21 Ways to Beat the High Cost of Air Conditioning

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American summers are growing hotter and the heat is sticking around longer. This map, published recently by The New York Times, shows the warming trend across the U.S.

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.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has seven ways to keep cool without running up the electric bill. Watch it, then read on for more tips on lowering the cost of keeping cool.

1. Install solar screens

“Windows account for up to 60 percent of the cost of cooling a home in the summer,” says SFGate.

Cool your home by putting solar screens (also called sun shade screens) on the windows that get the most sun. They’re like insect screens but made of a dense mesh that blocks heat and light. They’re installed on the outside of windows.

Buy adjustable screens that fit into window frames, have screens custom made or make them yourself for about $10 per screen. Here’s a video showing how to make sun shade screens from Arizona’s Salt River Project utility.

Shopping tip: 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. The Shade Cloth Store describes the many types of shade cloth and their uses.

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, says Energy.gov.

3. Hang shutters or roll-up shades

Inexpensive roll-up shades 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 sun physically and they add a stylish architectural flourish.

4. Service the air conditioner

Keeping AC units at maximum efficiency by having them serviced twice yearly helps whittle your energy bills.

5. Change AC filters monthly

Replace air conditioner filters monthly while the units are in use. Dirty filters block air flow, making units draw more power and work harder. Dirty filters also circulate dirty air inside your home and can even create problems in the AC unit itself, damaging ductwork, the blower fan and cooling coil, according to ARS Rescue Rooter.

6. Use a programmable thermostat

Installing a programmable thermostat dropped her utility bill from $500 a month to $350, homeowner Leslie Warmouth told AZFamily.com.

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

Save more by letting inside temperatures rise while you’re at work — but by no more than four degrees. Otherwise you use more energy cooling the house back down than you save.

However, the home can warm up more when you’re away a few days because the extended savings offset the cost of re-cooling.

7. Seal ducts

Does your home have forced-air ducts for heating and cooling? If so, you can lose up to 20 percent of your heated or cooled air to holes, leaks and leaky duct joints. Some people use duct tape but Energy Star recommends against that because the seal is 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 and a day to a weekend of work sealing air leaks around your house, says this HouseLogic article.

8. Seal windows and doors

Cool indoor air seeps out leaks surrounding windows and doors. Energy.gov’s articles on caulking and weatherstripping explain how to tighten the seal around doors and windows. Spending about $1,000 on new caulking, insulation and sealing can shave 10 to 20 percent off your energy bill, says another HouseLogic article.

9. Insulate the attic

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

Next, insulate. EnergyStar.gov tells how to find out what your project will involve and whether to hire a contractor or do it yourself.

10. Use the barbecue

Older homes in warm climates had separate summer kitchens to keep the main house cool. Using your barbecue instead of the kitchen during the hottest days has the same effect.

Other cooling tips: Open the refrigerator briefly and infrequently. Instead of the oven, use plug-in appliances like a toaster oven, rice cooker, microwave and countertop convection oven. They use less energy and put off less heat.

11. Run appliances at night

Dishwashers and clothes dryers emit heat, making the AC run harder. Use them after the day cools down. Also, try turning off the dishwasher before the dry cycle, opening it up and letting dishes air dry.

Install an old-fashioned clothesline and dry laundry in the sun. Bonus: It’ll smell great.

12. Use vent fans carefully

Running bathroom and kitchen fans during the hottest hours pulls cooled air out of the house. The clothes dryer’s vent does this too. Use vents or vented appliances at night or in early morning.

13. Close the drapes

Keep drapes, blinds, curtains and shutters closed on the sides of the house facing the sun. Open them – and throw open windows – after the temperature outside drops below the indoor temperature.

Line drapes with light-colored fabric to reflect the sun’s heat, HouseLogic says.

Two sets of drapes hung together (“double-hung”) reduces heat even further. “Studies demonstrate that medium-colored draperies with white-plastic backings can reduce heat gains by 33 percent,” says Energy.gov.

Hang draperies close to windows to block heat and let them fall to the sill or floor.

14. Plant trees

Plant leafy deciduous trees on the east and west sides of your home for cooling shade. In the winter the bare branches let the sun warm the house. Consider locating trees or shrubs in other spots where their shade can help — near air conditioning units, patios, driveways and walkways, for example.

15. Use big potted plants

While you’re waiting for your trees to grow, put large pots with bamboo or trees in front of sunny windows or hot exterior walls to shade them.

16. Plant vines

Perennial vines are another excellent source of cooling shade. Think of shady Mediterranean grape arbors. Perennials like grapes need years to grow, so meanwhile plant annual vines from seed for shade in a hurry.

17. Use ceiling fans correctly

Switch ceiling fan blades so they’re rotating clockwise in summer (and counter-clockwise in winter). These fans have a toggle switch on the fan body that changes the rotation of the blades. Or just stand beneath the running fan. When the blades are set correctly you’ll feel a cooling downdraft.

Fans cool your body, not the room air, so turn fans off when you leave a room.

Buying new ceiling fans? Energy Star-certified fans (look for the label on packaging) use 50 percent less energy. Search for Energy Star products, including ceiling fans, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, ductless heating and cooling systems, and heat pumps.

18. Stay cool with freestanding fans

Air blowing across your skin cools it by evaporating your skin’s moisture. When using a fan, direct the breeze at yourself and keep a spritz bottle close, misting yourself occasionally.

19. Use an attic fan

Attic fans pull cooler outside air in from attic vents. They push hot air outside, taking a load off your air conditioner.

“In the summer, natural air flow in a well-vented attic moves super-heated air out of the attic, protecting roof shingles and removing moisture,” says this EnergyStar.gov page on attic ventilation, including correct installation.

20. Unplug electronics

Computers and other electronic devices, including some plasma TVs, generate heat that boosts a room’s temperature.

Unplugging warm-running electronics when they’re not in use keeps the room cooler and cuts your utility costs, says this Energy.gov article about energy “vampires.” Consumer Reports reviews two gadgets — Kill A Watt (about $25) and Watts Up (about $96) – that measure electricity consumed by appliances and devices and finds both to be accurate.

21. Close doors and registers

Don’t cool the entire house when you’re using just a few rooms. Shut doors and close registers in the other rooms.

What are your tips for keeping cool while saving on the power bill? Tell us by posting a comment below or on Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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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.