Summer Cooling

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
What is the best way to save on cooling bills? We live in a 1962 house that gets direct sun and no shade. More insulation in the attic?
Gail in Texas

Gail's right. It's that time of year again. When the temperatures rise and shade is a wonderful relief. What can she do to reduce those cooling bills?

Experts say that the main source of heat build-up in your home is sunlight being absorbed through the roof and walls. A secondary source is appliances generating heat inside your home.

We'll begin by investigating 'passive cooling'. That's using natural methods to reduce the amount of heat in your house.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, about a third of the heat in your home enters through the roof. Even white colored shingles absorb 70% of the solar radiation that hits them.

One way to increase reflection is to use a roof coating. There are products for different types of roofs. Gail will find them at her local home center.

Built in 1962, Gail's home was constructed when insulation wasn't a major consideration. So she'll want to make sure there's enough in the attic. Fortunately, insulation is not that expensive. And adding it is a simple do-it-yourself project that doesn't require special tools or training.

Gail should also make sure that the attic has enough ventilation. Hot air rises. Vents in the eaves will allow cooler air to enter. A ridge vent or attic fan will allow the hotter air to escape. Proper attic ventilation can reduce cooling costs by 10%.

Homes with darker colors will absorb more heat. Whether Gail is choosing new shingles or an exterior paint she'll want to consider lighter hues.

She mentioned one common method of passive cooling: shade. Trees, especially on the south and west, can block enough sunlight to reduce her bills by 30%. Unfortunately for Gail, it takes time to grow shade trees. So she'll need patience.

In the meantime, she might want to consider keeping the drapes closed during daylight hours. Awnings can also block sunlight. And reflective window tint will pay for itself in a short time.

Speaking of windows, Gail will want to make sure that windows and doors are properly sealed. Also pipes or anything else that enters through the walls. Caulking is inexpensive and pays big dividends.

Newer windows are much more energy efficient. Unfortunately, the energy saved will not pay for new windows in the short term.

Once Gail has blocked and reflected as much sun as possible, she'll want to give her air conditioner a check-up. A professional should service the unit each spring. Contact your local electric company. They often have special deals or even pay for the inspection.

While Gail's investigating, she'll want to check for any duct leaks. No sense filling the attic or basement with cool air. She may also want to consider insulating the ducts.

Next check the a/c compressor outside. It needs room to breathe. The heat removed from your home is exhausted there. Don't trap it with overgrown bushes.

Of course all shrubbery isn't bad. Your a/c unit runs cooler if it's in the shade. So plant bushes close enough to provide shade, but far enough away so that the air flow isn't blocked.

Clean or replace dirty a/c filters monthly. This simple step will improve efficiency dramatically.

Thermostats should be set at 78 degrees. A six-degree higher setting will reduce your cooling costs by 20%.

Inside Gail will want to make maximum use of fans. Circulating air will feel 2 degrees colder than it really is. If ceiling fans aren't practical, Gail can pick up inexpensive room fans.

She may also want to consider a minor room makeover for the summer. Replacing warm colors (browns and reds) with cooler colors (blues and greens) sets a psychological tone. Just changing throw pillows could be enough to encourage some cool thoughts.

In drier climates like the southwest, Gail might want to check out an evaporative cooler. It's a little like a humidifier used for cooling. Their operating costs are about one fifth of an air conditioner's.