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Attic fans don't save you money

I have an electric exhaust fan mounted in the gable of my attic to reduce the air temperature and keep down my electric bill. The fan turns on when the attic temperature reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

My wife said someone told her the fan would pull cool air through the cracks in the ceiling and increase our electric bill.

The attic is well insulated. I think she got bad information. What do you think? William Kerr

Response: The information she got was either misinformed or misunderstood. It would take a super-powerful fan to do what you described, said Jack Davis, senior planning analyst with Florida Power.

But though your attic fan won't raise your electric bill, it won't save you much, either. Studies show that it would take 50 years to get back in electric bill savings what you spend on an attic fan, he said. They are not cost-effective.

The one investment that does translate into big electric bill savings, he said, is attic insulation. That, combined with a ridge vent, should take care of attic heat.

Since air conditioning is the single biggest contributor to high electric bills, and since we are in the middle of a sizzling summer, you may wish to take advantage of your local power company's free home energy audit.

The Public Service Commission has mandated that all power companies offer these audits, which involve inspecting your home for energy-wasting problems. You will also get recommendations for cost-efficient solutions.

Check to see if your power company has a rebate program to help offset the cost of attic insulation, replacement of heat pumps or duct repairs.

Florida Power Corp., in addition to the free energy audit, offers a blower-door test to check for air leaks and broken ducts. The cost is $50 per unit, with Florida Power paying half.

In Florida, where attics have limited crawl space, split ducts are a problem, said Jerry DeNike. He is a duct tester with St. Petersburg Heating and Air Conditioning, which is a participating contractor in Florida Power's duct inspection program.

Ducts do not split or separate on their own, DeNike said. They get damaged when electricians, pest control or cable technicians kick or crush them while crawling around in this confined space. As a result, you wind up heating or cooling your attic.

The blower test involves closing up your house except for one door, which is covered with a plastic sheet. Set into the sheet is a large fan. When the fan is turned on to suck air out of the house, gauges show whether the house and individual rooms have been pressurized. Lack of pressurization indicates major air leaks.

You can't feel the lowered pressure, but you can easily feel where air is being sucked in _ not only around doors and windows but through light switches, around some light fixtures and even around the medicine cabinet.

One of the most common and least noticed "holes" in Florida homes, DeNike said, is the tub access, the opening in the wall behind bathtub faucets. The opening is necessary to get to the tub and to check for subterranean termites, which can build mud tunnels up the pipes into the attic.

But these tub accesses need to be tightly covered. Some homeowners cover them with decorative grills, DeNike said, allowing cold or warm air to escape into the attic.

The effect of an uncovered tub access in a pressurized house is dramatic. You can feel the breeze from the sucked-in air halfway across the room.

After the blower test fan is turned around to blow air into the house, smoke from a small bottle is puffed out around vents, doors and windows. If there is a leak, the smoke is quickly sucked outside or into the vent.

According to Florida Power, these are some of the most cost-effective steps you can take to reduce electric bills in your home:

Add attic insulation to achieve an insulation index of R-19 or R-30.

Install ceiling fans and raise the air conditioning by 3 or more degrees.

Keep your heating and air-conditioning unit properly maintained.

Plant shrubs and trees to help shade your house.

Put an insulating blanket around your water heater and keep the temperature down around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cover your tub access.

Seal doors, windows, thresholds and light switches.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Upon request, names will not be published.

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