How to Save on Home Air Conditioning & Energy Costs in the Summer

On a blazing July day, it can be tempting to stay indoors all day with the air conditioner cranked up. Unfortunately, cool comfort comes with a high price tag. That leaves many people struggling to choose between brutal heat and equally brutal electric bills. 

But there are ways to reduce that cost. Running your central A/C more efficiently — or finding ways to stay cool while running it less — can shrink both your utility bill and your carbon footprint.

How to Save Money on Home Air-Conditioning Costs

There are three primary ways to reduce your summer air conditioning costs. The first is to keep your A/C running as efficiently as possible. You can also keep your home from heating up in the first place. Or try staying cool without air conditioning. 

But you don’t have to pick just one strategy. You’ll see the biggest savings when you combine them. To minimize your electric bill, incorporate as many of these tips as you can into your summer routine. 

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1. Adjust the Thermostat

The simplest way to save on summer cooling is to turn the thermostat up a little. There’s no need to keep the indoor temperature so hot you’re stifling, but don’t simply assume you need to keep it at 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. 

Instead, experiment. If you typically keep the thermostat at 70, try turning it up to 72 and see how you feel. If that’s comfortable, see if you can manage at 75.

One thing that definitely helps is to wear lighter clothing. You shouldn’t need to put on a sweater indoors when it’s hot outdoors. 

2. Install a Smart Thermostat

There’s no point in cooling your home when there’s no one in it. You can save energy and money by turning the thermostat up when you leave for work and back down when you return. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says adjusting the temperature by 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours per day can save you up to 10% on year-round heating and cooling costs.

However, it can be hard to remember to do that every day. And it also means spending some time each day sweating while you wait for your home to cool back down to a comfortable temperature.

A smart thermostat solves this problem. It connects to your smartphone so you can adjust the temperature up or down from anywhere. Some devices can even sense when the house is empty and adjust the indoor temperature automatically.

Smart thermostats have come down significantly in price. The original Nest cost $250, but you can now buy one for under $130. If that’s still too pricey for you, look for a more basic programmable thermostat, which turns the temperature up and down on a set schedule.

3. Repair & Maintain Your A/C

Routine maintenance keeps your air conditioner running efficiently — and efficiency saves you money on your cooling bill each month. To keep your air conditioning system in good shape:

  • Clean or Replace the Filter. Your A/C filter keeps the evaporator clean. But particles clog the filter and block airflow over time, forcing the evaporator to work harder. Inspect the filter monthly and clean or replace dirty ones according to the manual. The DOE says this simple task can reduce the A/C’s energy consumption by 5% to 15%.
  • Clean Coils and Fins. Dirt can also clog the coils in the evaporator and outdoor condenser. Check them both for dirt at least once per year and clean them as needed. If any aluminum fins are bent, straighten them with a fin comb.
  • Clear Away Debris. If you have a central A/C system, keep the condenser unit clear of debris, such as tall grass or dead leaves. This kind of clutter restricts airflow around the condenser, preventing it from dispersing heat as effectively.
  • Clear Clogs. If your air conditioning unit’s drain or condensate line gets clogged, the unit can’t remove moisture from the air as well. To keep it clear, run a stiff wire through the drain lines from time to time.
  • Check Seals. A window air conditioner has a foam seal around the edges where it fits into the window frame. Moisture can gradually damage this seal, allowing cool air to escape. Inspect A/C seals each summer and replace them if they’re damaged.
  • Cover It Up. When cold weather comes, cover the outdoor parts of your central air conditioner to protect it from debris and harsh winter weather. If you have a window air conditioner, either cover it or put it in storage for the winter.
  • Get It Inspected. Like any major appliance, a central air conditioning system needs regular tune-ups to keep it running efficiently. Once per year, call an HVAC professional to give the system a thorough inspection and cleaning.
  • 4. Upgrade Your Old A/C

    According to the DOE, a new air conditioner uses 20% to 40% less energy than a 10-year-old unit. So if you currently spend $133 per year on summer cooling like the average U.S. household, upgrading your system could save you up to $53 per year. 

    However, if your central A/C system still works, those savings don’t outweigh the cost of replacing it. A new central air-conditioning system can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500. At that price, it would take at least 47 years to pay for itself.

    5. Consider an Alternative Air Cooling System

    Another question to consider before replacing your central air conditioner is whether to switch to a different type of system that uses less energy, such as a swamp cooler. Whether you choose a new central air system or an alternative depends on your heating and cooling needs and how much you stand to save with each system.

    For example, when the air is cooler at night, you can use a window fan to bring some of that cold air into your home. A typical window fan costs less than $100 and uses no more than 100 watts of electricity.

    If you want even more airflow, you can install a whole-house fan. It mounts in your ceiling and pulls in air through the open windows. 

    According to Family Handyman, whole-house fans can lower your home’s temperature by 5 degrees or more in minutes using one-tenth the energy of an air conditioner. Expect to spend a few hundred dollars on the fan and another few hundred to have it installed.

    Another alternative is a swamp cooler, also called an evaporative cooler. It works by blowing warm air over water-soaked pads. As the water evaporates, it cools the air by as much as 40 degrees. 

    According to the DOE, swamp coolers cost about half as much to install as an A/C unit and use only 25% as much energy. Free-standing swamp coolers start at around $150. You can have a whole-house evaporative cooling system installed for about $2,500, depending on the size and type of unit. But they can be as expensive as $7,000.

    The primary drawback of this type of cooling system is that it only works in dry climates. A map from the appliance company Sylvane shows which parts of the country are best suited for evaporative coolers.

    6. Install Your A/C in the Right Place

    If you’re installing a new central air conditioning system, choose the right spot for it. When the outdoor condenser is subjected to extreme heat, it has to work harder to cool the air. To save energy, place the condenser somewhere out of direct sunlight. 

    Typically, a location on the north or east side of your house is ideal since the building itself will shade it from sunlight. If that doesn’t work, look for a spot under a shady tree. Just be aware that debris like leaves, pollen, and pine needles can clog the air conditioner’s coils and restrict airflow, so you’ll have to clear it often.

    Likewise, avoid putting your air conditioner under a deck or in any enclosed area. A deck provides shade, but it also blocks the flow of air out of the top of the air-conditioning unit.

    7. Install Your Thermostat on the Right Wall

    You also need to put the thermostat in the right place. If you put it in a spot that gets a lot of heat — for example, opposite a sunny window — it will think your house is hotter than it really is. The A/C will go on more often than it needs to, wasting energy.

    Don’t put lamps or TV sets too close to the thermostat either. These devices also throw off heat, triggering the thermostat to switch on the air conditioning more often.

    8. Make Your Home Energy-Efficient

    If you can keep the summer heat out of your home, your air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard to remove it. Ways to protect your home from heat include:

  • Covering Windows. The DOE notes that when sunlight strikes your windows in the summer months, about 76% of its heat transfers to the house. Any type of window treatment — blinds, curtains, or shutters — can reduce this solar heat gain. Cover east-facing windows in the morning and west-facing ones in the afternoon.
  • Close Windows. Keep your windows closed during the day when it’s hotter outside than inside. Even if they provide only a little insulation, a little is better than none. During cooler evenings, open the windows to let in cooler air. 
  • Insulate the Attic. The blazing summer sun can heat an attic to oven-like temperatures. Adding insulation to the attic keeps all that stored heat from spreading into your living space. A map on the DOE website shows how much insulation your home needs based on your location. 
  • Seal Leaks and Drafts. Insulation can’t stop cool air from escaping through gaps around doors and windows. However, it’s easy to seal these air leaks with caulk or weather-stripping. This easy DIY job takes just an hour or two, costs less than $30, and can cut energy use by up to 20%, according to the DOE. 
  • 9. Produce Less Heat Indoors

    Heat doesn’t just enter your house from outside. You also produce heat indoors when you cook or use other appliances. To reduce indoor heat:

  • Cook Cooler. You can reduce cooking heat by using the stove and oven less. Instead, cook meals in a microwave or slow cooker or outdoors on a grill. If you have to use the stove, run a ventilation fan to blow out the hot air.
  • Time Appliance Use. Run your dishwasher and clothes dryer at night, when the air is cooler. You can also reduce the heat these appliances put out by using the air-dry setting. Or skip the clothes dryer completely and use a clothesline to dry your laundry.
  • Showers. Even in the summertime, some people prefer to start the day with a hot shower. If you’re one of them, turn on the bathroom fan to vent all that steamy air instead of letting the heat and humidity build up in your home.
  • Use Cooler Lighting. If you still have any old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs, swap them for cooler LED bulbs. During the daytime, you can also use daylight without adding too much heat by opening the blinds on windows that aren’t in direct sun.
  • 10. Use Fans

    A fan doesn’t cool your room. Instead, it cools you directly by blowing away the cushion of warm air that accumulates around your body. It also helps your sweat evaporate faster. According to the DOE, running a ceiling fan keeps you cool at temperatures about 4 degrees higher.

    You can buy a basic desk fan for under $20 and a more powerful tower fan for around $80. Even on its highest setting, a tower fan uses less than 100 watts of energy — far lower than the 900 watts a medium-size window air conditioner requires.

    If you have ceiling fans, ensure they’re turning counterclockwise. That directs the air downward so it can cool you directly. In a two-story home, you can maximize airflow by running fans on the upper level and opening windows on the lower level. In a one-story house or apartment, close the windows nearest the fan and open windows in the rooms farthest from it.

    To get the most benefit from fans, dress lightly. Heavy clothes trap hot air next to your body. Switching to lighter clothes, such as shorts and tank tops, makes it easier for your sweat to evaporate and keep you cool.

    11. Apply Some Cold

    If a cooling breeze isn’t enough to keep you comfortable, cool yourself directly with cold water or ice. Taking a cold shower lowers your temperature immediately. 

    You can also soak a cloth in cold water and drape it around your neck. Because this is a pulse point, a spot where the blood vessels are close to the surface, applying cold to this area makes you feel cooler.

    If that’s not cold enough, try an ice bag or gel ice pack you chill in the fridge or freezer. You can find these at drugstores for under $20. Or for $25 to $100, get a cooling vest with pockets for multiple cold packs. It keeps them close to your body while you go about your activities.

    12. Plant Shade Trees & Shrubs

    Trees cool the area around them in two ways. They provide shade, and they move and release water vapor through their leaves. According to the DOE, the air temperature directly under a tree can be as much as 25 degrees cooler than the air directly above a nearby road.

    Deciduous trees — the kind that lose their leaves in the fall — provide summer shade while still letting the sun shine through their bare branches in wintertime. Tall trees on the south side of your home offer the best shade for the roof. Trees with spreading limbs closer to the ground are helpful for blocking out the lower afternoon sun on the west side.

    The DOE says a 6- to 8-foot-tall deciduous tree can provide shade for your windows as soon as you plant it. Within five to 10 years, it can begin shading the roof.

    You can also strategically place smaller plants like shrubs and vines to shade specific parts of your home and yard. For example, you can plant a hedge to shade your sidewalk or build a trellis for climbing vines to shade a patio.

    13. Chill Out in the Basement

    If your house has a basement, you may have noticed that the indoor temperature down there always seems to be cooler than it is upstairs.

    One reason is that hot air rises while cool air sinks. Thus, the upper floors of a home tend to be warmer than the lower floors. But also, the temperature of an underground room changes less from winter to summer. The dirt surrounding it insulates it against extremes of heat and cold.

    Regardless of the reason, the practical benefits are obvious. On hot summer days, retreating to the basement helps you stay cooler without having to crank up the air conditioning.

    Final Word

    One thing you shouldn’t do to save on summer cooling costs is let the temperature in your house climb to dangerous levels. When the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is also high, your body can no longer cool itself by sweating. That puts you at risk for heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

    Symptoms of heat illness include extreme thirst, muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, dizziness, and nausea. If you start to have any of these symptoms on a hot day, forget about your electric bill and cool yourself as quickly as possible, or you may end up in the emergency room.

    Fortunately, there’s no need to put yourself in danger — or even discomfort — just to save money. By combining these tips, you can take a big bite out of your summer energy bill without having to swelter in an overheated house.

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    Amy Livingston
    Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.