If you’re looking to save money and reduce your carbon footprint, your heating and cooling systems are among the best places to start. The average household spent more than $1,000 on heating and cooling in 2009, according to Energy Star, a project of the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Since power plants generally burn fossil fuels to make electricity, high energy use adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in addition to draining your wallet. But heating and cooling systems are continually being improved, which means you can upgrade yours to be more environmentally and financially responsible. (See References 1, page 2)

Selecting a System

The Energy Department provides extensive information on choosing heating and cooling systems. The department’s Energy Savers website stresses that while it’s possible to install any type of system in any type of house, you should always consider cost and aesthetics. In addition, consider modifications to your home that can maximize its energy efficiency. These include passive solar heating and improved ventilation. Once you’ve explored those options, consider your local climate and the types of fuel and power available to you. The department recommends finding a professional contractor to design your system. (See References 1)

Heating Systems

The most efficient types of heating systems are resistance baseboard heaters, central heating and water-based heaters. All of these can be powered by electricity generated by solar panels or other alternative power sources (see References 3). Resistance baseboard heating is expensive; central heating with a furnace or boiler is by far the most cost-effective and common home heating method. Hot-water systems are gaining in popularity and are best for climates that don’t require cooling systems. In this type of system, hot water circulates through pipes, radiating heat into various areas of the home. This is highly efficient, as you can direct heat to the places it’s needed. Active and passive solar heating require no energy to run but are usually supplementary systems because they work only while the sun shines. (See References 4)

Cooling Systems

Air conditioning is not the most energy-efficient way to cool your house. The Energy Department recommends a combination of insulation, weatherizing, shading and ventilation. This can cool homes in all but the hottest of climates with very little energy use. If you live in a dry, hot climate, an evaporative or “swamp” cooler can provide significant cooling with much lower energy draw than an air conditioner. If you do choose air conditioning, buy a modern, energy-efficient model to replace any older models, which are much less efficient. (See References 5)

Sizing Your System

The most common mistake people make when installing new systems is choosing a system that is too large and powerful. In the past, more loosely constructed buildings resulted in significant heat transfer; heating and cooling systems then had to work harder. If your home is well-built or weatherized, you won’t need such a large system. In fact, an oversized system can cause temperature swings and other discomforts as well as higher bills and maintenance costs. Work with your contractor to find the correct system for your home, stressing that you do not want an oversized system. (See References 6)