116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Am I the only one who noticed that it’s been hotter than usual this year? When I wake up in the morning I check the forecast and it usually says somewhere in the 80s but then by midday it is already in the 90s. The forecast is based on historical weather data from back when we had trees, and well, that ain’t it right now.
As a landlord we are having problems with houses that can’t keep themselves cool with the AC running nonstop. It’s not just the increased temperature making the AC’s struggle, many of my houses were shaded by nearby trees but now they are in direct sunlight. Cedar Rapids lost over half of our trees last August. The increase in direct sun means my houses are hotter inside in addition to the exterior temperature. When I remodeled in the past, I sized out the HVAC systems with historical averages in mind and didn't always insulate as well as I could have.
This problem isn’t unique to me and it’s not unique to landlords, the entire city is experiencing the increased need for AC and will suffer from it for decades to come, until the trees grow back. So what can we do? Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of options and the options we do have will not be easy. Unless Steve Shriver can invent some miracle grow for trees that makes them grow 40 feet in a year.
We have a few choices, we can upgrade all of our furnaces and central air conditioners, we can mount solar on all of our roofs, or we can add more and better insulation to our houses. The rule of thumb here is that if it’s easy it ain’t cheap and if it’s cheap it ain’t easy.
Furnaces and AC’s are sized to the home that you have, and as a general rule they are sized with a 20 degree swing in mind. So, if it is 90 degrees outside then the AC should be able to cool to 70 degrees without a problem, and usually there are only a handful of days a year when it is above 90. Now we are going to have entire weeks and months in the 90s. That means interior temperatures in the mid to high 70s, even 80s, and that would be with the HVAC systems running non-stop.
If the system you put in is too small then it will run non-stop and be very expensive — and not even keep up. But if you put too large of a system in, it also will have problems. It will not run long enough and will “short cycle” which is bad for the system. Air conditioners do two things simultaneously, they cool and they dehumidify the air. It is important that both things happen. With an oversized system the air gets cooled so fast the system turns off, but the dehumidifying process takes longer so the temperature rises back up quickly and a cool but very humid house doesn’t feel comfortable. This is bad for the system and uses considerably more energy. It also increases your energy bill and wear and tear on your AC system.
It’s important to be aware of this because it explains why everyone’s systems are struggling right now. They are too small. They were sized based upon Cedar Rapids with trees. Cedar Rapids when temperatures weren’t so hot. Now to have an appropriately sized system you would need to buy a new furnace and central air. If you get a central air conditioner that is too big for your furnace then it causes the coil to freeze up. We’re talking $6,000-$10,000 per house for upgraded, larger systems. These are still going to be more expensive on your monthly utility bill. So this is not a great solution.
You can try solar and that would help in two ways, it would lower the cost of your bills because it would be creating electricity and it would absorb some of the sunlight that would otherwise be directly beating down on and warming your house. But solar is also not cheap. A panel system is easily two or three times as expensive as a bigger furnace and central air and that is only lowering your electric bill, not your usage and it still won’t be enough to make your air conditioner keep up on those really hot days. Now that brings us to insulation which is the cheapest of the three options.
Insulation can come in many forms, the cheapest and easiest of which is blown in insulation in an unfinished attic which is maybe one or two thousand dollars. This will help your home stay cooler thus lowering demand on your air conditioner and hopefully allowing it to keep up on those hot days. Attics aren’t the only places that can have their insulation upgraded though, there are also exterior walls, doors, windows and basements and all of these matter. Insulation also usually stops or slows drafts coming into houses which are a significant factor in how well a house regulates it’s temperatures. Unfortunately windows and doors and wall insulation are all more invasive and difficult. You may have to drill a bunch of holes in your walls to blow in insulation and then you have to patch all of those holes. Or you can remove your drywall and do spray foam. Just remember, if it’s cheap, it ain’t easy.
In years past Alliant had a rebate program that subsidized all of this insulation and we should look for ways to bring it back. Homeowners should really consider adding insulation to their homes either with cash out of pocket or with a home equity line of credit. If it can save hundreds of dollars per month then it will pay itself back faster than solar or new air conditioners.
The city can also help out in this regard but not by micromanaging people’s homes. The city can create a standardized energy audit that the landlord or home seller would pay for and this would empower the renter or buyer with the knowledge of a home’s energy efficiency and consumption. Then the free market would do what the free market does and consumers would gravitate to more energy efficient living. And to kick off such a program the city could make it a requirement for rentals, because the city has to grant rental status and landlord license. As I’ve mentioned before, rents in Cedar Rapids are predicted to increase over the coming years and this seems like a small ask from the community in exchange for the increased profits that landlords are set to make.
Eric Gutschmidt is owner of Gutschmidt Properties in Cedar Rapids.