Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Give Me Back My Air

It's been almost exactly 10 years since I've been exposed to the wonders of air conditioning. Before, the life was simple - you could easily have a $14 (yes, you read that right, fourteen dollars) monthly electric bill for a family of four in Iowa fall, but now it's quite different...

But I digress.

In all those 10 years I've been all around US - with two focal areas being Midwest and Southwest, and going as far west as Ohio and as far south as Florida. Never, ever have I seen a house with a properly designed air return.

You may ask, what is air return? No, that's not the big noisy thing that sucks up cat hair and where your HVAC repairman goes with disgust and tells you to replace the filter more often then once in ten years. That's air conditioner's air return.

Your air return, on the other hand, is supposed to be in every room that is conditioned. Air goes in through the vents, it's supposed to go out somewhere. Done right, there should be not one, but two air returns: one for the heating season, one for the cooling season.

But this is expensive. And cumbersome. And the real estate market is rising (or, should I say, it was until very recently) and every second wasted was worth big $$ - and that couldn't be allowed to happen.

Therefore, you don't actually have one.

Instead, you have (in the best case) a gap between the lower edge of the door and the floor or the carpet. That is, unless you fancied a nice thick carpet and had a carpet guy that was very busy working on ten jobs - so he laid the carpet, plugged the gap, billed you and went out without saying good-bye.

It is very easy to check if you have sufficient air return - when the HVAC is on, see what happens to the door when it is open just an inch or so. If it bangs shut with the walls shaking, then yes, you do have insufficient air return. If air starts hissing angrily when the door is closed, and/or the whole tone of the airflow changes, the yes, you've guessed it already.

So what can you do about it?

Not much.

You can increase the gap by cutting the bottom of the door. This will help somewhat, but will probably be insufficient - you want your air return to be just about the same, if not bigger, than your supply.

You can cut the hole in the door and install nice grills you can buy at Home Depot for ten bucks over the hole - this will help much better. But forget privacy.

And, you can look for the presence of air returns next time you buy a house. But - good luck with that, and please let me know - I will have fingers on my left hand available to keep the count.

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