Temperatures around the southeastern region of the U.S. are about to start crawling upward again. Air conditioning systems will be running. Energy bills will be rising. Repair trucks will be moving. Homeowners throughout the country will spend more than $10 billion on HVAC services this year. In Florida alone, air conditioning accounts for at least half the average monthly residential power bill of $225 and, to make the expense more painful, units typically need to be replaced every 10-15 years.

Also consider this: the cost of cooling our homes and carbon output go hand in hand.

The good news is that UCF researchers are doing something to soften blows to our budgets and to our environment. The Department of Energy (DOE) chose nine leading organizations in the Southeast to collaborate on a Building America initiative to find scalable retrofitting solutions to improve the performance of residential HVAC systems and decarbonize homes. UCF’s team at the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) in Cocoa, Florida, will lead the research.

FSEC has a history with the DOE dating back to the mid-1990s. Among its eclectic successes, FSEC’s recommendations have become energy-efficient building codes, and their flagship program, the Lakeland Zero Energy Home — where the amount of energy the building uses does not exceed the amount it produces — is the basis for a national Zero Energy Homes program. FSEC also developed one of the first energy-efficient ceiling fans, used in millions of homes — UCF’s most productive patent — and saving consumers nationwide more than $20 million each year.

“The Department of Energy knows that we specialize in hot, humid climate,” says Sherri Shields, FSEC’s communications director “and that our goals, and experience of 44 years in building science, align with their goals of improving a building’s health, safety, comfort, durability and energy efficiency. This project is another step in that direction.”

For the next few years, the FSEC team will analyze home energy use related to improvements in HVAC system performance. The details in this evaluation will help the other Building America collaborators move closer to implementing strategies that save energy beyond the savings achieved with the installation of solar panels.

“We’re big proponents of solar, but there are other ways to decrease energy waste that haven’t been widely adopted,” says FSEC’s lead researcher Karen Fenaughty.

Karen Fenaughty (right) examining an HVAC system with a colleague. (Photo by Matt Tyler)

Fenaughty has personal motivations to improve HVAC systems. When she isn’t pouring through energy data, she’s hiking the Florida native scrub trails in Malabar. Before coming to FSEC, she earned certifications in green real estate.

As eco-conscious as she is, Fenaughty admits that whenever her own air conditioning unit kicks on, her home becomes part of the problem that needs to be solved.

“My duct system is like those we find in a lot of homes — lengthy, old and wasteful,” she says. “If the unit were to fail during summer, I’d just want it replaced as quickly as possible. That’s what has happened in warm climates like ours for decades. So, the same failing duct systems often remain through multiple air conditioning changeouts.”

Fenaughty already knows this because the latest Building America project follows a closely related study where FSEC evaluated dozens of homes and validated findings in labs at UCF. Those homes showed an alarming number of improper refrigeration charges, leaks and constraints on air flow.

“Homeowners and contractors frequently default to bigger air conditioning units and heat pumps, thinking bigger is better,” Fenaughty says. “The problem is those oversized units can create another level of waste. That’s why we want to provide contractors with tools and data that are easy to understand so they can more easily talk with their customers. They’ll be more likely to do what’s best for the customer and the planet.”

Her research, and the work of the Building America teams, will first focus on underserved communitieswhere homeowners can least-afford the costs associated with inefficient HVAC systems. If solutions work in these homes, then they’ll be expanded out to other communities and other regions of the country.

“This project fits the reason FSEC was established 50 years ago and the reason I joined them 15 years ago,” says Fenaughty. “It would be satisfying to know we’ve created a win-win for homeowners and contractors, and a big win for the environment.”