrete surfaces. By using turf and ground cover plants between homes and paved areas, such as drives and walks, summer temperatures can be significantly reduced.

Many of these trees, shrubs, vines, and other plantings are available at Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area specialty landscaping centers or nearby home improvement retailers. Landscaping centers offer the best advice (often from professional landscapers, not just sales and customer service reps) about what to plant and how to care for landscaping.