Summer 2011 in South Carolina was a real scorcher—the second warmest in the 117 years the weather service has been keeping records. On August 4, Barnwell topped out at 103 degrees, marking the nineteenth time they would hit triple-digit highs that season.
Frank Furtick, an energy-efficiency expert at Edisto Electric Cooperative, remembers it well. Helping members save on their power bills is part of his job, and when summer temperatures soared, so did electricity bills and the number of calls for his advice.
With summer 2012 just around the corner, we asked Furtick and Michael Smith, manager of energy programs for Central Electric Power Cooperative, what homeowners can do to keep a lid on their power use. They gave us lots of tips and common-sense advice, but it all boils down to one smart strategy: Raise the temperature on your thermostat.
“I worked with a member who complained about how high his bill was,” Furtick says. “He kept his thermostat at 72 to 73 degrees. That’s low. For every degree you set it higher, you’ll save five to six percent on your cooling costs.”
On most summer days, Furtick leaves his set at 78 degrees, but when the temperatures spiked last summer, he bumped it higher by a degree or two, so his system ran a little less.
Smith turns the thermostat up even more at his house, to around 83 degrees on the hottest days, but concedes that this temperature may be too high for most. “Our house is fairly well sealed,” he says. “Eighty-three degrees can be comfortable, because I can maintain low humidity.”
The key, both of our energy experts advise, is balancing comfort with savings, and they recommend these tips for keeping your cool at higher thermostat settings.
|1. BLOCK THE SUNLIGHT: Direct sunlight streaming in through windows can be a significant source of heat during the hottest part of the day. “If you want to do something yourself and save some money, close blinds and drapes to keep sunlight out,” says Furtick. |
2. CAULK AND WEATHERSTRIP: Small cracks and leaks in your house draw hot air in and work against your air conditioner 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To find leaks, check doors and windows for any drafts or visible light, then fill the holes. With a little caulk and weather-stripping, you can make your house tighter—and more energy efficient—in a matter of minutes.
3. ADD OR INCREASE INSULATION: Adding attic insulation can be costly, but if your summer energy bills are out of control, you may save money in the long run. Michael Smith says most homes don’t have enough insulation to ensure maximum efficiency, but he recommends homeowners invest in a professional home energy audit before making any major efficiency improvements. Look for certified auditors with credentials from organizations like the Building Performance Institute (BPI)—they have special training and tools that allow them to analyze your home and recommend the most cost-effective improvements. To find BPI-certified professionals in your area, visit bpi.org.
|4. LANDSCAPE TO ADD SHADE AND REDUCE REFLECTION: Adding shade trees, installing trellises and climbing vines on sunny walls, and re-thinking driveways and other hard surfaces around your house can reduce the amount of sunlight—and heat—that gets in. |
5. TIGHTEN, REPLACE OR INSULATE DUCTWORK: You can lose as much as a third of the cool air coming out of the AC unit if it travels through leaky ductwork. Professional HVAC contractors can quickly find and fix problems system-wide, but homeowners can also make their own repairs to any exposed ductwork. Check the integrity of seams, and then apply a paint-on resin like mastic to keep the cool air flowing to the rooms of your home, not the crawl spaces.
6. CHANGE THE WAY YOU COOK: Use small appliances or cook outdoors on the grill. Microwave and toaster ovens generate less heat than a full-sized oven or a cooktop. Use the exhaust fan to draw heat outdoors, and fit the burner size to the pan, so as little heat escapes into the room as possible.
7. TURN OFF UNNECESSARY LIGHTS: Leaving lights on when you leave the room is an obvious energy-waster, but in summer months it delivers a double whammy by also generating unwanted heat. Incandescent bulbs, for example, give off 90 percent of their energy as heat, not light. Summer is a good time to consider replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Not only do CFLs use less power to light up the room, they also generate considerably less heat.
|8. RUN HEAT-GENERATING APPLIANCES AT NIGHT: Try using heat-generating appliances such as hair dryers, clothes dryers and computers during cooler times of day. Need to run the dishwasher? Do it early in the morning or after the sun sets. And consider line drying clothes on hot, sunny days. |
9. ADD A FAN: Using a fan along with air conditioning can make a room feel four degrees cooler. Box and circulating fans can help, but a ceiling fan is the best option for moving air throughout a room. Home improvement stores offer models for as little as $50, and installation can often be a do-it-yourself job. However, fans are only effective when people are in the room. “I wouldn’t recommend using ceiling fans when you’re not home,” says Furtick. “It’s a waste of electricity to run fans in rooms when there isn’t anyone in them to experience the wind chill.”
10. ADD A VAPOR BARRIER IN YOUR CRAWL SPACE: Adding a layer of heavy-duty plastic over the ground beneath your house keeps humidity out of your house. Smith says it can be a DIY job: “It’s a hassle, but it’s not that expensive.” Your home improvement store can help you find the right materials. Smith also points out that a good vapor barrier can make your home healthier, by reducing the chance you’ll have mold.
11. UPGRADE YOUR COOLING SYSTEM: If your system is more than 10 years old, you might benefit from installing a more energy-efficient system. New systems also offer advanced features, such as the ability to zone your house so you cool bedrooms at night, the living room during the day. Smith urges homeowners to consider replacing or repairing ductwork at the same time. “A new unit with poor ductwork is just wasting energy more efficiently,” he says.
Window units are also getting more efficient, he says. If you are using a 1970s-era window air conditioner, upgrading to a new, Energy Star-rated unit could have a significant impact on cooling costs, but consumers should consider several factors before buying.