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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.
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.
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