American summers are growing hotter, thanks to climate change and increased urbanization. Using an air conditioner to stay cool takes a big bite out of your household budgets. There's plenty you can do, though, to cut the cost of cooling a home. For example, sealing air leaks and adding insulation can together boost a home's heating and cooling efficiency by 15 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Here are 19 tips for lowering the cost of keeping cool:
Cut costs of summer cooling
19 ways to slash the cost of staying cool in the summer
1. Install solar screens
Cool your home by putting solar screens (also called sun-shade screens) on the windows that get the most sun. Installed on the outside of windows, they look like insect screens, but are made of a denser mesh that blocks heat and light.
Buy adjustable screens that fit into window frames, have screens custom-made or make them yourself for about $10 per screen.
Since the mesh comes in varying densities, shop around at hardware stores to decide which you need before buying.
Another type of mesh, called shade cloth, also comes in varying densities and can be used outdoors to shade decks, playgrounds, patios, eating areas and outdoor living areas.
2. Put up window awnings
Install awnings above outside your warmest windows to shade them from sun. Awnings cut solar heat gain by up to 65 percent on south-facing windows in summer and by 77 percent on west-facing windows, the EPA says.
3. Hang shutters or roll-up shades
Inexpensive roll-up shades — made of bamboo or vinyl strips — block heat. Hang them outside windows on the sunny side of the house. They are rolled up and down manually using a pull-cord. Keep them up in winter to invite the sun’s warmth indoors.
Shutters — in vinyl, composite, wood or natural-fiber woven material — also block the sun while adding a stylish architectural flourish.
4. Keep the air conditioner in tip-top shape
Keeping air-conditioner units at maximum efficiency by having them regularly serviced helps whittle energy bills.
Replace filters monthly when units are in use. Dirty filters block air flow, making the unit draw more power and work harder.
5. Use a programmable thermostat
Hold a family meeting and get everyone to agree on one temperature for day and one for night. Otherwise, fiddling with your home’s thermostat wreaks havoc on your air conditioner’s efficiency.
Save still more by setting temperatures inside the home to rise as much as 4 degrees while you’re away, allowing you to save energy.
6. Seal ducts
Homes with forced-air ducts for heating and cooling can lose 20 to 30 percent of heated or cooled air to holes, leaks and leaky duct joints. Some people seal these openings with duct tape, but the EPA says such seals don’t last well. Mastic sealant or metal tape works better.
Hire a contractor or do it yourself. The DIY approach saves about $350 per year on energy costs and requires investing about $100 to $350 in materials to seal air leaks around the house, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Spending about $1,000 on new caulking, insulation and sealing can shave 10 to 20 percent off your energy bill, estimates the NAR.
8. Insulate the attic
Check out the Department of Energy website to learn how to conduct an energy audit to locate air leaks throughout the house. Before you install new insulation, seal any leaks and holes in the attic.
9. Use the barbecue
Before electricity, homes in warm climates used separate outdoor summer kitchens to keep the main house cool. Firing up your barbecue instead of the kitchen on the hottest days has the same effect.
Other cooling tips include:
Open the refrigerator only briefly and infrequently.
Instead of the oven, use smaller appliances — a toaster oven, rice cooker, microwave or countertop convection oven, for instance. These smaller devices use less energy and radiate less heat.
10. Run appliances at night
Dishwashers and clothes dryers emit heat as they run, and that makes your air conditioner run even harder. Use such appliances after the day cools down.
Another way to save energy is to turn off the dishwasher before the dry cycle is complete; open it up and let dishes air dry.
A time-honored laundry method that costs nothing is installing an old-fashioned clothesline and letting laundry dry in the sunshine.
11. Use vent fans carefully
Use vents or vented appliances at night or in the early morning. Running bathroom and kitchen fans during the hottest hours pulls cooled air out of the house. The clothes dryer’s vent sends cooled air outside, too.
12. Close the drapes
Keep drapes, blinds, curtains and shutters closed on windows that face the sun. Open window coverings and throw open windows after the temperature outside drops below the indoor temperature.
Consider lining draperies with light-colored fabric that reflects the sun’s heat, the NAR says.
Two sets of drapes hung together (“double-hung”) reduces heat even more. “Studies demonstrate that medium-colored draperies with white-plastic backings can reduce heat gains by 33 percent,” says the Department of Energy.
Hang draperies close to windows to block heat. Allow them to fall all the way to the window sill or floor.
13. Plant trees
Plant leafy deciduous trees on the east and west sides of a home for cooling shade. In winter the bare branches let the sunshine through to warm the house.
Consider locating trees or shrubs in other spots where their shade can help, such as near air-conditioning units, patios, driveways and walkways.
14. Use big potted plants and vines
While you’re waiting for trees to grow, put large pots with bamboo or trees in front of sunny windows or hot exterior walls to shade the walls.
Perennial vines, such as Mediterranean grape arbors, are another excellent source of cooling shade.
15. Use ceiling fans correctly
Switch ceiling fan blades so they’re rotating counter-clockwise in summer and clockwise in winter. These fans have a toggle switch on the fan body that changes the rotation of the blades.
Fans cool your body, not the room air, so turn all fans off when you leave a room.
Shop for Energy Star-certified fans (look for the label on packaging). They use 50 percent less energy.
16. Stay cool with free-standing fans
Air blowing across the skin cools the body by evaporating moisture. When using a fan, direct the breeze at yourself and keep a spritz bottle close, misting yourself occasionally.
17. Use an attic fan
Attic fans pull in cooler outside air and push warm air out through attic vents, taking a load off your air conditioner.
“In the summer, natural air flow in a well-vented attic moves super-heated air out of the attic, protecting roof shingles and removing moisture,” says this EnergyStar.gov page on attic ventilation.
18. Unplug electronics
Computers and other electronic devices, including some plasma TVs, generate heat that boosts the room temperature.
Unplugging warm-running electronics when they’re not in use keeps the room cooler and cuts your utility costs, according to the Department of Energy. To find out which of your appliances use the most electricity, try use an inexpensive (many cost under $50) electricity usage meters that measure the watts consumed by appliances and devices.
19. Close doors and registers
Don’t cool the entire house if you’re using just a few rooms. Shut doors and close registers in the empty rooms.