With summer upon us, now is a great time to revisit a popular topic here on Suddenly Frugal–saving money, whether you have central air or you rely on window air conditioning. I was inspired to cover this topic when a reader wrote in with a question. But before I get to that Q&A, let’s go over some basics for saving money during summer.
How to Keep Cool and Save Money in Summer
Not surprisingly the demand for electricity rises as the weather gets hot and air conditioners start humming. Here are some ways to save money as you cool your home this summer.
- Change air filters monthly. I just signed up for Filter Easy, a filter club, and saved 90% off my first first order. Filter Easy works a lot like Dollar Shave Club, in that it sends me filters for my central air system so I don’t have to run to the store. It’s a well-known fact that a clean filter helps your central air run more efficiently, thus saving you money. Filter Easy is saving me money, too. I paid $4.50 for three filters for my first delivery. That’s because rather than sign up for one filter every month, I signed up for three filters to arrive every three months. This way I saved 90% on those first three filters rather than just one. In three months, when Filter Easy sends me my next batch of filters, I’ll pay about $44. That’s what I would pay in the store anyway. Shipping is free, and, most importantly I don’t have to go to the store!
- Install a programmable thermostat. Then raise the setting to the highest comfortable temperature. You can save 3 to 5 percent on your air conditioning costs for each degree you raise the thermostat.
- Close doors. Not only keep your front door closed, but also close doors leading to uncooled and vacant parts of your home. If you have central air conditioning, close off vents to unused rooms. Keep filters clean.
- Use a ceiling fan. This is true, even if you have air conditioning. Many of the rooms in our house have ceiling fans. These can help people “feel” cooler without cranking the a/c.
- Seal holes and cracks around doors and windows. Eliminate air leaks around window air conditioners with foam insulation or weather-stripping.
- Reduce humidity indoors. Humidity levels affect your ability to feel cool. You can reduce the humidity level in your home by investing in a dehumidifier. Putting one in your basement, like we have done, can help cut down on musty smells as well.
- Close blinds, shades and draperies facing the sun. This will keep out the sun’s heat and help fans and air conditioners cool more efficiently.
- Turn off power sources. TVs, computers and other electronic devices draw power when they are in standby mode or turned off but still plugged in. Plug electronics into power strips and turn off the power switch when the items are not in use. Some of them give off residual heat that could raise the temperature of the room so turning them off is a good idea.
- Use timers and motion detectors on indoor and outdoor lighting.
- Replace old appliances, such as washing machines and dryers, with new energy efficient Energy Star appliances, such as this GE 4.3 cu. ft. Front Load Washer in White. Time your purchase with state sales tax holidays to save even more when buying energy-efficient Energy Star Appliances.
- If possible, install whole-house fans. These fans bring in cooler night-time air.
Q: How energy efficient is central air vs. window units? I bought a house that can be easily converted to central air, but have been living with window units for the last two summers. Would I save energy by making the switch? I don’t cool the whole house at the same time — in fact, when it’s really hot out (like last week) I move my home office downstairs and stay in the dining room, which is the only downstairs room with a/c.
A: Turns out the answer isn’t as simple as one might think. There are a number of factors that affect whether or not you should use window units versus central air. According to experts there are three elements that really matter:
- the climate where you live (hot and humid Houston versus dry Denver)
- how well-insulated your home is
- your personal preferences are
It’s possible to find great deals on air conditioners during warm weather. Right now, through the PC Richard and Sons’ website, you can get a Generations 18,000 BTU Window/Wall Slide-Out Air Conditioner for just $399.97.
Issues with Humidity
If you’re looking to cool your home and lower the humidity, you could try a dehumidifier to start but a central air system is your best bet, hands down, as far as efficiency goes. “Well-designed central systems win out in terms of being able to filter the air for allergens and pollutants, and for controlling humidity,” says Mike Rogers, a senior vice president with Green Homes America, a company that provides residential home performance contracting solutions that increase in-home comfort, health and safety, and significantly reduce energy usage and utility bills.
Two reasons that window units do a terrible job with humidity:
- They tend to sweat (especially if they are overworked) and therefore introduce moisture into the room.
- It’s harder to seal window units, and thus you do get some of that hot, humid air sucked in from the outside.
The Role Insulation Plays in Cooling
If humidity isn’t your problem but you’d just like to cool your home, you could get away with one window unit on each floor, if your home is well insulated. (Check out this Energy Star website to figure out the right-sized air conditioner based on a room’s size.) Insulation isn’t just in the walls, by the way. We’re also talking about well-insulated windows and, believe it or not, a well-insulated attic. “In the summer, temperatures in the attic often climb to more than 140 degrees,” says Rogers. “This tremendous heat conducts down into your home. Even when the first floor is comfortable, this constant flow of heat from the attic can bake your bedrooms upstairs. Although most people don’t think of insulation as a way to keep cool, increasing levels in your attic can make a huge difference.”
When Window Units May Make Sense
Keep in mind that window units are cheaper in the short run. However, if you’re looking to purchase more than a few of them, you’re probably better off getting a central air system. Says Rogers, a central air unit will use less energy overall and cool more efficiently than a series of window units running in tandem. On the other hand, he says, “if you’re just trying to cool one or two rooms—not the whole house—a window unit or two can use less energy than a central system. A couple of window units are much cheaper than a central unit. And, if you have a very energy-efficient house, or small house, they may be all you need.”
Finally, it’s all about personal preferences. The reader who sent in this question doesn’t seem to mind moving into a single room when it’s really hot out. And if it doesn’t get hot that often that she needs to disrupt her life regularly like this, then she can probably continue to get away with window units. However, if she’s fighting humidity and she seems to be losing the battle, then maybe it’s time to make the leap to central air.