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10 Ways to Make Use of Passive Solar

Harnessing solar energy does not mean you need photovoltaic panels on your roof and technological solutions.  There are many ways to design passive solar into a home that will allow you to lower your heating and cooling costs year-round, and make your home more environmentally friendly.

What is Passive Solar?

Passive solar means using the building’s windows, walls, and floors to collect, store and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter, and rejecting solar energy (heat) in the summer.  It is called “passive” because it does not use mechanical means to distribute heat, but rather takes advantage of natural convection, radiation, and air flow.

Is it worth it?

If you’re adding energy-efficient features into an older home (built before 1993) that currently has little insulation, less energy-efficient windows, and non-EnergyStar appliances, you may be able to reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 50-60%.  That savings will pay for itself year after year, and many of the passive solar design features also add aesthetically to the house and increase the house’s market value (see “Going Green Can Add Value to Your Home”).

10 Ways To Incoprporate Passive Solar

If you are not building a new home from scratch, you may not be able to take advantage of all of the suggestions below, but, the more you can do, the more you’ll save.

  1. Use wide overhangs on your house to shield the house from the sun in summer. Western or eastern-facing windows are particularly vulnerable to overheating in summer, so these should be shaded using overhangs and large leaf-bearing shade trees that shed their leaves in the fall.
  2. Have south-facing windows that have an unobstructed view of the sun (no big trees or tall buildings in the way).  Keep these windows clean and keep the drapes, blinds, or shutters open during the cooler months while the sun is shining.  In the warmer months, place a removable reflective film on these windows or keep the drapes, blinds or shutters closed to block the sun.  Remember: if light can get in, so can radiant heat.
  3. Capture and store the sun’s heat in thermal masses inside the house.  This can be concrete, brick, stone, or tile which is used on walls or floors.  The thermal mass absorbs heat from sunlight during the heating season, and absorbs heat from the air during cooling season.  You can easily create a thermal mass by having a brick or stone fireplace which extends up the entire wall, or adding tile or decorative concrete flooring in the room containing the best sun exposure.
  4. Take advantage of the “chimney effect” (natural convection). Since heat rises, install operable skylights (skylights that open) in the upper-most areas of the house, such as an upper floor or vaulted ceiling.
  5. Use clerestory and transom windows or light tubes to let natural light in year-round, so you minimize the use of electric lights. Convert all lights in the house to LED bulbs, which radiate far less heat.
  6. An open floor plan takes advantage of passive solar the best, as do open stairwells and atria.
  7. Install EnergyStar-certified appliances and fans throughout the home, and energy-efficient double or triple glazed windows. Casement windows offer the best air flow.
  8. Add insulation to your attic.  This will help year-round (see our post “5 of the Best HVAC Investments You Can Make”).
  9. Make your roof reflective with a light color paint, or by using reflective paint, shingles, or tiles. Roofs receive the majority of solar radiation delivered to a house, so a cool roof will dramatically cut air-conditioning bills.
  10. Allow the landscape design to work in your favor. Use evergreen hedges and shrubs as windbreaks. Use deciduous trees (trees that drop their leaves in fall) near the house, to provide shade in summer and allow light in in winter.

The real joy comes in living in an energy-efficient, eco-friendly, passive solar house that is not only beautiful, but saves you money every single day.

If you live in the Nashville or surrounding area, Interstate AC Service can help with all your heating and cooling needs.  Call on us at 615-802-2665.  We’re here for you!

A New Look

Interstate AC Service has expanded and renovated its facility at 1877 Air Lane Drive in Nashville, Tennessee. This video provides a tour of the new facilities and talks about the work that goes on there. There is also a new look to our company website; it’s been re-designed to make it even easier to use.

Near the intersection of I-40 and Briley Parkway in Nashville, you’ll find the offices of Interstate AC Service at  1877 Air Lane Drive.  This building has been home to our facility since Interstate AC Service was founded in 2004, but has undergone transformations over the years.  When we moved into this building 13 years ago, we shared it with an ambulance company, but by 2015, the ambulance company moved out, and the rapid growth of Interstate AC Service meant more space was needed. The old building was completely renovated and expanded.  The building is two-stories high in back and one-story in front.  We expanded the parking area for our trucks and staff, and provided an improved working environment for our employees. Walking through the glass enclosed entryway, you are now in the reception area with a corridor leading to a large conference room. On the way to the conference room, you pass by the break room. The corridor walls are decorated with beautiful Nashville scenes… very appropriate as we are a Nashville-based company! This one shows the Legislative Plaza, War Memorial Auditorium and State Capital building. Catherine Taylor, our Controller, admires this photo of Nashville’s Parthenon. In this corridor are photos of the old train station which is now the Union Station Hotel.  Tommy Gentry is a Service Specialist with many years’ experience designing residential HVAC systems and providing cost estimates.  The group of offices by the wall are for our commercial sales experts.

The nerve center of our new offices is this room dedicated to our dispatch staff. Our dispatchers are the first people our customers talk to and we value the trust you put in us.  Tony Anderson is one of the founders of Interstate AC Service, and he engineered the renovation of the new facilities. This corner office is occupied by Swaney Powers. He is in charge of our repair and installation work force. Every Monday morning, all our technicians arrive in their trucks to have parts and refrigerants replenished, engine oil changed, and any necessary truck maintenance. While that is going on, Swaney meets with the technicians, discusses process improvement, and helps resolve problems. On the second level, you’ll find the accounting area.  They keep the books, prepare invoices, and make payments. Catherine Taylor keeps this area of our business running smoothly. The commercial group is also on this floor and has space to spread out the large drawings required for retail and office building projects. Out in the yard is warehouse space and lots of parking. Our digital sign towers above the yard and is visible to drivers on I-40 heading west.  It can display a variety of messages.

7 Things You Should Never Do

One of the reasons we write this HVAC News column is to empower you with information.  Many times that means telling you how to do things yourself to save money on your HVAC maintenance or energy bills.  But this time, we’re emphasizing a few things you should never do because they can be harmful or cause injury to you or your HVAC system.  As we always say, knowledge is power!

  1.  Do not cover your outdoor HVAC unit.  Many people falsely believe they should cover their outdoor unit to protect it from the elements, like rain and snow.  The only time it may be covered is if it’s turned completely off.  While the unit is on and operational, it must have good air flow all around it in order for it to operate, and you will damage the unit if you operate it with a cover on.  It’s ok for the unit to be located underneath an overhang, as long as there are no obstructions for about 3 feet all the way around it.
  2. Do not use a de-humidifier in the winter or a humidifier in the summer.  In the winter, the heat removes the air’s natural humidity, and the dry air increases static electricity, makes respiratory passages uncomfortable (aggravating allergy and asthma symptoms), causes itchy skin, damages the woodwork and wood flooring in your home (causing cracking/splitting), and increases your energy bills.  That’s why you want to use a humidifier (not de-humidifier) during the winter. Here in TN, we naturally have high humidity in the summer so it would be counter-productive to use a humidifier in the summer, plus it would increase mold and insects.  Air-conditioning helps you feel more comfortable in part by taking the excess humidity out of the air, and using a de-humidifier (not a humidifier) can help even more!
  3. Do not use your fireplace as your main heat source.  Some people think that in cold weather, it will help keep their house warmer if they use their fireplace in addition to their HVAC system.  This is dead wrong.  The fireplace causes already warmed room air to be sucked up the chimney and thus makes the house colder… and causes you to use more energy (increasing your utility bills).  The fireplace may be a nice touch for “ambiance” for a few minutes, but should not be used as the main heat source unless it is an emergency and all your heat and power is out.  Additionally, using the fireplace greatly increases indoor air pollution (particulate, soot, and toxic chemicals in the air), and can trigger allergies.
  4. Do not over-size your HVAC system.  When purchasing a new system, it is easy to think bigger is better, but not so when it comes to HVAC systems!  A properly-sized piece of equipment that’s not too large is going to work much more efficiently in maintaining better and more even comfort in your home.  Check out our previous post about this issue here.
  5. Do not ignore small issues like smells, sounds, leaks or minor heating/cooling problems.  These have a way of becoming big problems before too long, and the longer the issue persists, the more money it may wind up costing you.  Money Magazine recommends the best thing you can do to save money is have regular maintenance of your HVAC system twice per year.  Don’t bury your head in the sand and hope for the best.
  6. Do not block registers, air returns, or forget to change your air filters.  These are the number one reasons HVAC systems fail or have problems like uneven heating and cooling.  Set up a reminder on your computer or smartphone to change air filters a minimum of every 3 months. If you’re blocking registers in an effort to deflect air to the rooms that need it most, then read our post on uneven heating and cooling solutions here.  It’s better to get to the root cause of the problem than to deal with a symptom of the problem in this manner, as it will only harm your HVAC system and shorten its life if you block registers or air returns.
  7. Do not turn off your heat when leaving for vacation during the winter.  You may think you’re saving money by not running the heat when no one is home, but if your pipes burst from the freezing and thawing, you could be coming home to a very costly mess!  In fact, it’s a good idea to turn off the water to the house (via the main cutoff valve), and then open up all the faucets so there is no possibility of frozen pipes.  That’s because if the power goes out while you’re gone, the heat won’t work and, if the outage is prolonged, any liquid in the house could freeze anyway. Turn the icemaker off in your freezer and drain the water line, and drain the water from the toilet tanks.

12 Ways to Help Your Home Survive Extreme Cold

It is not often that Nashville experiences extreme cold weather for several days in a row, so this year has been quite unusual in that regard.  Everyone is worried not only about staying warm, but the increased energy costs associated with the extreme cold.  Here are some tips that will ensure your home or business remains warm, and keeps your energy bills low, despite the frigid cold temperatures.

  1. Get a tune up.  The best defense against heating problems is to make sure your system is maintained year-round.  Having heating equipment serviced once before the heating season and once before the cooling season can reduce your heating bill and prevent costly repairs, breakdowns, and ensure your system is operating at peak efficiency.
  2. Clean/change the filters.  Dirty air filters reduce your system’s efficiency and thus can cause your system to work harder.  Replace air filters regularly a minimum of every 3 months – and do not block air inlets or outlets with furniture or drapes that restrict proper airflow.
  3. Use a humidifier.  During cold weather, increased use of your heater causes the home and its interior air to become dryer than usual.  A humidifier can help add needed moisture, and can also improve health issues like dry sinuses, while saving energy.  Since moist air holds heat, you may feel more comfortable at a lower heat setting.  Be sure you maintain the humidifier properly: clean or replace the filters regularly and wash the base and reservoir.
  4. Resist using the fireplace unless it’s an emergency.  Fireplaces can waste a lot of energy, as they pull warm air out of the house and force it out through the chimney.  Make sure the damper is closed when you’re not using your fireplace.  Installing glass doors can also help keep heat in your home when the fireplace is not in use.
  5. Use exhaust fans sparingly.  You lose heated air through exhaust fans, so turn them off when not in use during colder weather.  Not only do they pull heated air out of your house, but they can also cause negative pressure inside your home that can lead to back drafts from your fireplace and can cause drafts through the walls, windows and un-insulated outlets in your home.
  6. Prevent the drain line from freezing.  If you have a high efficiency furnace, there is a drain line that runs from the unit to the outside or into some kind of drain.  Know where that line is and make sure it is protected from freezing.  A frozen or plugged up drain line will cause your furnace to shut down.  If it does freeze, thaw it out (use a hair dryer, never an open flame!), turn off the breaker to your furnace, and turn it back on again to reset it.  It should fire back up.  If you see water around your furnace, chances are the drain line is plugged up at some point, and must be cleared.  Check out our previous post about condensate drainage here.
  7. Address non-HVAC-related air flow issues.  Close up any drafts, seal gaps and cracks around windows and doors (good weather-stripping or caulking usually does the trick), replace old windows or install window insulation kits, and look for places where heat may be escaping and/or cold air is rushing in.  Lack of adequate attic insulation is the main reason heating bills can climb sky high, so extra attic insulation is a good investment.
  8. Take advantage of natural heating.  On sunny days, adjust blinds so they are open and tilted toward the ceiling, but be sure to close the blinds at sundown.
  9. Be prepared for power loss.  In extreme cold, the power grid can get overloaded, and winter weather (snow and ice) can bring down tree limbs and cut power lines.  Keep candles, matches, blankets, flashlights, and a battery-powered radio handy.  When utilizing alternate heating sources, such as your fireplace or wood stove, take the necessary safety precautions.  Keep a fire extinguisher handy and test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors.  Never run the fireplace without first opening the damper!
  10. Give the HVAC unit breathing space.  Do not store anything too close to your indoor HVAC equipment, and definitely do not store anything flammable – paint, paint thinners, rags, glues, gasoline, cleaning solvents, and other chemicals – near your gas furnace or gas water heater.  Not only is it a safety hazard, but HVAC systems need air in order to burn properly and to draft, or carry the harmful by-products of combustion out the flue.  So, remove the clutter.
  11. If you are going away for an extended time, don’t switch the heat off!  Leave it on a low setting to ensure nothing freezes.  Water pipes that break from being frozen cause major damage.  Have a neighbor check on your home while you’re gone.
  12. Carbon monoxide is deadly.  One of the biggest threats from the cold is carbon monoxide poisoning.  Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill quickly if it builds up in a home.  Symptoms are nausea, headaches and disorientation.  Carbon monoxide is produced by heating systems as a by-product of combustion.  Make sure your heating system is properly ventilated.  If you are heating up your car in the garage, make sure the garage door is open and close any access to your home.  If you find yourself stranded in your car, make sure your tailpipe is clear of snow, or the carbon monoxide can flow back into your car.