As parts of the United States bake in triple-digit temperatures, Americans are turning on their air conditioners — and running up their electric bills.
Bills that would normally rise at this time of year are surging because the cost of producing electricity has been rising rapidly. Almost 90% of U.S. homes use some form of air conditioning for cooling, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The administration’s latest forecast shows average residential electricity prices rising 4.7% this summer compared with last summer.
Here are tips for managing your cooling bill.
Seasonal tuneups can help keep central air-conditioning systems running smoothly. Technicians typically check refrigerant levels and clean cooling coils.
“It makes the air conditioner run better, and keeps the cost down,” said Adam Cooper, senior director of customer solutions with the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents investor-owned electric companies.
If you’ve delayed maintenance, you may have to wait longer for service during hotter months. But you can at least change the system’s air filters yourself, to keep chilled air flowing and help the unit work efficiently.
Close blinds or shades during the day to keep out sunlight. You can also try plastic film that adheres to windows to block the sun’s rays. You can get a professional to install it or buy do-it-yourself kits (about $10 per window). The Energy Department’s “energy saver” website suggests that film is best for areas with long cooling seasons, because they also block the sun’s heat in the winter.
Drafty windows and doors that make your home cold in the winter can also make it hotter in the summer, so seal them with weather stripping, caulk or spray foam.
Proper insulation is especially important for keeping your house cool and dry in hot climates, said Richard Trethewey, a heating and air-conditioning contractor who appears on the television program “This Old House.”
To make sure your home is energy efficient, consider an energy “audit” to identify areas needing more insulation. Such assessments typically cost a few hundred dollars, but some utilities cover the cost. To find a qualified contractor, search on the website of the Building Performance Institute, which certifies technicians who do the audits and recommended work.
Low-flow shower heads can save electricity by heating less water, said Arah Schuur, executive director at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, a nonprofit that promotes regional collaboration. And “smart” power strips can turn off energy to appliances when they are not being used, she said.
Ceiling fans can help you feel cooler and allow you to set your thermostat higher. Switch the fan off when you’re not home because “fans cool people, not rooms,” the Department of Energy says. Run clothes dryers and dishwashers during cooler hours and avoid using your oven on hot days, the department 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 at a higher temperature while you’re gone and have it go lower when you return. If you opt for a “smart” version that’s connected to the internet, you can control it remotely from your mobile phone. Utilities may offer incentives or discounts to consumers who install the thermostats.
If your cooling system is aging, consider investing 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 summer (and heat it in the winter).
“It’s like cruise control,” he said.
Some states and utilities, offer financial incentives for installing heat pumps.
New cooling systems can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the type of unit, the size of the home and other variables. Expect to pay $8,000 to $12,000, said Donald Brandt, a fellow at ASHRAE, a group for heating, refrigeration and air-conditioning professionals.
Residential air-conditioning units can last about 20 years, if they have been properly maintained, Brandt said.
Live in an apartment or just need to cool a room instead of a whole house? Look for a window air conditioner that meets federal Energy Star standards. Units are typically 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 in my summer electric bill?
Ask about “level” billing. To avoid jolting customers with volatile bills, utilities often agree to charge a flat monthly rate, then settle up any difference in payments owed once a year. Typically, your account must be in good standing to qualify.
If you struggle to pay 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. For Washington state, information can be found on the Department of Commerce website. LIHEAP information can also be found on King County’s site.
Can I really save money by pushing my thermostat higher in the summer?
Raising your thermostat by just 1 degree in the summer will decrease your electric bill by 2%, according to the Edison Institute. The Energy Department suggests setting the thermostat as high as comfortable when you are home — aim for 78 degrees — and several degrees higher when you’re away.
Seattle Times staff contributed information on Washington state.