Sizing Heating and Cooling Systems

Older space conditioning systems (more than 10 years old) are often unreliable and much less efficient than a modern system. When it’s time for a new replacement, choosing one of the correct size (heating and/or cooling output) is critical to getting the best efficiency, comfort, and lowest maintenance and operating costs over the life of the new system. Some national surveys have determined that well over half of all HVAC contractors do not size heating and cooling systems correctly.

The most common sizing mistake is in oversizing. This not only makes the new system more expensive to install, but also forces it to operate inefficiently, break down more often, and cost more to operate. Oversized heating equipment also often creates uncomfortable and large temperature swings in the house. Oversized air conditioners (and heat pumps) do not run long enough to dehumidify the air, which results in the “clammy” feeling and unhealthy mold growth in many air-conditioned houses (see dehumidifying heat pipes as one solution to this problem).

794px-Big_single-family_home_2Incorrect Sizing Methods

It is the installer/contractor’s job to perform the correct sizing calculation for the building. However, many installers only check the “nameplate” (the label on the unit that has the Btu per hour output among other things) of the existing system and sell you one just like it, or even worse, one that’s larger. This is a not a correct sizing method and not in your best interests! Other methods include simple “rules of thumb” based on the size of your home or using a chart that accounts for a variety of factors. While these methods might provide a first estimate, they should not be used to size your system.

Why Most Older Systems are Oversized

Before the era of tightly constructed homes, it was not uncommon to install furnaces and air conditioners that had two to four times the necessary capacity. Since many people have added new windows, caulking, weather-stripping, and insulation to their homes, going by the nameplate is likely to result in an oversized system. Making improvements such as these to reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer should allow you to install a smaller systems while still being comfortable, as well as saving large amounts of energy.

Ventilation Systems

Ventilation is the least expensive and most energy-efficient way to cool buildings. Ventilation works best when combined with methods to avoid heat buildup in your home. In some cases, natural ventilation will suffice for cooling, although it usually needs to be supplemented with spot ventilation, ceiling fans and window fans. For large homes, homeowners might want to investigate whole house fans.

Ventilation is ineffective in hot, humid climates where temperature swings between day and night are small. In these climates, attic ventilation can help to reduce your use of air conditioning. Ventilating your attic greatly reduces the amount of accumulated heat, which eventually works its way into the main part of your house. Ventilated attics are about 30°F (16°C) cooler than unventilated attics. Properly sized and placed louvers and roof vents help prevent moisture buildup and overheating in your attic.

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