3 cool energy-saving home improvements for summer

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | July 7, 2014

Summer has finally arrived which means you're going to feel hotter -- some days a lot hotter than others. For those who have central air-conditioning and are constantly giving in to turning the thermostat down as the temperature goes up, the arrival of your energy statement may bring a rude awakening.

Here are three energy-saving home improvements you can use to help cut summer cooling costs now while avoiding potential warm-weather meltdowns from either the heat or receipt of your utility bills:

Efficient central cooling systems

Going a few scorching hot days without your central A/C because it has conked out from neglect might save you a few dollars on your electric bill, but the repairs can set you back several hundred. A yearly tune-up for your air conditioning system runs roughly $100. As part of the service, the technician typically cleans the coils, makes adjustments to connections and checks for any wear and tear on parts, among other things.

You should be changing your air filters at least every other month to keep your system running optimally. Dirty filters make your A/C work that much harder, meaning parts may wear out faster and energy bills can escalate.

If you haven't done so already, install a programmable thermostat that can be set to a higher temperature to keep the A/C from running too often when no one is home. Also, seal and insulate your ducts so your cooled air won't escape before it even has a chance to refresh you.

Cold climate tip: Most central air conditioning systems share a blower with the furnace. EnergyStar.gov recommends that if you are ready to purchase more energy-efficient cooling equipment and your furnace is more than 15 years old, ensure efficiency for both by replacing them at the same time.

Effective use of ceiling fans

Does installing ceiling fans lower your energy usage or increase it?

Here's how ceiling fans work: They do not cool your home, they cool your body. Nothing is getting cool if no one is in the room. This is not a zen question of whether a falling tree in a forest can be heard if no one is there. "Cool" is what you feel when you are there to experience the breeze of the fan on your skin as it evaporates your perspiration. You also need to be present to benefit from the fan's circulation, which mixes up the warm, stagnant room air with the cold air coming from your A/C to keep the room from feeling "stuffy."

If you want to save money, you should always turn off the fan when no one is in the room or else you are just adding to your energy usage for no reason. To help make more of a dent in your energy costs while using ceiling fans, raise your A/C thermostat five to ten degrees. Even better, open the windows whenever it's cool outside, like during the night, and run the fans instead of your A/C.

When choosing ceiling fans, look for those with the highest CFMs -- cubic feet of air per minute moved. Last but not least, have any new electrical wiring done by a licensed electrician. Summer is hot. Fire is hotter.

Cold climate tip: Buy ceiling fans with a "reverse" feature. In winter, reversing the direction that the fan blades spin will pull warm air down from the ceiling to where it naturally rises, keeping you warmer closer to ground level.

Window fashions for energy-efficient replacement windows

Even the best replacement windows have their limitations when the summer sun streams through them and heat creeps in around poorly caulked window frames. According to EnergyStar.gov, replacement windows can save you money and return your investment over time, particularly if your current windows are more than 25-30 years old.

No matter how efficient your windows are, however, glass still lets in a fair amount of heat, as do cracks around window and door frames. To boost the cooling effects of any windows and doors, old or new, seal cooled air in and hot air out by replacing cracked or missing caulking and worn weatherstripping. Then choose indoor window fashions and outdoor window treatments that block solar heat. Consider sensor-activated or programmable remote control window treatments that can automatically close as the sun heats up one side of the house and then another.

The following interior window fashions, when used appropriately, can be very effective in helping to keep heat out of your house:

  • reflective window blinds
  • medium-colored drapes with white-plastic backing
  • insulated, foam-core panels or pop-in shutters

Outdoor window treatments, if they are in place at peak times of the day, help block hot summer sun from heating things up indoors:

  • shutters
  • exterior roller blinds
  • awnings
  • mesh screens

Cold climate tip: When the outside temperature begins to drop, hanging tightly woven drapes that go from floor to ceiling and hang close to the wall on both sides of the windows can keep warm air inside where you want it.

EnergyStar.gov offers more tips and provides stats on just how much you can save. Even small changes like switching to LED light bulbs that produce less heat can help. If your utility bills continue to climb, have an energy audit and get advice that is customized for your home and the way your household uses energy.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.