By Kelli B. Grant
To consumers across in the 40 states that topped 90 degrees Tuesday — 17 of which hit at least 100 degrees — the Energy Information Administration’s recent predictions for a cooler summer with fewer a/c-required days are cold comfort of the wrong kind. Running the air conditioner to beat the non-stop heat doesn’t have to add significantly to your electricity bill, though, if you know how to use it effectively.
By Energy Star estimates, one room air conditioner adds roughly $85 to your electric bill over the course of a year, while a central air conditioner will set you back twice that. Expect to pay even more if the unit isn’t energy-efficient, or you’re using it more than the average seven hours a day. Try these four tips to maximize your a/c’s cooling power and minimize the bill:
Clean up. Clean out the filters in your central or window air conditioner, as well as its exterior vents. A clogged unit uses more energy to push through air, says Tom Simchak, a senior research associate with the Alliance to Save Energy.
Use energy-efficient settings. So-called “energy-saver” settings let the air-conditioner take a break when it senses the room has reached your desired temperature. Energy Star estimates consumers could save $180 over the course of a year by programming a unit to raise the temperature by just a degree or two during times when you’re asleep or not at home.
Adjust your décor. Use shades or curtains to block heating sunshine from coming in. Move your window air-conditioner to a window with more shade. It stays cooler and will operate more efficiently, Simchak says. Plug any cracks along doors and windows that might let cold air out. And if you have a fan, use it. The breeze it generates can make the room feel a few degrees cooler, letting you set the a/c at a higher temp.
Skip chores. Don’t use heat-generating appliances like the oven or clothes dryer during the day. They raise the interior temperature of your home, forcing the air-conditioner to work harder to compensate.
If you find yourself suddenly in the market for a new window or portable air conditioner, don’t expect much of a price break this time of year. “It’s a little late for that,” says Denise Durrett, a spokeswoman for Energy Star. HomeDepot.com has free shipping on select models, and a sale or two on models that even with the discount cost more than $300. Wal-Mart, Sears, Target and Lowe’s have similar offers. The one saving grace: rebate programs from states, cities and energy companies, which may still be in effect for buying an energy-efficient model. Massachusetts, for example, is offering $50 off a new air conditioner, while Orange & Rockland Utilities in Nyack, N.Y., will give you $25 to $50, depending on the model.
While you’re buying, bear in mind that even Energy Star models vary in efficiency. Get the most efficient model for your budget to maximize savings. But don’t get a unit that’s more powerful than needed for the size of the room you’re planning to cool. Not only will it cost you more upfront, it’s also less efficient at reducing humidity. (Use Energy Star guidelines to find the right size.)