How to Keep Your House Cool Without Breaking the Bank
The hotter it gets outside, the more enjoyable it can be to step indoors to a cool, dry place. For many Americans, air conditioning in the summer is a necessary expense. Hot days can limit our productivity and too much heat can easily exhaust us and make us feel sluggish, if not be outright dangerous. However, the cost of air conditioning can add a serious load to any home’s electricity bill, thus forcing many of us to find a happy medium between comfort and energy efficiency.
Historically speaking, air conditioning is what made it comfortable for people to move their activities indoors. Even before the invention of air conditioning, we would seek out the most novel ways of staying cool. This included such measures as eating snow, refrigerating underwear, and President Garfield’s cooling device that blew air through cotton sheets soaked in ice water. None of these cooling methods, however, approached the necessary balance between comfort and efficiency until the breakthrough of electricity.
The very first air conditioning unit, designed by Willis Carrier in 1902, was developed for humidity control, and cooling was a delightful byproduct of the system. In the ’30s and ’40s, AC units were cooling the homes of America’s wealthy. By the ’50s and ’60s, they were found in middle-class homes as well.
As of 2015, about 88 percent of American homes, including apartment buildings, had some form of air conditioning. Over 70 percent of homes being built now have central AC developed into their plan.
How Does Air Conditioning Work?
Most air conditioners function by using a chemical called a refrigerant, which loops from inside the home to outside and back. Refrigerant absorbs the heat and and pulls it out of the home. Once the refrigerant is outside, it cools down again in preparation for cycling back into the home.
Air conditioning systems generally have three parts:
- An evaporator
- A compressor
- A condenser
The part that you might be familiar with inside your home is the evaporator. Air is blown across the evaporator coils where the refrigerant picks up the heat and takes it to the outdoor compressor in the form of hot vapor. This is what the fan on or off function on your thermostat means.
The compressor and condenser are the parts of your air conditioning system that are most often located outside or on the roof. The compressor converts the refrigerant into pressurized gas. The condenser then radiates the heat outside and reverts the refrigerant to its cooled liquid state. The refrigerant then re-enters your home, and the cycle repeats.
How to Reduce Your Electric Bill in the Summer
The Energy Information Administration forecasts that the typical U.S. household will spend an average of $426 for electricity this summer, due to a two percent increase on days when the demand for air conditioning is high. The average American will pay 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), but these prices are higher than those of previous years due to price increases for natural gas and other fuels. The average central air conditioning system will use 3000-5000 watts per hour of cooling. Using a conversion calculator such as this one can help you break down your energy use and estimate your costs.
That being said, lowering the thermostat in the summer can directly equate to a rise in your electric bill. In other words, you’ll be able to save three percent on your air conditioning costs for every raised degree in temperature. Finding a happy medium between comfort and cost can keep you on your toes with your thermostat. The general rule of thumb is to keep your home as warm as you can stand it to be.
According to Energy Star, in order to optimize both cooling and energy efficiency in your house, it’s best to keep the thermostat at 78 degrees Fahrenheit when at home and awake. According to the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning (ASHRAE), the standard comfort range during the summer weather, when wearing light clothing, is between 72 degrees and 78 degrees Fahrenheit and between 35 and 60 percent humidity.
Energy Star recommends that you increase your thermostat to 85 degrees when you’re at work or away from the house, and to 82 degrees when you’re sleeping. If your main priority is lowering your bills, this will be an effective approach to begin deciding what cooling patterns are best for your home.
However, many report that these temperature settings are higher than those preferred by the average American. Some consider 78 degrees to be a stifling temperature when they are awake and active, and many individuals prefer to sleep at even cooler temperatures to ensure a restful night. In this case, it might be helpful to try a portable air conditioning unit in the room, along with a ceiling or box fan, to keep your bedroom cool while the rest of the house warms up at night.
What Temperature Should You Strive for During the Summer
When You’re at Home
What setting you place your AC unit on will depend on your priorities. Do you mind spending a little more for comfort? The lower your thermostat setting is during the summer, the more wear and tear on the system and energy cost you’ll accrue.
One method for determining your ideal thermostat setting is to put it at the low-cost threshold of 78 degrees F and then gradually lower the temperature one degree at a time as you feel necessary. You should eventually be able to find a happy medium between comfort and efficiency.
Try not to tinker too much with your AC’s settings. It’s one thing to plan out how you will manage your AC and keep to specific settings. You run the risk of increased energy costs, however, if you turn your AC up and down daily within a short amount of time depending on how you feel each day. If you’re prone to making constant adjustments, such as turning your AC off and on frequently, it will take your home time to adjust to your desired temperature. This causes the fan to work harder and leads to fluctuating temperatures (and increased energy costs). If you can’t decide, then leave it on at a low setting that is as close to the outdoor temperature as you can stand.
When You’re Gone
It’s a good practice to let your air conditioning system rest when you’re away from the house. You can turn it off completely to give it a full rest. Or, if you’re worried about the house getting too hot to cool back down, set it on a high temperature such as 85 degrees Fahrenheit when you’re away.
A good rule of thumb for determining your ideal thermostat setting for when you’re away from home is to set it 7 degrees higher than your at-home temperature.
Staying Cool While You Sleep
Many people are able to sleep comfortably at high temperatures. In this case, Energy Star recommends setting your thermostat 4 degrees higher than your daytime active thermostat level. For some people, this adjustment for energy conservation won’t be a problem. However, a large part of the population finds it difficult to sleep in hot climates and requires their nighttime temperature to be even lower than their daytime temperature. The Energy Star temperature of 85 degrees mentioned earlier simply isn’t realistic for them.
Sleeping temperature is one point where it generally pays off to put health and comfort above the cost concerns. Studies say that the best temperature for brain recovery and overnight body repair is around 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. During the summer, lighter sheets, lightweight nightwear, and portable fans can help to achieve your best sleeping temperatures.
Some areas with more moderate temperatures do not require central air conditioning to stay cool when the sun goes down. You can use these cooler nights to your advantage by opening your windows at night and turning off the AC.
Your Guide to Saving Money on Air Conditioning
Check That Your Thermostat Isn’t Located on a Hot Wall
The placement of your thermostat is very important because it is responsible for overworking or underworking your AC. Sometimes our homes have walls that are hotter than others. Hot walls tend to get a lot of direct sunlight, are near hot windows, or are close to hot appliances.
If your thermostat is next to a hot spot in your apartment, it will trigger your cooling system more often. This is often unnecessary since these hot walls are not representative of the rest of the house. You can adjust for a hot-spot by setting your thermostat a few degrees higher than you normally would. If you’re still in the planning stages of your central air conditioning system, make sure to locate it on an interior wall, since exterior walls tend to be cooler all the time. For the best cost-effectiveness, it’s important to pick the ideal location for your thermostat.
Some trouble spots for your thermostat include places where hot steam might surround it, such as near a bathroom, near drafty doors, or near electronic devices. Nearby TV sets, incandescent lamps, stovetops, and CPU units can also all heat up a thermostat sensor.
And while we’re talking about furniture and placement, do your AC system a huge favor and arrange your furniture so that it doesn’t block your vents. Not only do blocked vents keep an AC’s cooling effects from spreading to the whole house, but blockages can also stress the system, forcing it to work harder.
Use Fans to Lower the Cost of Cooling
Using ceiling fans, portable tower fans, or box fans can allow you to better tolerate higher temperature settings on your thermostat. Fans do not cool the air themselves, but they produce wind chill which, like a cool breeze, can help you to feel more comfortable in higher temperatures. Unlike the fan setting in your AC Unit, which uses a lot of energy, ceiling fans and portable tower fans cost very little while offering extra air circulation. A ceiling fan can make a room feel 10 degrees cooler and also uses 10 percent of the energy required by a central air conditioner.
Try not to fan an empty room. Many individuals make the case for continuing to cool their apartment when they’re away since turning off central air conditioning can cause it to take a long time to come back up to temp. However, with portable fans and ceiling fans, there’s no need to have them running if no one is in the room, as they don’t actually cool the air. So, unless someone is enjoying the breeze, you can shut them off until you need them.
You can also take the humble ceiling fan up a notch with high tech installations and modifications, such as smart ceiling fans that activate and turn on and off using smartphone apps as remote controllers. These apps allow you to schedule times when the fans turn on and off, and they allow you to adjust the fan’s speed at your leisure.
Manage Your Air Conditioning System
If there’s a room that doesn’t need cooling at all, such as a storage space or an empty and unused bedroom, then there’s no reason to keep the vent open. Unnecessarily cooling these rooms is costing you money, and the easy solution is to close the vent in these spaces. When you need to use these rooms again, all you need to do is open the vent.
You can also take the humble ceiling fan up a notch by installing smart ceiling fans that use smartphone apps as remote controllers. These apps also allow you to schedule times when the fans turn on and off, and they allow you to adjust the speed at your leisure.
Prevent Your Home from Attracting Unnecessary Heat
Air conditioning units don’t have to work as hard when there is less heat to combat. While you can’t control the weather, you can seal off and insulate your home to prevent it from attracting unnecessary heat in the first place. Heat enters your home in three ways:
- It seeps in from the outdoors.
- It collects waste heat given off by appliances and incandescent light bulbs.
- It enters with the sunlight shining through the windows.
Pulling your window shades and curtains during the day blocks sunlight from over-warming your home. If you can help it, during the hot summer days, avoid using heat-producing appliances. These might be computers, ovens, washers, dryers, and dishwashers. Try to use exhaust fans in your kitchen when you’re cooking, and keep the fan on in your bathroom while showering. In many cases, high-efficiency appliances will cut down on the excess and wasted energy that comes out of your appliances as heat. Use a bathroom fan to keep the shower’s humidity and hot vapor from lingering in the air.
Seal and Insulate Your Home
Air leakage could cost you a lot of money when it comes to your home’s climate control. Leakage not only lets hot air in, but it also lets cool air out. To prevent this unnecessary loss, make sure that all entrances and openings in your house are sealed tight, such as outer walls, windows, doors, and any other openings.
You can identify air leaks by standing outside of your home and running your hands along windows and doors. If you can feel air escaping, then fix the seal by caulking around leaky windows and adding insulation around doors.
Insulation is another key consideration when it comes to sealing off your home from air leakage. Hot air is liable to leak out of the house through upper levels and attics and can be contained by insulating your attic. Cold air, on the other hand, most commonly leaks into the house from the bottom floors, such as basements and crawl spaces, and can be contained by insulating basements and checking for cracks in your home’s foundation.
If you’re running your air conditioner and not feeling its cooling effects, it may be helpful to troubleshoot your air ducts. These ducts need to be properly insulated so that air does not leak from them before making it to your vents.
Practice Good Air Conditioning Maintenance
Maintaining your air conditioning system will keep it running smoothly so that it isn’t exerting excess energy to cool your home. Additionally, general maintenance and periodic cleaning will help keep problems from arising and save you from requiring expensive repairs. HVAC specialists recommend yearly check-ups for your central air conditioning system to evaluate your system’s efficiency and any general wear and tear.
Cleaning a Central AC System
Keep your air conditioning system clean. Your air conditioner will work most effectively when all of its components are cleaned. This includes replacing the filter and making sure that no litter is circulating in the system. Large debris may be caught in and do damage to the aluminum blades that protect the condenser in your outdoor unit. Obstructions can also limit the air movement and make the whole system work harder.
Cleaning an Outdoor Unit
In many cases, your outdoor unit can be cleaned using a garden hose and a coil cleaner. Misting will also cool the air that is passing through the condenser cables in the outdoor unit so that the system will be able to able to absorb more heat and keep your home cooler with less effort. A more efficient system uses less energy, which in turn means a lower bill.
And while you’re checking your outdoor unit, keep track of whether it’s situated in direct sunlight. Even a high-efficiency air conditioning unit will cost you more money than it should if it’s constantly having to fight the elements. Moving the outdoor unit is something you might need to call a professional to do, but you will save money in the long run.
Cleaning a Portable or Window AC Unit
Portable air conditioners have filters as well. Dirty filters can hurt your air quality and your system run less efficiently. Depending on the model, these will be either replaceable or removable for cleaning. To clean the unit, remove the filter and either replace it or wash it. While the unit is exposed, you can vacuum out the remaining chambers. It is often helpful to blow air into them to loosen the dust before vacuuming.
Benefits of a Smart Thermostat
For those who are living in an older home, upgrading the thermostat can be a big step toward increased energy efficiency. Thermostats with slide or level knobs can be inaccurate and can cause you to lose efficiency in your cooling system without seeing good results.
Digital thermostats are more accurate than their alternatives and are better able to regulate the needs of your home. Most digital thermostats are also programmable and can be considered smart thermostats.
What Is a Smart Thermostat?
Programmable thermostats (smart thermostats) allow you to enter temperature fluctuations at certain times of the day in order to tailor your energy usage to your own schedule. Some smart thermostats are also capable of syncing with apps and mobile devices, allowing you to have control over the thermostat settings remotely. This is a great option for people who are on the go, as well as those who manage multiple HVAC systems.
These smartphone apps allow you to control the cooling of your house remotely, making it possible to leave home with the AC off and turn it back on midday, allowing your home to be cool when you arrive.
How Can It Save You Money?
Smart thermostats recognize patterns and regulate heating and cooling when you’re not home. Many of the options also have smartphone apps that allow you to adjust the settings remotely.
Smart thermostats access your home internet connection to collect data on an account which profiles your home’s energy usage in order to find the best ways to optimize it. Installing several linked smart thermostats throughout your home can help you create an ideal environment while decreasing your energy usage, as one thermostat won’t be in charge of assessing and cooling all of the regions of your home.
This means that you never have to air condition the house if you don’t need to. Keeping the air conditioning from turning on when you’re not home may seem like a small amount of savings, but building these good habits can add up in the long run.
How to Stay Cool in an Apartment with No Central AC
Staying cool in an apartment without central air conditioning is in many ways the same as reducing the AC use in one’s home. It is about using fans strategically and sealing the cool air in with good habits such as keeping the blinds closed and not running heat-generating electronics during the heat of the day.
Consider a Window Unit
You can use a window unit to supplement or even to replace a central air conditioning system. Window units are a great option for managing the temperature in hard-to-reach or independent spaces, such as attic bedrooms or detached apartment units.
With a window-based air conditioning unit, the thermostat is in the unit itself, meaning that it registers the temperature only in that part of the room. Despite their size, these units can offer powerful performance, providing cool air for the entire room. Just note window units often require some trial and error in regards to the settings until you find a comfortable temperature for your space.
Additionally, you might want to consider selecting a high-efficiency unit. In compliance with tougher energy standards, high-efficiency units have a less extreme impact on your electricity bill than central air conditioning. They utilize high-efficiency compressors and fans, as well as more well-insulated materials for fitting them into the window.
When picking a window unit, the best advice we can give you is to get the right size for your space. One that is too big will mean that you will be using more energy than you need just to risk overcooling, without properly dehumidifying your room This will make the room uncomfortably damp and cold. On the other hand, one that is too small for the space will overwork itself on a high setting and still not be able to fully cool your room.
How Different Climates Affect Your AC
Since part of the function of an air conditioner is to clear the air of humidity, air conditioning systems in high humidity environments tend to work harder than those in dry places. This could drive up your energy costs and prematurely wear your system out.
Most individuals find that humidity levels need to be at 60 percent or below to be comfortable. In very humid climates, some air conditioning systems will benefit from the use of an additional dehumidifier. While a stand-alone dehumidifier can be purchased for short-term use, the more efficient and reliable solution would be a dehumidifier that is installed directly onto your HVAC system. The dehumidifier would then work to clear the moisture from the air as it enters your air conditioning ducts.
Individuals who live near the ocean may find that their condenser coils become corroded over time. This corrosion is caused by salt that is blown inward from the ocean. Corroded coils will face a significant efficiency drop. To prevent corrosion, you can find protectants and coatings save your coils from salty breezes. Additionally, regularly cleaning the system with fresh water can help remove salt from the coils.
If you live in a dry climate, you might already be saving money compared to using a similar system in a more humid climate. This is because your air conditioning system does not need to work as hard to keep the air dry.
While drier climates might generally be more comfortable when it comes to heat, there are points when the dryness becomes uncomfortable. The human body is healthiest at a humidity level of at least 40 percent. So when it comes to desert climates it might be worth it, in the long run, to introduce moisture in the air, in spite of added costs.
Dry climates also have the advantage of allowing you to open windows for cooling without losing the inside vs. outside moisture barrier. Opening windows allows for the ventilation and circulation of air throughout the house, keeping your home fresh. Another added benefit of a dry climate is the likelihood that the night will cool down once the sun sets since there’s no humidity to hold the heat. This allows you open the windows at night to ventilate the house with the AC off.
Wind and dirt can affect your air conditioner efficiency by clogging your system. This is especially a problem in dry zones, as strong winds are liable to blow twigs, limbs, and other debris into your system. It’s best to clean out this debris as soon as possible. Homes in windy areas should consider yearly routine maintenance to clean the entire system and make sure that everything is working properly.
Air Conditioning and the Environment
Residential air conditioning uses more than eight percent of all the electricity produced in the United States. This means that the average air-conditioned home is responsible for releasing 2 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. Using a high-efficiency cooling system and reducing your need for air conditioning not only saves you money, but it is also a quick way to cut down on your home’s carbon footprint.
Optimizing your air conditioning system for energy efficiency will also allow it to do a better job of cooling your home. Learning about your particular system, knowing its processes, and fixing parts that aren’t operating well can help you to identify warning signs before they become expensive problems.
When it comes to lowering the energy cost of your air conditioning system, a few good habits can mean the difference between paying $100 a month in the summer and $40 a month. Simple energy-saving fixes include keeping your blinds closed during a hot day, using ceiling fans and box fans to your advantage, and adjusting programmable thermostats to your efficiency and comfort needs. The more flexible you are with your system, the more likely you are to find solutions that address all your concerns.