As parts of the country bake in triple-digit temperatures, Americans turn on their air conditioners — and increase their electric bills.
Bills that would normally rise at this time of year are skyrocketing because the cost of generating electricity has soared. According to the US Energy Information Administration, nearly 90 percent of homes in the United States use some type of air conditioner for cooling. The government’s latest forecast shows that average residential electricity prices will rise 4.7 percent this summer compared to last summer.
Here are tips for managing your refrigeration bill.
Seasonal maintenance can help keep central air conditioning systems running smoothly. Technicians typically check the refrigerant level and clean the cooling coils. “This keeps the air conditioning running better and keeps costs down,” said Adam Cooper, senior director of customer solutions at the Edison Electric Institute, a group representing investor-owned electrical companies.
If you have delayed maintenance, you may have to wait longer for service in the hotter months. But you can at least change the air filters of the system yourself, so that the cooled air flows and the device works efficiently.
Close blinds or shades during the day to block out sunlight. You can also try plastic sheets stuck to windows to block the sun’s rays. You can hire a professional to install it, or buy do-it-yourself kits (about $10 per window). The Department of Energy’s “Energy Saver” website suggests that foil is best for areas with long periods of cool weather, as it also blocks the sun’s heat in winter.
Drafts from windows and doors that make your home cold in the winter can also make it warmer in the summer, so seal them with weatherstrip, caulk, or spray foam.
Proper insulation is especially important for keeping your home cool and dry in hot climates, said Richard Trethewey, a heating and air conditioning contractor who appears on the television show This Old House. To ensure your home is energy efficient, consider an energy “audit” to identify areas that need more insulation. Such assessments usually cost a few hundred dollars, but some utility companies will cover the cost. To find a qualified contractor, search the Building Performance Institute website, which certifies technicians who perform and recommend audits Work.
Low-flow showerheads can save electricity by heating less water, said Arah Schuur, executive director at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, or NEEP, a nonprofit that encourages regional collaboration. And “smart” power strips can turn off power to devices when they’re not in use, she said.
Ceiling fans can help you feel cooler, and you can turn your thermostat higher. Turn off the fan when you’re not home because “fans cool people, not rooms,” says the Department of Energy. Run tumble dryers and dishwashers during cooler hours and avoid using your oven on hot days, the department suggests.
Consider a programmable thermostat to manage your cooling system, especially if you’re away from home during the day. You can set the temperature to a higher temperature while you are away and set it to a lower temperature when you return. If you choose a “smart” version that is connected to the internet, you can control it remotely from your mobile phone. Utility companies may offer incentives or rebates to consumers who install the thermostats.
Some utilities pay customers to register their smart thermostats and attend energy-saving events during periods of high demand. The Arizona Public Service pays customers via credit on their bill if they allow the utility to raise their smart thermostat by up to four degrees during the summer’s Cool Rewards events. The program is limited to 20 events per summer, each lasting up to three hours.
As your cooling system ages, you should invest in a replacement because newer models are much more efficient, Trethewey said. There are more options now, he said, like new heat pump systems that use “inverter” technology to cool your home in the summer (and heat it in the winter). “It’s like cruise control,” he said. Some states and utility companies, including New York, offer financial incentives for installing heat pumps.
New cooling systems can cost thousands of dollars depending on the type of unit, size of the home, and other variables. Expect to pay $8,000 to $12,000, said Donald Brandt, a fellow at ASHRAE, a heating, cooling and air conditioning group.
Residential air conditioners can last about 20 years if properly maintained, Mr. Brandt said.
Live in an apartment? Look for a window air conditioner that meets federal Energy Star standards. Units are typically available from a few hundred dollars up to $1,000 depending on the size needed.
Here are some questions and answers about summer cooling bills:
How can I avoid big spikes in my electricity bill in the summer?
Ask for a “level” billing. To avoid shocking customers with fluctuating bills, utility companies often agree to charge a flat monthly fee and then settle any difference in payments owed once a year. Typically, your account must be in good standing to qualify.
If you’re having trouble paying your bills, the federal government funds the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Check with the appropriate agency in your state to determine if you qualify.
Can I really save money by turning my thermostat up in the summer?
Raising your thermostat by just one degree in the summer will reduce your electric bill by 2 percent, according to the Edison Institute. The Department of Energy suggests setting the thermostat as high as comfortable when you’re at home – aim for 78 degrees – and a few degrees higher when you’re away.