(707) 800-6287 |  Sonoma Napa and Marin Counties

updated 4/22/22


Whether it’s the dog days of summer or the dead of winter, every homeowner hopes to balance two competing interests: the desire to remain comfortable, and the need to keep energy costs down. This balancing act is challenging no matter where you live, but especially when you have a multi-story home with two or even three levels. How can you make sure that you enjoy a comfortable environment in every room of your house without breaking the bank on your monthly power bills? With the right energy-saving tips, such as how to set your thermostat effectively, finding the right balance is easier than you might think.

The key? One thermostat won’t be enough to get the job done. If you’re trying to make your AC unit keep an entire multi-level home at the same temperature, not only will you stress the hardware, but you’ll drive your monthly costs out of control. So, where do you begin?



Split Your System into Multiple Zones

Zoned HVAC is common in commercial buildings, and growing more common in residential applications. Although commercial setups may use more than one air conditioning unit, it is possible to create multiple zones in a home with only one unit. By using separate blower fans and a series of dampers to redirect airflow, you can control each floor of your home with a different thermostat.

If you don’t already have different thermostats in your home, you can ask your AC contractor to modify your system for zoned control. Once you have this setup, you can think about the best thermostat settings for saving money and staying happy year-round.


Energy Saving Tips for Non-Zoned Multi-Story Homes

What if you can’t afford to modify your system for zoned control, or your home isn’t a good candidate for it? There are still ways you can set your thermostat in a multi-story home to try and save energy. The right strategy uses a combination of strategic thermostat settings and other measures to keep rooms cool. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Use ceiling fans to promote the circulation of air. Even if you have your thermostat set a bit higher, fans will help keep the air circulating, which leads to a difference in the perceived temperature.
  • The most energy-efficient thermostat setting for the summer is generally around 78 degrees, though some may find it to be more comfortable at 76 degrees. Remember, hot air rises, so upstairs rooms may be warmer during the day.


The Best Thermostat Settings for Effective Summer Cooling

With a zoned system, you can easily find energy-saving tips that are easy to apply. Your goal is to create a flow of cool air throughout your home that allows for a roughly equal temperature from top to bottom throughout the day. Here’s how to do it:

  • Choose your ideal temperature — 76 degrees, for example. Set your thermostat on the very top floor of your home to this desired temperature.
  • If you have a three-story home, go down to the second floor and set the second thermostat two degrees cooler, for 74 degrees.
  • On the ground floor of a three-story home, again set the thermostat for two degrees less — now 72.

Cold air will gradually sink across the different levels of your home. Your top floor will help to regulate the temperature of the other two as air moves between then. Your goal is to create the conditions that allow cool air to sink into other areas of the home.


Saving Money in the Winter with Thermodynamics

Remember from physics class that heat rises? Higher temperatures always prefer to flow towards lower temperatures. You can use this principle in tandem with the reverse of the strategy described above. In other words, set your ground floor to your ideal temperature, then decrease the setting two or three degrees as you go higher. Warm air will rise through the home to reach the upper levels, allowing you to equalize the temperature. Instead of running your furnace all day and super-heating a few rooms and leaving others chilled, you can enjoy consistency throughout the home.


Experiment to Find the Optimal Settings for Your Home

All energy-saving tips are ultimately subject to the differences that make every home unique. A temperature setting that works for one home may not work for another that has a different thermal profile. Use the ideas outlined in this guide as a baseline, and explore tweaks to them to discover what maximizes your comfort while keeping your bills as low as possible. It might take some work to save money on your energy bill, but the results are worth the effort. Consider contacting a local HVAC contractor today to discuss transitioning your home to a zone control system with multiple thermostats to make it even easier to save monthly, and don’t forget basic maintenance to keep your AC cooling properly.


Everything You Need to Know About HVAC in a Multi-Story Home

Anyone who has an HVAC system knows the constant tug-of-war between wanting to be comfortable and wanting to save money on their electricity bills. HVAC units are typically some of the heaviest power drains in your house, so it’s a good idea to be smart and careful when you use them so you don’t end up with an astronomical bill every month. If you own a large, multi-story house, that suddenly becomes a lot more difficult. It’s one thing to keep a four-room apartment cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but it’s another thing altogether to manage that when the number of rooms hits the double digits.


Managing the temperature in a multi-story house without breaking the bank is mostly a matter of planning and strategy. Instead of just setting your thermostat and forgetting about it, you can follow a few pretty simple and straightforward tips and significantly reduce the amount of electricity your system uses. This lowers your monthly power bills while also easing the strain on the environment, which is always a plus. If you’re not sure where to start, don’t worry – we’re here to help you out.


HVAC Zoning

Setting up a zoned HVAC system is, without a doubt, the single most important thing you can do to cut down on the power usage of your system. While it might cost a little bit extra when you’re first putting everything together, it’ll more than pay for itself by increasing the energy efficiency of your house. A properly zoned HVAC system can also fix a frequent issue experienced by homeowners with multi-story houses – hot and cold spots on different floors or up in the corners of rooms. This can be extremely frustrating, and there’s really no way to fix that particular problem without zoning.


So what is zoning? There are a few different ways you can set up an HVAC system and call it “zoned,” but in an overall sense, the word refers to a system that splits your house into separate areas and tries to control the temperature in each of those zones instead of just the whole building together. An unzoned HVAC system typically works off a single thermostat and uses that to control the temperature of the entire house. This is fairly inefficient, and it leads directly to those hot or cold spots that can be so irritating.


The simplest way to get started with zoning your HVAC system is to install multiple thermostats in different areas of the house. An unzoned home only has a single temperature sensor to go off of. This means if you set your thermostat for 70 degrees, it’s going to stop as soon as the room the thermostat is in reaches 70 degrees. The upstairs could be at 95 degrees and the basement could be below zero, and the thermostat would never know because it only has a single point of reference. By adding multiple thermostats, your system is able to measure the temperature in different parts of your home and turn itself on and off accordingly. This is how you eliminate those annoying hot or cold spots.


We can take that a step further, however. Multiple thermostats mean that each zone in your house has its own temperature sensor, but it also means each zone has its own temperature control as well. In a fully zoned home, you can actually set each thermostat to a different temperature, and the system will be able to control how much treated air goes to which zone. You can do this by installing multiple units, using automatic dampers that block the vents when a zone reaches the right temperature, or even just manual dampers you can use to control it by yourself.


If you’ve fully zoned the HVAC system in your house, not only do you have more options for comfort, but you have plenty of opportunities to increase the efficiency of your air conditioning and save some money on your next power bill. In the next section, we’ll go over a few different ways you can use your thermostat settings in a zoned house to save energy.


The main downside of a zoned system is that it can be a little pricey, especially if you’re opting for a smarter system with multiple units or automatic dampers so you don’t have to do anything yourself. The price will vary depending on how many zones you want to have, as well as whether or not you already have ductwork installed already, but it’ll generally cost several thousand dollars. While that’s a pretty hefty initial price, you’ll end up saving plenty of money long-term by saving power, so you can do the math yourself to figure out if a zoned HVAC system is a smart financial choice for you.


Thermostat Controls

There are plenty of ways you can improve the energy efficiency of an HVAC system. The technology that drives air conditioners and heating units has never been more advanced, and there’s always some new thing that will save you a bunch on your power bills. VRF air conditioners, for example, have finally made their way from Japan to the US and can cut down power usage pretty significantly. However, for those of us who can’t necessarily afford to be constantly overhauling our HVAC systems every time something new comes out, there’s thermostat control. Learning how to manage your thermostats in an efficient way is the best way to lower your electricity usage without having to spend a dime on new units or systems.


First things first – if you have a zoned HVAC system, you already have a ton of options available to you. Just having everything zoned with multiple thermostats is going to improve the efficiency by itself, but there’s a lot more you can do to make that improvement bigger. One of the most significant things you can do is run the HVAC system only in certain zones instead of the entire house every time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should turn the AC off and on every time you walk into a different part of your house, but you can think about some trends you notice and use those to control the system more finely.


For example, how often do you go into the basement or the attic in the evening? Once the sun goes down and everybody gets home from work, they tend to spend their time in the kitchen, dining room, family room, and then up to the bedrooms when it’s time to go to sleep. If you have the basement set as its own zone, you can just shut off the system entirely in the evenings and keep it running on the main floors, cutting down on electricity usage. One of the most popular ways to save electricity is to take advantage of zoning overnight. If it’s the middle of winter, you might want the heat on overnight so you can sleep all nice and toasty. However, there’s really no reason the heat should be on anywhere else in the house. That’s a full eight hours when the HVAC system is shut off everywhere but the zone including your bedroom, giving you huge savings without having to suffer cold nights.


If you’ve identified some situations when you can turn off certain zones, a programmable thermostat will offer a nice advantage when setting up your HVAC schedule. These smarter thermostats allow you to schedule different heating and cooling setups at different times of the day. That means you can have the HVAC automatically turned off downstairs after, let’s say, midnight every night. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for smart thermostats as well. With the improvement in sensor and computer technologies, there are some smart HVAC systems that detect when a person is in a certain zone so the heat or air conditioning only turns on if you’re around. Currently, these systems are used mostly in hotels so the owner doesn’t have to pay for treated air in empty rooms, but they’re often a part of contemporary smart homes as well.


If your house is unzoned, there are still plenty of things you can do to control the energy usage of your HVAC system. One of the easiest is to set the thermostat a couple of degrees higher in the summer and a couple of degrees colder in the winter. You’d be surprised how subtle the difference can be, and it can actually save you quite a bit every month. During the summer, we recommend setting your thermostat to about 78 degrees, and 68 degrees during the winter. These are pretty comfortable temperatures for most people, and they won’t break the bank. Another important thing to do is to change the thermostat every time you leave for work if nobody will be at the house. Raising the temperature setting by 7-10 degrees in the summer and lowering it the same amount during the winter will keep your HVAC system from working too hard during the workday while leaving the temperature mild enough that it can easily be comfortable again when you get home. According to the US Department of Energy, you can actually save about 10% each year on your power bills just by doing that.


Electric and Baseboard Heaters

In a big house with multiple floors, a standard ducted central air system is going to usually be the best HVAC set-up for you. However, there is plenty of other alternative heating and cooling systems available out there. While they’re generally not the best option to use for your entire house, you can use these as auxiliary additions to your main central air heater and air conditioner to cut down on power usage, especially in certain situations.


When it comes to warming your house, baseboard heaters can be a real pain. However, if you only have to keep a single room warm, they can be a perfect way to avoid having to turn on the main central air furnace or heat pump. Baseboard heaters work using a heat transfer process called convection, which you might remember from high school science class. In case you’re having trouble recalling, convection has to do with a cycle created by the movement of warm and cold air. As you’ll probably remember, hot air wants to rise towards the ceiling, while cold air falls towards the floor. This is why baseboard heaters are usually placed towards the ground, often attached to, well, the baseboard. The heater warms up any air that falls into it, causing that air to rise. As the air rises towards the ceiling, it gradually cools, eventually falling back down into the heater, which warms it again and restarts the cycle. This method is a quick and easy way to heat an entire room, although it won’t really provide any warmth in the next room over.


There are two types of baseboard heaters – electric and hydronic. As the name suggests, electric heaters are wired into your electrical system and look a little bit like a toaster on the inside. The electricity running into the heater warms a series of metal fins or coils, which in turn heat any air that falls into the heater. Electric heaters are cheap and easy to install, but they’re also notoriously inefficient. For this reason, they’re best used for short periods or in rooms that don’t have any other heat source. For example, if you’re not excited about the idea of spending a few thousand dollars to have your existing central air HVAC system split into zones, you can always just pick up an electric baseboard heater for each bedroom in the house. When it’s time to go to bed, you can shut off the central air or put it on a lower setting and use the baseboard heater to keep yourself warm overnight. While this is less efficient than a properly zoned forced air system, it’s a budget-friendly way to create your own zone of a sort without having to shell out a few thousand dollars.


Hydronic baseboard heaters work similarly to the electric ones, but they use heated water or steam to warm the air instead of metal fins. This is a much more energy-efficient way to warm the room, but it does require a boiler placed somewhere in your home to heat the water. Hydronic baseboard heaters are more work to install, which is why they’re more popular as cheap primary heating sources than auxiliary ones like electric heaters. However, if you’re willing to have the boiler and steam pipes installed, they’re a great way to bring heat cheaply and efficiently to parts of your home that might not have ductwork, like the garage or an unfinished basement. They’re also a great option for heating up guest houses, sheds, and other side buildings you might have on your property.


If you live somewhere warm that rarely requires heating, even in the winter, you can even just go for a standard electric space heater as a backup heat source in case of a cold snap. Most space heaters work pretty similarly to electric baseboard heaters, but they’re portable and can plug right into the wall. Even if you’re living in the middle of the desert, it never hurts to have a source of heat in case of an emergency.


Mini-Split Air Conditioners and Fans

Just as baseboard heaters make great auxiliary heat sources when used in conjunction with your central air system, there are plenty of ways to cool a room without having to turn on the main air conditioner. Like baseboard heaters, these options can be used as an alternative to a fully zoned HVAC system, or as a source of cold air in rooms that aren’t connected to the ductwork.


Before even getting into the category of auxiliary air conditioners, let’s take a moment to talk about everyday ceiling fans. While they won’t actually make the room any colder, turning on the ceiling fan will move the air in the room around and make you feel cooler through the wind chill factor. It’s the exact same reason why a windy day will feel so much colder than the weather report says it is. On average, a ceiling fan will lower the perceived temperature of a room by about four degrees. That may not sound like much, but being able to turn the thermostat up by a few degrees and making up for it with a fan will actually save you a pretty decent chunk of change. The same goes for oscillating or tower fans, which can be useful for a little boost of cool air when you’re struggling to sleep on a hot summer night.


If you’re looking for something a little more serious than just a ceiling fan, mini-split air conditioners are an extremely energy-efficient way to cool down a single room. A mini-split AC works pretty much the same way as any other split-system air conditioner – one unit with the compressor and the condenser coil, and a second unit with the evaporator coil. If you have a central air cooling system, chances are a split-system air conditioner is what’s blowing cold air through your vents. However, a mini-split skips the middleman of the ducts and just blows the cooled air straight from the evaporator unit into the room. It’s extremely direct and efficient, although it’s generally only useful for a single room.


Much like baseboard heaters, a mini-split air conditioner is a popular choice for bedrooms because you can turn down the AC in the rest of the house. However, they’re much more efficient than baseboard heaters, so you can blast that cool air into your bedroom without worrying about power usage. In fact, they’re so energy-efficient that mini-splits are often used as primary cooling sources in smaller dwellings like apartments and mobile homes where a central air system is unnecessary.


The primary downside of a mini-split air conditioner is the cost. Each unit can be pretty expensive, and that price keeps going up if you need to add units to multiple rooms. This is why using mini-splits isn’t really a feasible option for a large house – while you’d save some money on your power bills, the cost of installing evaporator units all over the home would be astronomical. For homeowners, they’re best used as an auxiliary source to take a little pressure off your central air or to bring cool air to an unfinished basement, garage, or outdoor building like a shed or guest house.


Experiment and Get Advice from an HVAC Professional

The best way to keep your multi-story house nice and cool without breaking the bank on power bills every month will depend on the particulars of your home, the local weather, and your preferences. For this reason, we recommend trying out a few different techniques to save electricity without breaking your usual routine. Changing the thermometer settings can be especially tricky, so it might take a few weeks before you’re able to find the best temperature for each zone in your house.


If you want some extra help, it’s often a good idea to check in with a licensed HVAC professional. They’ll be able to look at your house and the HVAC system you already have before recommending which auxiliary systems might be best for your situation. Be sure to be upfront about your budget when you first get started, since that will have an effect on what they recommend. Between your preferences and their experience, you should be able to work together and find the perfect HVAC setup for your home.


If you’re in the northern Bay Area and you’re thinking of upgrading your HVAC system, or you’re just looking for a little more information, feel free to get in touch with us at Valley Comfort Heating & Air. You can contact us through our website here or just give us a call at (707) 664-7201. We’re happy to help you with anything we can.