How to lower your summer electricity bill

As parts of the country heat up with triple-digit temperatures, Americans turn on their air conditioners and raise their electricity bills.

Bills that would normally increase this time of year are rising because the cost of producing electricity has risen rapidly. Nearly 90 percent of homes in the United States use some form of air conditioning for cooling, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The administration’s most recent forecast shows that average residential electricity prices will rise 4.7 percent this summer compared to last summer.

Here are some tips for managing your cooling bill.

Seasonal tune-ups can help keep central air conditioning systems running smoothly. Technicians typically check coolant levels and clean cooling coils. “It makes the air conditioner work better and keeps the cost down,” said Adam Cooper, senior director of customer solutions for the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents investor-owned power companies.

If you’ve delayed maintenance, you may have to wait longer for service during the hotter months. But at least you can change the system’s air filters yourself, to keep cool air flowing and help the unit run efficiently.

Close blinds or shutters during the day to keep out sunlight. You can also try a plastic film that is attached to the windows to block the sun’s rays. You can hire a professional to install it or buy DIY kits (about $10 per window). The Department of Energy’s “Energy Savings” website suggests that film is best for areas with long cooling seasons, because they also block the sun’s heat in the winter.

Drafty windows and doors that make your house cooler in the winter can also make it hotter in the summer, so seal them with weather stripping, caulking, or spray foam.

Proper insulation is especially important for keeping your home cool and dry in hot weather, said Richard Trethewey, a heating and cooling contractor who appears on the television show “This Old House.” To make sure your home is energy efficient, consider an energy “audit” to identify areas that need more insulation. Such evaluations typically cost a few hundred dollars, but some utility companies cover the cost. To find a qualified contractor, look on the website of the Building Performance Institute, which certifies technicians who perform audits and recommends to work.

Low-flow showerheads can save electricity by heating less water, said Arah Schuur, executive director of Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, or NEEP, a nonprofit that promotes regional collaboration. And “smart” power strips can turn off power to appliances when they’re not in use, she said.

Ceiling fans can help you feel cooler and allow you to set your thermostat higher. Turn off the fan when you’re not home because “fans cool people, not rooms,” says the Department of Energy. Run clothes dryers and dishwashers during cooler hours and avoid using the oven on hot days, the department suggests.

Consider a programmable thermostat to help manage your cooling system, especially if you’re away from home during the day. You can set it to a higher temperature while you’re away and have it lower further when you return. If you opt for a “smart” version that connects to the internet, you can control it remotely from your mobile phone. Utility companies may offer incentives or discounts to consumers who install thermostats.

Some utilities pay customers who register their smart thermostats and participate in energy-saving events during times of high demand. Arizona Public Service pays customers, through bill credits, if they allow the utility to raise their smart thermostat up to four degrees during “Cool Rewards” events throughout the summer. The program is limited to 20 events per summer, with a maximum duration of three hours each.

If your cooling system is aging, consider investing in a replacement because newer models are much more efficient, Trethewey said. There are now more options, he said, like new heat pump systems that use “inverter” technology to cool your home in the summer (and heat it in the winter). “It’s like cruise control,” she said. Some states and utilities, including New York, offer financial incentives to install heat pumps.

New refrigeration systems can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the type of unit, the size of the home, and other variables. Expect to pay between $8,000 and $12,000, said Donald Brandt, a member of ASHRAE, a group of heating, refrigeration and air conditioning professionals.

Residential air conditioning units can last about 20 years, if they’ve been properly maintained, Brandt said.

live in an apartment? Look for a window air conditioner that meets federal Energy Star standards. Units are generally available for a few hundred dollars up to $1,000, depending on the size needed.

Here are some questions and answers about summer cooling bills:

Ask about “level” billing. To avoid rattling customers with volatile bills, utilities often agree to charge a flat monthly rate and then settle any difference in payments due once a year. Generally, your account must be in good standing to qualify.

If you’re having trouble paying your bill, the federal government funds the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. To see if you qualify, contact the appropriate agency in your state.

Turning up your thermostat just one degree in the summer will cut your electricity bill by 2 percent, according to the Edison Institute. The Department of Energy suggests setting your thermostat as high as is comfortable when you’re home (aim for 78 degrees) and several degrees higher when you’re away.

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