Ah, summer: cookouts, camping, outdoor concerts, and a break from high energy bills, right? Not exactly. Record-setting temperatures throughout the United States and Canada this summer are sending even the most frugal consumer to their nearest air conditioner, never mind the cost.
With climate change bringing more frequent heat waves, taming summer energy costs is on everyone’s mind. Regions of the country that used to have mild, cool summers are now regularly posting daily record-high temperatures. (We’re looking at you Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and British Columbia.) If installing central air conditioning never factored into your thinking (or budget), weeks of 100-degree-plus days probably have you singing a different tune.
Excessive heat is more than a matter of discomfort. It can lead to detrimental health outcomes, too. Extreme heat events can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or even death, especially for vulnerable populations like seniors. Pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, respiratory ailments, or diabetes put people at even greater risk. In fact, heat causes more fatalities than any other weather-related event. That’s more than floods, tornadoes, or storms.
Tip #1: Energy Star appliances
If your air conditioner is going to work overtime in the summer, make sure you’ve got the most efficient model you can, so it draws less energy (and costs you less to operate).
Running an air conditioner costs between 6 and 88 cents an hour. If you were to run your air conditioner eight hours a day, that translates to $14.40 to $211.20 a month, depending on the size of your unit and how efficient it is.
When shopping for energy-efficient air conditioners, look for models certified by the Energy Star systems. In particular, choose units that have high Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) and Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) ratings. Models with these ratings are 15% more energy efficient. Don’t stop at cooling systems. Consider replacing all of your appliances with Energy Star models, which will reduce your energy costs throughout the year.
Tip #2: Crank it up
Everyone loves walking into a room that feels like cold storage on a sweltering day. But you can realize more savings by setting your thermostat at 78°F. That can cut your energy costs by 10% each year, according to the Department of Energy. Aim even higher for more savings — if you can literally take the heat. For every degree you increase your thermostat over 72°F, you can save up to 3% off your cooling expenses.
Tip #3: Clear your filters
If an appliance upgrade isn’t in the cards, seasonal maintenance of your air conditioner and other systems should be on your to-do list to make sure they’re running as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
At the top of your list should be cleaning your air conditioner’s filters on a monthly basis. Clogged and dirty filters impede airflow and hamper your unit’s ability to absorb heat. Replacing air filters can lower your air conditioner’s energy usage by as much as 15%.
Tip #4: Unplug electronics
Your electronics suck power and generate heat even when they’re not in use. By unplugging, you’ll be reducing your electricity use and therefore your energy costs. So, unplug your computer, TV, coffee maker, toaster oven, and anything else that’s drawing energy even when they’re not in use. Plugging them back in takes less than a second.
Tip #5: Switch to LED light bulbs
Incandescent light bulbs are so 2005. It’s time to make the switch to LED lights, which use 75% less energy, last 25 times longer, and run cooler. True, you’ll pay more for these bulbs upfront. But considering the energy savings and the likelihood that you won’t need to replace them again until the next ice age, they more than pay for themselves.
Tip #6: Become a fan of fans
Compared to air conditioners, running a fan is a bargain. Unfortunately, fans don’t do anything to change the temperature in your home, they simply move the air around creating a wind chill effect that makes you feel more comfortable.
When the mercury rises slightly, opt for a fan before cranking up the A/C. But when temperatures reach the roasting point, you’ll of course want to use the air conditioner. Combining A/C with a ceiling fan lets you move all that cool air around. When you use a fan alongside air conditioning, you can turn up your thermostat 4°F without any less comfort. Just remember to turn your fan off when you’re not home. Fans cool people, not spaces, so there’s no sense in running fans when you’re not there to enjoy the benefit.
Tip #7: Use a programmable thermostat
A programmable thermostat lets you be smart about your energy usage. Instead of cooling your home for hours so it will be comfortable when you return, a programmable thermostat lets you set the air conditioner for just prior to your arrival. The popular Nest thermostat costs $130 to $250, depending on the model, but promises to reduce cooling costs by 15%. For a typical American home, that means $131 to $145 a year in savings.
Some states and municipalities offer incentives for installing a smart thermostat, so look around for rebates or other perks that might be available in your area.
Tip #8: Forget windows on the world
As in winter, windows are a major source of air leakage, letting out the temperature you want and replacing it with the temperature outside. Make sure your windows are well-insulated, so when they’re closed, your precious cool air won’t escape. Go one step further by drawing the shades on your windows to keep the sunlight out. Or consider purchasing thermal curtains, which can act as insulation over your windows to keep your home cooler.
Tip #9: Dine out
The last place you want to be in the summer is a hot kitchen. Forget about the baked lasagna or a sheet-pan supper during a heat wave. Using your stove top or oven can raise your kitchen’s temperature by 10°F, so your air conditioner will have to work even harder.
Summer and cookouts go hand in hand. Use your outdoor grill to prepare meals so you can keep the heat outside. If you’d prefer to stay inside, use your microwave or a slow cooker, which don’t increase the kitchen temperature. Or make meals out of cold foods, or serve dishes that don’t require stove-top cooking or baking.
Tip #10: At arm’s length
Keep heat-generating appliances such as lamps, TVs, computers, and irons away from your thermostat. They can trick the thermostat into thinking your home is hotter than it is, making your air conditioner work harder than it needs to.
Tip #11: Watch the water
Between watering your lawn and endless showers to keep cool, summertime water usage usually goes up. Make sure to water outdoor plants either in the early morning or at dusk to prevent evaporation. If you haven’t yet, install low-flow shower heads, toilets, and sprinklers to cut down on your water use.
Tip #12: Leave your wash out in the cold
Still washing towels and unmentionables with hot water? Today’s detergents are potent enough to tackle even the dirtiest in cold water. Roughly 90% of the energy that washing machines use goes toward heating the water, according to the Cleaning Institute. You could save $60 a year by switching to cold (and extend the life of your clothes too).
Tip #13: Keep it breezy
If you live in an area that enjoys warm days and cool nights, turn off your air conditioner and open up your windows to experience a pleasant cross-breeze.
Tip #14: Throw some shade
If you’ve ever stepped under a forested canopy on a hot day, you know the cooling magic of shade. Keeping your home in the shade on the hottest days can have a similar effect. A minimum of three strategically placed shrubs and trees can reduce your energy costs by 30%. At the very least, try to cover your air conditioning unit in shade.
Tip #15: Hang your dryer out to dry
Using a dryer costs between 24 and 72 cents an hour. Take advantage of the heat by line-drying your clothes outside. They’ll be dry in no time. If you don’t have outdoor space to dry your clothes, consider using a foldable drying rack that can hold half a load of laundry.
Incorporating these cooling and money-saving tips is as easy as practicing your ABCs: Always Be Cool.