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How to literally stay cool and save money at the same time

Posted July 7

Summertime, and the cooling is … very, very expensive.

Few of us enjoy nonstop sweltering during the warmer months. But staying cool comes at a price. Estimates hold that air conditioning costs account for roughly 16 percent of most households’ electric expenses. In warmer climes, that can jump to as much as 70 percent.

Nor is that just a matter of the electricity used. If local conditions warrant central air conditioning, the website Homeadvisor reports that the average purchase and installation cost ranged from a low of $3,695 to a high of more than $7,000.

Don’t add to the heat by sweating out unduly expensive cooling costs. Here are some tips.

Tech strategies

One major culprit in needlessly steep cooling costs is running air conditioners when the weather isn’t particularly hot. While you can always choose to lower the AC manually when needed, another option is installing a programmable thermostat. This automates the task of cutting back on air conditioning.

“It’s common sense to use your air conditioner only when you’re at home to enjoy it, but too often homeowners become complacent and leave their air conditioner running constantly,” said consumer expert Andrea Woroch. “A programmable thermostat takes the hassle out of constantly fiddling with temperatures and reduces your overall utility cost.”

If you use air conditioning regularly, it also pays to make certain the equipment is functioning as efficiently as possible. As Woroch noted, this should include scheduling maintenance checks annually, inspecting the air filter once a month and replacing it when necessary.

Additionally, make the most of whatever air conditioning is in use by installing ceiling fans to circulate as much cool air as possible. The federal Department of Energy estimates ceiling fans allow homeowners to raise the thermostat setting about four degrees with no reduction in comfort. But, be sure to turn them off when no one is in the room.

Non-tech tips

If the thought of learning to use a programmable thermostat makes your head spin, there’s an ample array of low-tech solutions that can also trim your home cooling bills.

Start with a major heat source — sunlight streaming through windows. One simple way to address that is by using blinds and curtains whenever possible — particularly those that are designed to hold out the heat.

“Curtains and other window coverings are critical,” said Brett Graff, who writes the nationally syndicated column The Home Economist. “These decorative energy savers reduce the solar heat that you're trying to tame. Blinds that are closed tight can reduce heat gain by 45 percent. They're also good because you can let a little light in when necessary.”

Don’t overlook drapes, added Graff: “They should be hung as close to the window as possible and should be hung well above and well over each side. The panels should overlap at the center.”

Another window-focused option is window film. This is a thin film or laminate installed on the interior of glass surfaces — that are not only effective in shutting out warm sunlight but also shielding furnishings and carpet from harmful UV rays. However, be wary of installing them in very cold climates, as they can also shut out warming sunlight in the winter.

By the same token, make sure that all that cool you pay so much to enjoy remains in the house as much as possible. That means doing a thorough inspection to pinpoint possible cooling leaks.

“Make sure your windows close tightly and that there are no spaces under doors,” said Graff. “If air is leaking out of your house, your air conditioning is going to have to work a lot harder.”

Lastly, don’t overlook strategies more closely associated with lifestyle. For instance, if your family meals tend to revolve around heat-producing ovens and other appliances, investigate options that don’t necessarily add on to an already toasty temperature.

“Many popular recipes require the use of an oven or stove; however, these appliances can seriously heat up your home and cause you to crank down the thermostat to cool off,” said Ameeta Jain, cofounder of HomeSelfe. “Think of meals you can make without these hot appliances, such as salads, sandwiches or even recipes in a slow cooker, since these appliances don’t emit as much heat.”

Lastly, consider those fabrics that come into direct contact with your body. The heavier and darker the item, the warmer you can feel, which can lead to a pricey choice to reach over and ramp up the air conditioner.

“Wear lighter clothes and sleep with a light blanket or just sheets. You'll feel more comfortable with less air conditioning if you dress appropriately for summer,” said Graff. “So break it out, people — tank tops, gauzy dresses, linen shirts and cotton sheets. Make it mandatory for the whole family.”

Jeff Wuorio lives in Southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at jwuorio@yahoo.com, and his website is at jeffwuorio.com.

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