How To Beat The Heat For Less

How To Beat The Heat For Less

Posted on July 17, 2012

If you're like me, the summer months are a real challenge -- an epic battle between inborn loathing of hot weather and equally deep-seated cheapness. It's a three-month nightmare haunted by the spectre of record-breaking temperatures and the threat of record-breaking electricity bills. If you're really like me, you're lying down in a stuffy attic apartment with a damp paper towel draped over your forehead and trying very hard to forget that you have access to central air, so you'll understand if I distract myself by typing up some tips for staying cool in the summer without blowing your budget.

Four Ways to Use Air Conditioning Efficiently


A programmable thermostat can save you a bundle.

  • Stay Fresh: While any air conditioner has a few different parts that require regular maintenance, the easiest way to improve the efficiency of an existing unit and save on air conditioning costs is to clean or replace its filters at least every couple of months per season of use. If your air conditioner is older than a decade, though, consider investing in a newer, high-efficiency model. Replacing your filters every 1-2 month can improve performance by 5-15%, but upgrading to a modern system from an outdated one can cut your cooling costs by 20% in one fell swoop.
  • Think Small: Don't spring for central air when window units will do and don't buy a window unit that operates at a higher capacity than your space demands. Even if you like it frosty during the summer, it's a waste to trick out a tiny bedroom or shoebox studio with a turbo-powered AC unit designed to cool restaurant kitchens in the sun's core. Not only do over-sized air conditioners waste energy, they remove moisture from the air less efficiently than properly-sized units. The freezing cold humid air that results is what's responsible for that nasty, clammy feeling you sometimes get in a mall shop or office building where the AC is really on full blast. For more information and a simple guide to choosing the right air conditioner for your space, check out Energy Star's website. This energy-efficient 5,000 BTU unit good for cooling a 100-150 sq. ft. room at Wal-Mart is only $99 shipped.
  • Keep it Cool: Once you've got your AC unit, you can increase its efficiency by up to 10% by making sure it's in a relatively cool area shaded from direct sunlight. Avoid drop cloths and enclosures -- your best bet is natural cover in the form of a non-shedding tree or shrubbery patch, which blocks out the sun while allowing air to circulate in and out of the unit.
  • Stick to a Program: Unless you're also housing a pet or a collection of wax statues, turn off your AC when you're not home and at least turn it down when you're not conscious. A programmable thermostat allows you to schedule an automatic shift to a higher temperature when you're sound asleep and a total system shutdown if you're regularly out of the home during the day, shaving precious percentages off your cooling bill. Thinking it might be more efficient to leave the AC on all day rather than let your home heat up and cool back down over and over again? I wondered the same thing, but it definitely looks like science is on one side of the issue and it's just you, me, and the Yahoo! Answers community on the other. Give it a shot - if it's really taking an uncomfortably long time to cool things back down after you get home, it's probably time to upgrade to a new unit.

Four Ways to Stay Cool with Less AC

  • Buy a fan: You'd have a hard time finding a fan that'll do the same damage to your electricity bill as even the dinkiest window AC unit will. A big box fan uses about 2% of the electricity needed to power central air for the same amount of time - and if you pick the right one, you might be surprised by how effectively it cuts down on your trips to the thermostat. The Wirecutter recommends the high-powered, whisper-quiet Vornado 660, a $99 fan with enough juice to cool an entire room and a footprint that fits in the corner of a desktop.

    Fan Cooling a Woman

    A fan can make a huge difference in your home or office.

  • Draw the Blinds: The internal temperature of a room with windows can be lowered by up to 15 degrees when there's something in place to block out direct sunlight. Take a tip from a takeout place near my apartment and paper over your windows with pizza boxes, or invest in a set of blinds or heavy-duty drapes and keep them shut during the day.
  • Hit the Showers: Some of us aren't privileged enough to have a programmable thermostat and others simply lack the inner grace to set one in a sleep-deprived haze at 3 AM. Whatever your situation, a 45-second cold shower is a classic, cheapskate-approved alternative to running an air conditioner just long enough so that you can comfortably fall asleep. There is no item in this list I can vouch for more enthusiastically.
  • Give up and leave the house: While I stand behind all of these tips, sometimes you just need a level of AC that is beyond responsible household energy management. Rather than crank your own air conditioning, get out and mooch off of someone else -- go window shopping and enjoy the artificial sweater weather blasting from every store, relax at the library with a selection from the Western canon, take advantage of free days at local museums, or head to the movies and blow all the AC money you're saving on a matinee ticket and a giant Icee.

How do you keep your cool on the cheap when the weather's hot? Share your best ideas in the comments!

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