19 Ways to Beat the High Cost of Air Conditioning

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American summers are growing hotter, thanks to a combination of climate change and increased urbanization, according to research by Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists.

Meanwhile, the cost of using an air conditioner just keeps rising. Household energy bills are expected to grow 2 percent a year through 2040, says the National Association of Realtors’ HouseLogic site.

There’s plenty you can do, though, to cut the cost of cooling a home. For example, sealing air leaks and adding insulation can together boost a home’s cooling efficiency by 10 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Here are 19 tips for lowering the cost of keeping cool:

1. Install solar screens

Cool your home by putting solar screens (also called sun-shade screens) on the windows that get the most sun. Installed on the outside of windows, they are like insect screens, but made of a dense mesh that blocks heat and light.

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Buy adjustable screens that fit into window frames, have screens custom made or make them yourself for about $10 per screen.

Since the mesh comes in varying densities, shop around at hardware stores to decide which you need before buying.

Another type of mesh, called shade cloth, also comes in varying densities and can be used outdoors to shade decks, playgrounds, patios, eating areas and outdoor living areas.

2. Put up window awnings

Install awnings above your warmest windows to block sun. Awnings cut solar heat gain by up to 65 percent on south-facing windows in summer and by 77 percent on west-facing windows, the EPA says.

3. Hang shutters or roll-up shades

Inexpensive roll-up shades — made of bamboo or vinyl strips — block heat. Hang them outside windows on the sunny side of the house. You can also hang them over the exterior of the home’s warmest side.

They roll up and down manually with a cord. Keep them rolled up in winter to invite the sun’s warmth indoors.

Shutters — in vinyl, composite, wood or natural-fiber woven material — also block the sun, and they add a stylish architectural flourish.

4. Keep the air conditioner in tip-top shape

Keeping AC units at maximum efficiency by having them regularly serviced helps whittle energy bills.

Replace air conditioner filters monthly while the units are in use. Dirty filters block air flow, making units draw more power and work harder.

5. Use a programmable thermostat

Fiddling with your home’s thermostat makes the AC run less efficiently. Hold a family meeting and get everyone to agree on one temperature for day, and one for night.

Save more by letting inside temperatures rise while you’re at work. The U.S. Department of Energy notes that air-conditioning systems run at peak efficiency when operating for extended periods. Cooling the house after the AC has been off for an extended period uses less electricity than having the AC unit cycle on and off for short periods during the day.

6. Seal ducts

Homes with forced-air ducts for heating and cooling can lose up to 20 percent of heated or cooled air to holes, leaks and leaky duct joints. Some people seal these openings with duct tape, but the EPA says such seals are not long-lasting. Mastic sealant or metal tape is better.

Do it yourself or hire a contractor. If you do it yourself, you’ll save about $350 per year on energy costs by investing $100 to $350 in materials that will seal air leaks around your house, according to the NAR.

7. Seal windows and doors

Cool indoor air seeps out of leaks surrounding windows and doors. The Department of Energy’s Energy.gov website has articles on caulking and weatherstripping that explain how to tighten the seal around doors and windows.

Spending about $1,000 on new caulking, insulation and sealing can shave 10 percent to 20 percent off your energy bill, says the NAR.

8. Insulate the attic

Check out the Energy.gov website to learn how to conduct an energy audit to locate air leaks throughout the house. Before adding insulation, seal leaks and holes in the attic.

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  • Jason

    I’m a bit surprised you didn’t mention the easiest way to save money: adjust the thermostat. I’m amazed at the number of people that keep their house cooler in the summer than they do in the winter. My work is a prime example setting the thermostat for 69F in the summer and 75F in winter. Why not just set it for 72F all year and same money?

    My wife and I took this to the extreme when we were aggressively paying down debt. We set the thermostat for 78F in the summer and 68F in the winter. We simply had to dress for the season and wear a sweater in the winter and shorts in the summer. 78F still feels plenty cool when the outside temperature is 95F! We relaxed this a bit when we installed a new energy star heat pump. After that installation we set the thermostat for 75F in the summer and 70F in the winter and still saved 30% of our energy cost with the new heat pump.

    Another money saving tip is to open the windows at night and close them in the morning. Let the naturally cool air come in at night and drop the house temperature. In the morning shut the windows and pull the shades and the house will take hours to warm up and most likely won’t reach the outside temperature if it is insulated well. This is what my parents did when I was growing up in Michigan and we didn’t have A/C.

  • JKH

    you are wrong about the ceiling fan direction blow down to bring the temp down. blow up to bring the temp up

  • George brett

    Do you turn the fan on upstairs only or downstairs???

    • Robert Eisman

      A thermostat has a “fan only” setting. Think that may be what she is talking about.

  • I.Popoff

    Humidity is a comfort issue if you live east of the Mississippi River. A variable speed air handler will increase moisture removal that naturally occurs when running an AC unit, but setting the thermostat so the fan is running all the time will defeat this and cause inside humidity to increase. Attic fans are not recommended by some experts because they will also pull conditioned air out of the house, especially when there are holes in the ceiling for lights, fans and house wiring.

    • Jason

      You wouldn’t use an attic “whole house” fan when the A/C is running. Instead they are used to rapidly exchange all the air in the house with outside air. They are great for quickly cooling down a house in the evening. Open the windows, turn on the fan, and in less than 10 minutes the house is the same temperature as outside.

      If you are talking about attic fans that exhaust hot air out of the attic and draw air from inlets under the eves, the solution isn’t to not use an attic fan, the solution is to properly insulate the attic so you don’t have holes between the attic and the house. Most contractors do not do this when they build a house but that is just sloppy work.

      • I.Popoff

        Whole house attic fans can be great if you live in an area where evening temps are comfortable and it isn’t humid all the time. They also suck in a lot of dust and allergens that you will see accumulating on your window screens. Insulation alone does not block conditioned air from escaping into the attic. An air barrier should be constructed at any ceiling penetration using solid material like wallboard and caulk.

        • Jason

          House fans can also work where it is humid. 70 degrees and humid is much more pleasant than 85 degrees and humid. I’ve lived in East Tennessee and central Alabama, both are humid climates. That didn’t keep us from stretching the amount of time we had the A/C off by opening the windows at night and closing them in the morning. People survived before A/C.

          Yes, sealing an attic is more than just adding insulation, I just got done doing my attic right along with adding additional R-30 insulation on top of the minimal amount of blow-in insulation installed by the original contractor. (My house was “to code” or to put it a different way, the minimum required by law.) Of course that was where they actually put insulation, the entire area under the plywood for storage didn’t have any insulation because apparently the plywood was installed before the insulation. I had a 20′ X 16′ area without any insulation.

          • I.Popoff

            I prefer 70 degrees and not humid. That’s why I run the ac and keep the windows closed. It is not officially summer yet, but here in my Gulf coast state it is 9:30 in the evening, 80 degrees outside and 70% humidity. Experts recommend keeping indoor humidity at 50% or less to combat mold and dust mites. I would never achieve that or anywhere close if I opened the windows everyday.

  • OldHighlandGuyOne

    I have been told a couple of times, by our air conditioning people, to never close the registers. They say that makes the A/C inefficient. Any one have comments on that?

    • Debbie Zervas

      Yes, it makes the system unbalanced so it works harder.

      I wonder when underground houses will be the big thing. I know from living in tornado alley that there is a big safety factor to being UNDER the ground when tornadoes are aboveground. Knew someone with a 3500 square foot underground house whose electric and all other utility bills were less than $200 a month. And if is harder for someone to break into – only one side/end is open. One dog can easily guard it. His place had tons of natural light and most of his electric bill was fans, lights and dehumidifiers.

      • Jcatz4

        Don’t think I like that idea. Suppose a tornado hits and debris lands on top of your underground house and you can’t get out.

  • bigpinch

    I just let the Woodbine vines take over the house (leaving sufficient air circulation for the window air conditioner, of course). Applying Kool Seal to the roof reflects a lot of sun light and that helps, too.

    • Jcatz4

      This is a joke – right??

      • bigpinch

        No. That’s my house. One end of it, anyway.

  • Michael Smiley Gawthrop

    Not mentioned in the article… if you live in a drier climate, consider switching from an air conditioner to an evaporative cooler. It takes a fraction of the power to run a water pump to keep the cooling pads wet compared to what it takes to run the compressor on an A/C unit. As an added bonus, it adds a little humidity to the air in your house saving you from needing to run a humidifier.