By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Nothing quite says “soaring electricity bill” like the sound of the AC kicking on as you wake-up, heralding another broiling summer day.

Whether you’re suffering in the usual seasonal heat of the Southwest, or simmering in the extraordinary heat wave cooking the mid-section of the nation, it’s likely the AC is running 24/7 now as record daytime heat overwhelms night time cool temperatures no longer worthy of that adjective.

What’s a sweaty homeowner to do?

Here are a few tips for keeping a lid on energy costs:

  • Caulk and weather strip. Many of us think of weather stripping when the snow flies, because cold air drafts rushing in under the door and around windows remind us. But closing up leaks around doors and windows is every bit as important in the summer, more so if you live in the Southern half of the U.S.. You may want to check for leaks in your duct work also, but don’t use “duct tape” because it doesn’t last, despite it’s name. The EPA recommends mastic or foil tape. Sealing off duct leaks in hot attics can be especially helpful, because the loss of cool air is greater there when it’s hot outside. A clue that you’ve got traitorous ducts is when you have a room that’s particularly difficult to heat or cool. Energy Star has an online guide to sealing ducts.
  •  Clean your central air conditioning filters monthly and window unit filters even more often. Methodical, regular cleaning will keep air flow unimpeded and more efficient. Be aware that those extra thick allergy-stopping filters may curb air flow, and go with something more permeable for the high heat months.
  •  Program your thermostat to let the temperature rise during the day if the house is empty, and cool down again when occupants arrive home.
  •  Keep the indoor cool temperature at 78 degrees, which is recommended by Energy Star, or even slightly warmer, letting the temperature rise to as high as 85 when no one is home. The further your setting is from the outside temperature, the harder it has to work to retain the indoor temperature. Yes, duh. But you may not realize the compounding effect this has on your AC demand. You also may discover that you’ll feel quite comfortable at this setting when the heat outside has neared or reached triple digits. When it’s 98 outside, 78 becomes the new 72. You may even find that 80 degrees is a tolerable indoor setting.
  •  Reduce sun exposure on hot Western and Southern sides of the house. You can do this many ways: Close the drapes and blinds before the sun hits those windows, while opening other exposures to allow natural light to filter in.
  • Plant deciduous trees that block light to West-facing windows. These will serve as shade in the summer, and drop their leaves, so the warming sun can reach the house in the winter. (See this story about Chesnut trees for more information.)
  • Use ceiling fans to cool occupants. A fan can make you feel a couple degrees cooler than the room temperature (maybe you can try out 80 degrees on the thermostat). But while fans help circulate the air, the rule of thumb is to turn them off when no one’s benefiting from the breeze. As the Alliance to Save Energy  reports: “Fans cool people, not rooms.”
  • CFL light bulbs or LED bulbs can save up to 75 percent of the energy used by comparable incandescent bulbs, so these are a good investment to keep electricity bills down. And when it comes to keeping a house cooler, these newer bulbs win again over incandescents because they don’t heat up like traditional bulbs. What qualified as innovation in Edison’s day — a traditional bulb — actually wastes most of the heat energy it generates, casting it into the room.
  • Speaking of heating up, you’ll keep the house on a steady cool course if you ditch the oven during the dog days. Use the microwave instead and you’ll avoid sabotaging your other  energy conservation moves. Similarly, you may want to stick with cold water in the washer and turn off the helpful (not) “heated dry” cycle on the dishwasher.
  • If you’re replacing an AC system that’s 12 years or more old, Look for an ENERGY STAR model. That could cut your cooling costs by as much as 30 percent, according to the program. With home cooling topping the list of home energy costs, that will be a meaningful number, potentially in the thousands of dollars.

Sources: Energy Star, The Alliance to Save Energy

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