10 Ways to Reduce Your Summer Utility Bills

Before the summer heat—and summertime utility bill—starts to make you sweat, you might want to consider making a few changes to cut your energy consumption. You can shave dollars off your monthly bills without sacrificing comfort as long as you plan ahead and get creative. Here’s a room-by-room guide to saving money this summer—and benefiting the Earth at the same time.

In the basement: Geoff Godwin, division vice president of Emerson, the country’s largest provider of heating and cooling systems, says cleaning air conditioning filters  every month and getting your system checked by a professional once a year will ensure that it’s functioning as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. “A lot of people don’t do that—they ignore the AC systemuntil something goes wrong,” he says, then they end up buying an entirely new unit instead of making minor fixes.

If you need a new air conditioner, an energy efficient one might be eligible for a tax credit (check at www.energystar.gov). When you’re shopping around, look for a unit with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio of 16 to 21, the highest level of efficiency. Another option is a geothermal heating and cooling system, which utilizes pipes running from the more stable, ambient temperatures found five feet underground year-round into your home, where they pump heat in or out, depending on the season.

[Slide Show: 10 Ways to Reduce Your Summer Utility Bills.]

Throughout the house: “Make sure your house is leak-free,” says Alliance to Save Energy spokeswoman Ronnie Kweller, or else “nice, cold, expensive air is going out the cracks.” You might want to consider assigning this task to a professional. Through the Energy Star online directory, you can find a local auditor who will use diagnostic equipment to test your home for areas where air conditioning might escape. Your auditor will probably do what’s known as a blower door test, which lowers the air pressure in your home and reveals leaks. He or she may also take a photo of your house with a thermographic camera, with the red areas of the photo indicating where better insulation and sealing are needed.

If you don’t want to shell out money for an energy auditor, you can perform a casual energy audit yourself. Efficiency experts recommend feeling around baseboards, windows, doors, light switches, and electrical sockets for air leaks. Air can escape or enter anywhere that two different building materials meet. Kweller also recommends walking around your house with incense to see if the smoke blows in when you pass windows. Kweller says old, wooden windows are especially prone to this kind of leakage

If you find problem areas, seal it with foam or caulking, which you can find at the hardware store. Insulation that meets certain efficiency criteria is also eligible for the federal tax credits. Kweller says properly sealing your house can save up to 20 percent on your utility bill.

Using a programmable thermostat so that the temperature automatically rises when no one is home during the day can yield annual savings of about 30 percent, says Godwin, with much of the savings in the summer, since air conditioning runs with electricity. While some 25 million households own programmable thermostats, only half of those people take advantage of them, says Godwin.

Replacing older light bulbs with compact fluorescents not only reduces your electricity bill , it can help save energy on air conditioning since fluorescents generate less heat, says Kweller. She estimates that each bulb can save about $50 over the course of its lifetime.

[See 10 Ways to Save By Going Green]

In the living room: There’s nothing wrong with hosting movie nights this summer, but make sure you shut your entertainment center down when the evening’s over. Simply turning off a television set doesn’t put a stop to so-called “vampire power”—the power that devices consume even when they’re not in use. That’s why you should either unplug your electronics or use a Smart Strip, which cuts power when it’s not needed.

If you’re in the market for a new television, check energy efficiency ratings. The Energy Department bestows its Energy Star rating to sets that use about one-third less energy than regular televisions. In general, LCD televisions use less energy than plasma screens, but both use more than older sets.

Remember to turn the power off or unplug your digital photo frames when you’re not gazing at those illuminated photos. Over the course of the year, leaving one on costs about $9—not a lot, but when thousands of people are doing the same thing, it adds up.

In the kitchen: Baking a cake or casserole in the summer will force your air conditioner to go into overdrive. Plus, eating hot food will only make you want to turn the thermostat down. But you don’t have to survive on cold pasta salads and gazpacho this summer. Instead of using your oven, consider an outdoor grill or toaster oven for small amounts of food.

If you’re up for a challenge, try baking cookies on your car—yes, your car. Nicole Weston of Baking Bites developed a method of baking chocolate cookies with the heat that collects inside cars on steamy days. She suggests parking in the sun, using a thermometer to help monitor the temperature, and protecting your dashboard by putting a barrier between it and the baking sheet. (It should be at least 95 degrees outside and the baking process takes around two and a half hours.)

[See 10 Great Green Home Improvements for 2010.]

In the bathroom: If you don’t want to spend money on a low-flow toilet, you can still make yours more efficient by dropping a soda bottle filled with sand or water into the back. It will use less water each time it flushes. Ivan Chan of carbonfund.org adds that small steps such as turning the water off while brushing your teeth or shaving can save a substantial amount of water (and money on your water bill) each year. He also recommends installing a water conserving showerhead.

In the bedroom: Stay cool while you sleep with an overhead fan instead of pumping air conditioning throughout the entire house. Shutting the doors and vents of unused rooms can also lighten the load of your air conditioning unit .

Outside: A way to reduce cooling costs in the longer run is to plant trees or shrubs so that your house is more shaded, especially on the sunnier side, says Kweller. (For a quicker fix, draw the blinds or shades when you’re not home.)

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