Beating the heat this summer is an expensive proposition as temperatures soar into the triple digits in some parts of the U.S.
Cities along the East Coast endured record-setting highs Tuesday, with more than half a dozen topping temperatures not seen since 1999, according to Accuweather.com. (Baltimore topped 105 degrees, compared with 101 in 1999; and Warwick, R.I., hit 103, up from 97 in 1999.) Power demand during the heat wave is also expected to hit record highs, with many utilities warning of brownouts and blackouts.
Here's how to stay cool and keep electricity bills reasonable:
Fine-Tune Your Equipment
Arrange an HVAC inspection.Anyone can hire a certified technician for an annual check that their home's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system is operating at peak efficiency. Leaking ducts, for example, could reduce energy efficiency by up to 20%, says Ronnie Kweller, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy. Inspections usually cost $50 to $100, but that could be offset by the energy savings over time.
Shop for size.Consumers in the market for a new room or window air conditioner should use Energy Star guidelines to determine how powerful a unit they need. A too-powerful unit not only wastes energy, it's also less effective at reducing humidity.
Keep it clean.Clean air filters monthly for central air and individual window or wall units. Dirt and dust hinder air flow, reducing efficiency.
Program the thermostat.Give the air conditioner a break during the work day. Shifting the settings to allow higher daytime temperatures could cut the average household's electric bill by $180 a year, according to Energy Star.
Seek out incentives on appliances.Investing in a new energy-efficient unit can cut long-term bills -- and be cheaper upfront, too. Through the end of 2010, qualifying central air conditioners are eligible for a federal tax credit of 30% of the cost, including installation, up to a total of $1,500 for all projects. Plenty of states also still have rebates available under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. A Maine resident, for example, can get $100 back on a qualifying central air conditioner, while Georgia offers $30 for room units and $99 on central units. Check for other government and utility deals in theDatabase of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
Hunt Down Heat Sources
Seal up the house.Cooled air can leak through cracks along window and door frames. Invest in some caulk and weather-stripping to plug up these drafts. A home that's properly insulated and sealed improves energy efficiency by up to 20% year-round, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. (Insulation materials are also eligible for the 30% energy efficiency federal tax credit, up to $1,500 for all improvements combined.)
Avoid chores.The hotter the space, the harder an air conditioner must work to keep things cool. Limit the use of heat-generating appliances such as the oven, dishwasher and clothes dryer during the daytime hours when temperatures are hottest, says Steve Rosenstock, manager of energy solutions for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group. "That just makes more of a load for your air conditioner," he says.
Change light bulbs.Swapping incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent ones can cut a home electric bill, Kweller says. Switching one incandescent for a CFL saves $35 in energy costs over the projected 10-year life of the bulb. Not only do CFLs use less energy than conventional bulbs, but they also generate less heat.
Close the blinds.Rooms get hotter without shades or curtains to block the sunlight, especially with south- and west-facing windows. Put this idea to work more effectively with insulated window treatments.
Use fans.A breeze makes the room feel a few degrees cooler. Just be sure to turn it off when leaving. "Fans cool people, not rooms," Kweller says.
Unplug.Gadgets like a cellphone charger or microwave suck energy -- and generate heat -- as long as they're attached to a power source. Standby power for appliances not in use typically accounts for 5% to 10% of residential electricity use, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Plug those devices into a power strip that can be turned off when not in use.
Assess Utility Suppliers
Check alternate suppliers.Residents of states where the electric industry is deregulated can shop around for their energy provider, says Rosenstock. Depending on the options, some residents could save 5% to 15% a month. Many alternative companies use renewable energy, so they're much less dependent on volatile oil, coal and natural gas prices. Most will also fix billing rates for a year or more -- a bonus if energy prices creep up. The state's public service commission should keep a list of options. Just be aware that most providers require a commitment of at least a year and charge a hefty fee for ducking out early, Rosenstock says.
Consider time-of-use plans.A growing number of electric companies are offering so-called time-of-use plans, which offer lower rates for energy consumption during off-peak hours (usually from mid-evening to early morning). The catch is that users often pay more for peak-hours use, so consider the daily schedule before signing up. Arizona-based SRP, for example, regularly charges 10.64 to 12.12 cents per kilowatt hour during July and August, based on the amount used in a billing period. On the time-of-use plan, it charges a flat 21.30 cents for on-peak hours (1 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays) and 6.65 cents during the rest of the day, on weekends and holidays.
Fix the bill.Ask the utility company about fixed-bill plans, which charge the same amount every month for a set period, regardless of electricity use. Users pay a premium rate per kilowatt hour to hedge against price increases and seasonal spikes, so make sure to crunch the numbers to confirm the savings, Kweller says. Also, keep in mind that these plans periodically reconcile, which can leave users with a big bill if they've used more than the supplier anticipated. Check with the utility to see if it alerts customers using more power than they anticipated and whether users can pay extra as they go