As parts of the country cook in triple-digit temperatures, Americans are turning on their air conditioners and increasing their electric bills.
Bills that would normally increase at this time of year are skyrocketing because the cost of generating electricity has risen rapidly. Nearly 90% of homes in the United States use some form of air conditioning for cooling, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The administration’s latest forecast indicates that average residential electricity prices will rise 4.7% this summer compared to last summer.
Here are some tips for managing your air conditioning bill.
Seasonal tune-ups can help keep central air conditioning systems running smoothly. Technicians typically check coolant levels and clean cooling coils. “It improves air conditioner operation and reduces costs,” said Adam Cooper, senior director of customer solutions at the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents investor-owned electric companies.
If you have delayed servicing, you may have to wait longer for service during the warmer months. But you can at least change the system’s air filters yourself, to keep fresh air circulating and help the unit run efficiently.
Close blinds or blinds during the day to avoid sunlight. You can also try cling film that clings to windows to block out the sun’s rays. You can hire a professional to install it or buy DIY kits (about $10 per window). The Department of Energy’s “Energy Saver” website suggests that the film is best for areas with long cooling seasons, as it also blocks the sun’s heat in the winter.
Windows and doors that have drafts that make your home cold in the winter can also make it hotter in the summer, so seal them with weatherstripping, caulk, or spray foam.
Good 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 TV show “This Old House.” To make sure 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 utilities cover the cost. To find a qualified contractor, search the Building Performance Institute website, which certifies technicians who perform audits and recommend work.
Low-flow showerheads can save electricity by heating less water, said Arah Schuur, executive director of Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, or NEEP, a nonprofit that promotes regional collaboration. And “smart” power strips can cut power to devices when not in use, she said.
Ceiling fans can help you feel cooler and allow you to set your thermostat higher. Turn off the fan when you’re not home because “fans cool people, not rooms,” says the Department of Energy. Run clothes dryers and dishwashers during cooler hours and avoid using your oven on hot days, the ministry suggests.
Consider a programmable thermostat to help manage your cooling system, especially if you’re away from home during the day. You can set it to a higher temperature while you’re away and lower it when you return. If you opt for a “smart” version connected to the internet, you can control it remotely from your mobile. Utilities may offer incentives or rebates to consumers who install the thermostats.
Some utilities pay customers who register their smart thermostats and participate in energy-saving events during peak demand times. The Arizona utility pays customers, via bill credits, if they allow the utility to turn up their smart thermostat by up to four degrees during “Cool Rewards” events over the summer. The program is limited to 20 events per summer, lasting up to three hours each.
If your cooling system is getting old, consider investing in a replacement, as 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 utilities, 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 home, and other variables. Expect to pay between $8,000 and $12,000, said Donald Brandt, a member of ASHRAE, a group of heating, refrigeration and air conditioning professionals.
Residential air conditioning units can last about 20 years, if properly maintained, Brandt said.
Live in an apartment? Look for a window air conditioner that meets federal Energy Star standards. Units are usually available for 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 on my summer electricity bill?
Ask about “level” billing. To avoid jostling customers with volatile bills, utilities often agree to charge a fixed monthly rate and then settle any difference in payments due once a year. Generally, your account must be in good standing to qualify.
If you’re having trouble paying your bill, the federal government funds the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. To see if you qualify, contact the appropriate agency in your state.
Can I really save money by pushing my thermostat higher in the summer?
Raising your thermostat just one degree in the summer will cut your electric bill by 2%, according to the Edison Institute. The Energy Department suggests setting the thermostat as high as possible when you’re home — aim for 78 degrees — and several degrees higher when you’re away.