With energy costs on the rise, this summer could be sweaty—and expensive. But there are some easy ways to trim your cooling costs without suffering through 90-degree evenings, sans air conditioning. In fact, if you start preparing for the coming heat wave now, you can probably save a few hundred dollars. You'll also be doing the environment a favor, since the Energy Department estimates that half of a household's overall energy usage goes toward heating and cooling costs.
Plug up any holes. The cool air spewing out of vents should be treated like a precious vapor that must not escape. Inexpensive plastic film available at hardware stores can boost insulation around older windows where drafts are most likely. Foam and caulking can also help seal problem areas, as can extra insulation in the attic. Professionals can help with any installation challenges.
If you use window-unit air conditioners, make sure they fit tightly so air can't escape around the unit. The Energy Department recommends that window units have their own electrical circuits to reduce the risk of overloading the system. The agency estimates that creating a proper "thermal boundary" around your home can shave up to 20 percent off heating and cooling costs. Shutting the doors and vents of unused rooms can also lighten the load of your air conditioning unit.
Close those shades. Anything that keeps the sun from coming in and creating a greenhouse effect will make it easier for your air-conditioning unit to maintain cooler temperatures. For the longer term, consider planting leafy trees or bushes in areas that give your home more coverage.
Keep the filters clean. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. In fact, Geoff Godwin, division vice president of Emerson, the country's largest provider of heating and cooling systems, says it's important to clean out air conditioning filters once a month, which usually involves running water through them and letting them air-dry.
Program the thermostat. If your cat is home alone all day, he probably won't mind if things heat up a bit before you get home. Programmable thermostats, which allow the temperature to automatically rise during the day when no one is home, can lead to annual savings of 30 percent, Godwin estimates. Even though most systems today have programmable thermostats, people only use them half the time, which means a lot of systems work harder than necessary. (If setting the thermostat leaves you scratching your head, the step-by-step videos on the government's Energy Star website, www.energystar.gov, can help.)
Unplug, unplug, unplug. Even television sets, DVD players, and computers that are turned off can suck power out of outlets (aptly referred to as "vampire power"). That's why you should either unplug your electronics or use a Smart Strip, which cuts power when it's not needed. One exception: Overhead fans, especially at night, can cool air more cheaply that turning down the thermostat.
Step away from the oven. Here's your excuse to order take-out, or at least rely more on pre-prepared meals. Turning on the oven heats up the rest of the house, too, which forces your air conditioner to go into overdrive. If you still want to cook, consider an outdoor grill, toaster oven, or even the stovetop, which gives off less heat than the oven.
Take cold showers. Sure, you might need to crank up the water heater during those frigid winter months, but cooler showers in the summertime will let you turn down the temperature setting for a few months, which reduces energy costs. Godwin estimates that turning down the temperature on a 50-gallon tank from 130 degrees to 115 degrees can save more than $50 a year.
Bring in the professionals. Most experts suggest getting your unit serviced once a year, to check for potential problems such as mold, rusting, or grime build-up, all of which can hamper efficiency. "A lot of people don't do that—they ignore the AC system until something goes wrong," Godwin says. You can also give your home an overall check with an energy auditor, who can look for any air leaks and other inefficiencies.
Upgrade your systems. The Alliance to Save Energy suggests replacing older light bulbs with compact fluorescents. Doing so saves electricity directly, and fluorescents generate less heat. If you're buying other major items, such as washers, dryers, dishwashers, or even televisions, don't forget to take energy efficiency into account. The Energy Department's Energy Star rating helps consumers navigate those purchase decisions, so look for products with the label.
If you're in the market for a new air conditioning unit, the Energy Department recommends paying close attention to size. Some consumers mistakenly choose bigger units, thinking they'll be more powerful, but in reality, they can make too much noise and use up excess electricity. A unit that's the right size for the home will last longer and be more efficient, the agency says.
Taking these steps will not only reduce your monthly energy bills, but also create some room in your budget for more entertaining types of summer fun.