How Environmentally Clean Is Your HVAC System?
More people than ever before are aware of the damage many ordinary, everyday activities have on the environment. From single-use plastics to wasteful food practices, we know far more today about how entire systems of our modern society are built in ways that have long-lasting environmental impacts.
One such area that has still managed to stay under the radar is the impact of normal air conditioner usage. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are some of the most widespread systems in our modern society, but most people never stop to consider how their own home HVAC systems might help or hinder the environment.
In this article, we’ll show you how to determine if your HVAC system is environmentally clean, as well as some tips to make your current system, whatever it is, a little bit more environmentally friendly.
Old HVAC Systems: A Prime Polluter
HVAC and the environment aren’t a new problem. It’s been known for decades that certain refrigerants (the gasses used in cooling systems) are both toxic to humans and known to lead to ozone depletion. For decades, the primary gasses used were chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. These gasses released chlorine particles into the atmosphere; these chlorine particles attacked the ozone, leading to a steady depletion of the ozone layer that helps protect our planet from the sun’s radiation.
As early as the 1980s, activists in the United States began to push for restrictions on CFCs. This ultimately resulted in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which called for the ban on CFC use. In the meantime, manufacturers began to switch to a refrigerant known as R-22, one of a new family of refrigerants known as hydro-chlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs.
That ban was moderately successful, leading to slow but steady improvement in the ozone layer. However, HCFC refrigeration wasn’t a permanent solution; HCFCs also contain chlorine, although they release it at a much lower rate than the older CFCs. Nevertheless, it was apparent that a CFC ban, by itself, wouldn’t be enough to make HVAC systems completely environmentally friendly.
Today’s HVAC Units and the Environment
The governments moved again and, in 2014, banned the continued use of R-22 in new refrigeration devices. R-22 wasn’t completely removed, but rather phased out slowly; older R-22 devices that are still in use are permitted, in most cases.
H-22 is a vast improvement on the old CFCs, as it doesn’t directly attack the ozone layer. R-22 and other HCFCs are still considered strong greenhouse gasses, however, so their continued use causes environmental damage in other ways.
What will replace R-22? The current best option is known as R410a, or Puron. Puron does a better job of absorbing and releasing heat than R-22 and the even older CFCs, making it a better choice for both the environment and your wallet.
Are there any problems with R410a? It is still a greenhouse gas; if it is used carefully in a refrigeration unit and fully recycled, Puron’s damage to the environment is minimal. But recycling refrigerants, particularly R410a, is difficult; much of it goes unrecycled and risks being released into the atmosphere as old HVAC units break down and are disposed of.
Electricity Use: The Not-So-Secret Flaw With HVAC Systems
Regardless of the refrigerant used, HVAC systems have a glaring flaw when it comes to being environmentally friendly. Any HVAC system requires a lot of electricity. If all of your energy comes from a renewable source, then you can minimize your environmental impact; but if you’re tied into the electricity grid, then your HVAC is drawing energy from coal-firing power plants and other non-renewable energy sources, most of which are major sources of environmental pollution.
The challenge for an environmentally-conscious HVAC user is to find a system that uses as little energy as possible with a refrigerant that is as clean as possible.
Ways to Diminish the Impact of Your HVAC System on the Environment
Can you act on climate change with your HVAC system? How to keep any HVAC system as clean as possible? In general, you want to keep your system as modern and as efficient as possible. The more recent it is, the less likely it is to contain more damaging refrigerants like R-22 or even the obsolete CFCs. And the more efficiently your HVAC system runs, the less refrigerant and the less energy it will require.
Fortunately, modern HVAC systems typically are more efficient, meaning you can accomplish both goals at once. Looking for additional ways to keep your HVAC system environmentally clean? Here are some extra steps to consider.
1. Check Your HVAC System’s Design
Air doesn’t get magically chilled in your HVAC system and then instantly transfer to your skin. It passes through the lengthy network of ducts and vents in your house before it finally reaches you. If you’re trying to keep your entire system as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible, start by inspecting your entire ducted HVAC system and look for areas to improve.
Some specific things to consider include checking for open, torn, or broken ductwork. You should also check the insulation you have installed on your ductwork, and consider improving the insulation both on your ductwork and in your house itself. Floors and ceilings, especially, are common areas where hot or cold are escapes. Adding extra insulation in those places should improve your home’s thermal efficiency, creating less work for your HVAC system and lower energy costs for your HVAC unit.
2. Upgrade Your HVAC
As mentioned, newer systems tend to be more energy-efficient and use cleaner refrigerants. If your HVAC system is more than a few years old, it may still be using the old HCFC refrigerants. Paying for an upgrade will get rid of one more source of possible pollution and maybe even reduce your monthly energy bills.
3. Think of the Bigger Picture
Your home doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you have a yard, consider using landscaping to help reduce your home’s HVAC requirements. Large trees can provide shade and block the prevailing winds, natural ways of reducing the load on your HVAC system.
The added shade may also give you a chance to reconsider your landscaping in general, adding in features like rock walls, water features, and insect-friendly plants that can all improve the look and environmental friendliness of your home.
While thinking of the bigger picture, consider adding solar panels to your house to help offset the energy your HVAC system will use. You may not be able to go entirely self-sufficient with your energy consumption, but the solar power should help to reduce your carbon footprint and impact on the power grid.
4. Utilize Smart Technology
Even if you are using an older or low-tech HVAC system, you can install a smart energy controller. This will let you track energy usage down to the last detail, as well as giving you a real-time window into where and when you spend the most energy.
Using smart air conditioners, smart thermostats or smart ductless AC controllers you can track your AC’s usage and set intelligent triggers. These triggers will allow automate climate control guaranteeing comfort and energy savings.
You’ll be able to set desired temperatures, see your current temperature, control fan speed and circulation, and a host of other options designed to let you manage your HVAC system to a far greater degree than was previously possible.
5. Don’t Skip Maintenance!
Efficiency is key to reducing your HVAC impact. Even little things like dirty air filters and obstructed vents can lead to poor air circulation and more work for your system. Don’t skip your normal cleaning and maintenance schedule.
The same principle applies to maintenance on your HVAC unit itself. Keep your central unit regularly serviced to make sure it operates at peak efficiency. It will keep your home cooler and also reduce the overall energy it uses.
6. Dispose Air Conditioners Properly
There are best practices to extend the life of your AC. However, when your HVAC system reaches the end of its life, don’t simply discard it in a dumpster somewhere. Take your unit to a certified recycling center where the unit can be broken down. There, the environmentally dangerous refrigerant gas can be disposed of properly.
Environmentally Clean HVAC: An Admirable Goal
Achieving an environmentally clean HVAC system isn’t just about buying the biggest and best HVAC unit out there; it requires considering a whole new approach to home HVAC. Reducing your energy and improving thermal and energy efficiency are the biggest keys to keeping your system clean. You can even opt for advanced, energy-saving HVAC systems such as geothermal heating and cooling. Even simple tasks, like remembering to clean air filters and to perform regular maintenance on the ductwork, can result in drastic improvements.
There’s no quick and easy shortcut to achieve an environmentally clean HVAC system. The use of refrigerant gas means there’s always a risk of pollutants leaking from your system. It is either during or after its lifetime. The source of electricity your HVAC uses is also a consideration. However, by viewing your HVAC system as part of an overall “clean” approach, you can find ways to minimize your HVAC’s impact. Start by evaluating what you have. Consider a smart meter or similar technology to give you a better idea of your own consumption. Then, adjust the specifics of your system as needed. An environmentally friendly HVAC system isn’t easy, but with the right tools and a holistic approach, it is possible.