Purchasing a new heating and cooling system is a decision that will impact your comfort and the comfort of those you love or serve for many years to come. As with any “big ticket” purchase, the more you do your homework, the better you will be equipped to know exactly what you want.
We are providing a glossary of heating and cooling terms, some tips for selecting a dealer, some tips for selecting a brand of equipment and some tips for comparing the bids you receive to make sure you are comparing “apples to apples”. We believe educating our customers to make informed decisions is a benefit to them and to us. We hope this will help you to wade through all the techno jargon and sales maneuvers to get to the comfort and reliability that you want from your heating and cooling system. If you have more specific questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us for answers.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
You may see these terms on a bid sheet or they may be referenced during a bid or on a website. Knowing what they mean can allow you to participate more fully in the decision before you.
AFUE – Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. A measure of a gas furnace’s efficiency in converting fuel to energy – the higher the rating, the more efficient the unit. For example: a rating of 90 means that approximately 90 percent of the fuel is used to provide warmth to your home while the remaining 10 percent escapes as exhaust. Another way to look at it is that a 90% efficient furnace uses 90 cents of each energy dollar to heat your home while 10 cents literally goes up the flue.
BTU – British Thermal Unit. This is the amount of heat it takes to raise one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. For your home, it represents the measure of heat given off when fuel is burned for heating or the measure of heat extracted from your home for cooling.
CFM – Cubic Feet Per Minute. A standard measurement of airflow. A typical system requires 400 CFM per ton of air conditioning.
Capacity – The output or producing ability of a piece of cooling or heating equipment. Cooling and heating capacities are referred to in BTUs.
Condensor Coil or Outdoor Coil – In an air conditioner, the coil dissipates heat from the refrigerant, changing the refrigerant from vapor to liquid. In a heat pump system, it absorbs heat from the outdoors.
Damper – Found in ductwork, this movable plate opens and closes to control airflow. Dampers can be used to balance airflow in a duct system. They are also used in zoning to regulate airflow to certain rooms.
Ductwork – Pipes or channels that carry air throughout your home. In a home comfort system, ductwork is critical to performance – in fact, it is as critical as the equipment. Ductwork which is going into an attic or crawl space should be insulated. Supply ducts with heat pumps should be insulated. Ductwork is often undersized which compromises airflow which, in turn, compromises your comfort. We make much of our ductwork in house which is not common. We do this to ensure correct size and duct transitions as well as to make the ductwork look neat and attractive. We fabricate “old school” by hand with very basic equipment.
Evaporator Coil or Indoor Coil (often called A coils) – The other half of your air conditioning system located inside your home in the indoor unit. This is where the refrigerant evaporates as it absorbs heat from the air that passes over the coil. The heat pump absorbs heat from outside for cooling and the process is reversed in heating mode. It is important for this coil to be matched to the system – not a generic non matched brand – and to be correctly sized to the system.
Gas Furnace Heat Exchanger – Located in the furnace, the heat exchanger transfers heat to the surrounding air, which is then pumped throughout your home. This is the part that can crack and allow carbon monoxide to enter your home. It is important to have your furnace professionally serviced annually and to change your filters often to help identify/prevent heat exchanger cracks.
HSPF – Heating Seasonal Performance Factor. This rating is used in measuring the heating efficiency of a heat pump – the higher the number, the more efficient the unit.
Package Unit – A heating and cooling system contained in one outdoor unit. A package unit is typically installed beside, on the roof or sometimes in the attic of a home or business. Package units are not a common residential application in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area but are common for light commercial application.
Refrigerant – A chemical that produces a refrigerating effect while expanding and vaporizing. The two most common types of refrigerant are R-22 and R-410A. Refrigerant is regulated by the EPA so make sure anyone dealing with your AC or heat pump is appropriately certified. R-22 is being phased out to protect the ozone. No new equipment will be manufactured with R-22 after 2010 and manufacture of R-22 will be phased out completely by 2020. We strongly recommend you consider purchasing a R-410A system if you are purchasing a new system. From a practical standpoint, as R-22 is phased out, it will become more and more expensive.
SEER – Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. A measure of cooling efficiency for air conditioners and heat pumps. The higher the “SEER”, the more energy efficient the unit. The government’s minimum SEER rating is currently 13. For comparison, think of it as you would miles per gallon in an automobile.
Split System – The combination of an outdoor unit (air conditioner or heat pump) with an indoor unit (furnace or air handler). Split systems must be matched for optimum efficiency. Split systems are the most common type of system in our geographic area.
Thermostat – Also called a comfort control, a thermostat consists of a series of sensors and relays that monitor and control the functions of a heating and cooling system. The thermostat is like the brain of your heating and cooling system. Thermostats have become amazingly “intelligent” and user friendly over the last few years. Programmable features and sensors which gauge humidity, need for more heat during start up, etc. are now available. Large digit thermostats are available for the elderly and visually impaired.
Ton – A unit of measurement used for determining cooling capacity. One ton is the equivalent of 12,000 BTUs per hour. Units in new housing are often undersized (as is the ductwork that goes with them) to save the contractor money. A rough rule of thumb is one ton of cooling for each 400 – 600 square feet. This can be heavily impacted by the amount of insulation in the home, the direction the home faces and the amount of windows in the house. A heat load is one way to more accurately assess the number of tonnage needed to correctly cool your home for maximum comfort.
Zoning – A method of dividing a home into different comfort zones so each zone can be independently controlled depending on individual use and need. Zoning is a great application for two story homes or homes that have noticeable uneven heating and/or cooling in different areas of the home.
If there are certain community minded things that are important to you (local business, family owned, community minded and involved for examples), check these things out in advance.
When the representative from the contractor comes to give you a free estimate, is he/she knowledgeable? Do they actually have field experience? Do they take the time to get to know your individual needs (e.g. – you may need a programmable thermostat because you travel or no one is home during the day; your son may have allergies which would indicate a need for a particular air cleaner, etc.)? Do they ask you questions that can help them suggest the best system for you and your particular application? Does the contractor give you a written bid that includes the mandatory waiver of lien language for your protection? Make sure the bid includes warranty information. If you purchase an extended warranty (a ten year parts and labor warranty for example) make sure that the warranty is with the manufacturer. An in house warranty with a dealer is no good if the dealer goes out of business. When comparing written bids, make sure you are comparing the same things – exact same equipment and features (a low end piece of equipment is usually cheaper but is often not as reliable for the long haul; an 80% furnace is not a 90% variable speed furnace, make sure you are not comparing a 14 SEER unit to a 16 SEER unit; make sure the coil is a system match). Make sure your bid includes removal and disposal of old equipment. Do you have the sense this contractor will be there if any problems arise down the road? This is your comfort at stake, in some cases even your health – you have the right to ask questions and get answers that you understand. Any dealer who is condescending or dismissive is usually someone who does not have enough knowledge to answer your questions fully. Get a written contract for your protection (most companies use the original bid with any modifications to which you both agree and then have it signed by both parties). Some dealers will pressure you to agree to what they have presented on the spot. High pressure is not our style so rest assured we respect your right to consider your options for more than the time we are there. Set aside at least an hour for your bid.
In addition to the contractor, research the equipment. Use Consumer Reports and the equipment brand website to familiarize yourself with reliability and features.
It may seem odd to some, but only 11% of people say they choose a contractor solely on price. Unfortunately, it is often the case that you “get what you pay for” and the cheapest contractor delivers the least desirable product. Consider what your comfort is worth and the life span of the investment you are making. An upper end furnace has a life span of about 20 – 25 years, an upper end AC has a life span of about 15 years (air conditioners set outside in the elements and this helps shorten their life span), and upper end heat pump has about a 13 year life span (remember your heat pump works both heating and cooling system so it works twice as hard as a conventional AC/furnace system while producing considerable energy cost savings). If you factor what you will pay for the system over the life span and factor in the savings a high efficiency system that is professionally installed can provide – the investment is really very affordable. In our region, families use their heating and cooling systems on an average of 10 months out of the year. This is the part of your home that creates comfort – you and your family are worth the most comfort for your budget.