“Holy crap.” That was my shocked response to the first utility bill of summer.
A month of running the air conditioner jacked my bill up by over $100. I suddenly found myself considering the pros and cons of living in the basement until Labor Day.
If summer utility bills are scorching your budget, take heart. With these low-effort ways to save energy, you can spend less without moving underground.
1. Hang sun-blocking curtains
When summer sunlight hits your windows, much of it enters your home as heat. High-quality blackout curtains can reduce this heat gain by up to 25%, Dave Lincon, director of product management and business development at Sears Home Improvement, said in an email. Cellular shades with a honeycomb design are more expensive but can slash unwanted solar heat by up to 80%.
Basically, anything you can do to block direct sunlight — closing shutters, deploying an awning or adding white liners to your existing drapes — will keep things cooler and help you save energy.
2. Turn your water heater down
Water heaters account for about 18% of total home energy use, often because they’re set too high. The default temperature for most water heaters is 140 degrees, and when I checked, mine was set to a skin-peeling 150.
“Water heaters account for about 18% of total home energy use, often because they’re set too high.”
Turning the water heater down to 120 degrees protects your plumbing, saves energy and reduces risk of scalding. Who wants boiling hot showers in the summer anyway?
To adjust the temperature, look for a thermostat knob on the front of your water heater. If it has Hot, A-B-C and Very Hot settings instead of numbers, set it to Hot to achieve 120-degree bliss.
3. Switch to a reusable air filter
It’s a good idea to change the air filter on your heating, ventilation and air conditioning system every 30 days, says Todd Washam, director of industry and external relations at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. But buying stacks of disposable air filters gets expensive fast.
Permanent electrostatic air filters may cost more than disposables initially, but they’re washable and can last up to 10 years. By cleaning your reusable filter often, you’ll ensure more air gets in while keeping efficiency-killing particles out. A win-win.
4. Turn up your thermostat
With summer heat in full swing, this energy-saving tip may sound crazy, but hear me out. Your air conditioner’s main job is to control indoor humidity. When set to 78 degrees, a properly installed air conditioning system will limit indoor humidity to 50% or less, keeping you comfortable while using less energy.
If you usually like things on the frigid side, 78 degrees may feel like the Sahara. Ease into it by nudging the thermostat up a little each day. It’s surprising how quickly your body adapts. And even a small change makes a big difference: You could spend 3% to 5% less on air conditioning by turning the thermostat up just one degree, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit that advocates for efficient technologies.
5. Opt for flat-rate utilities
Also known as "budget billing" or "balanced billing," flat-rate utility programs split your annual energy use into equal monthly payments.
A flat-rate plan smooths away seasonal bill spikes, but make sure you understand the terms before signing up. Ask about service fees, how often rates readjust, and what happens if your actual energy use differs from the power company’s estimate.
Bonus: Learn to read your meter
Much like checking your bank account balance, reading your energy meter gives you a better understanding of real-time usage and may help you spot billing errors.
If you have a digital meter, reading it is easy: Simply record the numbers you see, from left to right.
If you have an analog meter, do-it-yourself readings take a bit more work. You’ll still read the numbers from left to right, but if a dial hand is between two numbers, record the lower number. And if a dial hand points directly at a number, check the dial to the right before recording it. If the dial to the right is on 9, subtract one from the dial you’re looking at before recording it. Otherwise, record it as is.
Once you’ve recorded two readings, subtract the first reading from the second to see how much energy you’ve used in the interim. You can record readings on a regular basis to keep tabs on your consumption over time.