Are you changing your AC filters?
All-time summer heat records keep buckling under the weight of rising global temps—a trend that hits home, literally and figuratively, when you receive your monthly air conditioning bill. Unfortunately, mistakes you’re making with your home AC may be undercutting its efficiency, effectiveness, and safety, experts say. “If you have a badly maintained system, it can become contaminated with microorganisms that may be harmful if inhaled,” says Mark Mendell, a staff scientist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Indoor Environment Group. Mendell mentions asthma problems and allergies as some of those possible harms. Here are seven of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to home AC, and some simple adjustments that can save your lungs and wallet.
You Aren’t Changing or Cleaning Your AC Filters
At a minimum, you should be changing the filter on your central AC unit once every three months—and as often as once a month if your system is running all the time. Neglect this chore, and a dirty filter can lead to poor air flow or freezing up of your unit’s evaporator coil, says James Braun, a professor of engineering and director of the Center for High Performance Buildings at Purdue University. A filthy filter could add 5% to 15% to your AC bill, and will shorten the lifespan of your whole system. Fortunately, replacement filters are pretty cheap—usually less than $10. If you have ductless “split” AC units, there should be a removable panel on your unit that will allow you to wipe off the filter with a rag—no replacement necessary.
You’re Not Having Your System Serviced Annually
You could look up online video tutorials about cleaning your AC unit’s coils and fins—necessary maintenance operations that keep your system up and running efficiently, Braun says. You could also bring in a pro to service your system once a year. The U.S. Department of Energy offers some tips when searching for AC service contractors.
You Don’t Have a Programmable Thermostat
Maybe you’re one of those superhumans who always remembers to adjust the thermostat before leaving the house. But if you’re like the rest of us, a programmable thermostat can save you hundreds on your annual AC bill by automatically raising the temp at those times of day when you’re at work or away from home, Braun says. Newer phone-controllable “smart” thermostats make programming even simpler, he adds.
You’re Setting Your Thermostat Too Low
Research shows the human body is capable of adapting to hot or cool temperatures pretty quickly—like within a week or two. When you consider you’ll cut up to 3% off your AC bill for every degree you raise the temperature—not to mention the potential environmental benefits of lowering your AC use—it’s worth sweating through that adjustment period and setting your thermostat somewhere in the high 70s (or higher if you can handle it).
You’re Not Taking Full Advantage of Fans
Any type of fan, but especially ceiling fans, can help keep cool air circulating throughout your home. That removes some of the burden from your AC system, Braun says. Just be sure your ceiling fans are turning counterclockwise during the summer, which promotes greater air flow.
Your Thermostat and/or Vents Are Poorly Positioned
If the sun or a nearby lamp blasts your thermostat for big chunks of the day, that could throw off its readings and cause it to crank your AC even though your place is pleasantly cool. Especially if you’re away during the day, you may not realize your system is working overtime due to a misplaced thermostat, Braun says. Blocking AC vents with furniture or curtains can also limit air circulation. Unless you spend a lot of time huddled under your sofa, you’ll want to be sure your AC vents are unobstructed.
You Don’t Have Blinds Or Curtains
Bright sunlight is your AC system’s nemesis. By closing blinds and sliding curtains to block the sun’s rays, you’ll also shield your space from the sun’s heat, experts say.
Fans create a wind chill effect that cools people down, not the whole room.
Americans have taken heat for our so-called obsession with air conditioning. But just because we consider it a necessity doesn’t mean we aren’t looking for ways to save on cooling costs this summer. Upgrading appliances to Energy Star-rated, green, energy-saving machines often tops the list of ways to trim your energy bill. But for those sweating in an apartment, upgrading appliances often isn’t an option. So what can renters do to beat the heat while keeping energy costs down during the sweltering summer months?
Cool yourself first
Before you crank up the AC, find ways to chill your body naturally. Staying hydrated is the first step to cool off, but Dr. Kyle Smith, a family physician who practices in Maryland, warns that not all liquids are created equal.
“Both alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, so when you’re trying to stay hydrated it’s important to drink water or a drink like Gatorade,” he says.
Look for other savings
If you can’t bear to turn down the AC, trim down other costs on your energy bill. According to the Department of Energy, 5 percent of the average home’s electric bill comes from lights. So do an extra check of all lamps before you leave home.
While you’re at it, unplug your cellphone charger: Electronics that are plugged in, but not currently in use, spend “vampire power.” While most everyday devices create vampire power that adds only pennies over the year, cable boxes and sleeping computers — even laptops — can add about $20 together in standby power alone. Double that if your cable box is equipped with DVR.
Keep your AC in shape
According to Joel Cohn, legislative director of the District’s Office of the Tenant Advocate, “There is no requirement that a landlord must provide AC.” If air conditioning is provided, Cohn says, there are some rules: AC units must be inspected annually and maintained in good working order, and AC must be provided for a minimum period of time, typically May 15 through September 15. If your landlord is keeping your AC unit in good shape, your energy costs will be lower. You can help by cleaning or replacing air filters in your unit monthly.
Get what you pay for
Gaps or cracks around air vents, windows and doors allow cooled air to leak out. For the price of a tube of caulk and 30 minutes of your (or your landlord’s) time, you can seal up gaps and keep the air you’re paying for where it belongs.
Keeping doors closed to rooms that aren’t in use also keeps you from having to pay for a cool — but empty — room. When you’re at work, try closing bedroom and bathroom doors to keep rooms cooler.
Move the air that’s there
Corby Lyons O’Connor rents a townhouse in Alexandria and owns property in Florida, so she’s no stranger to keeping cool in a humid climate. Her favorite solution: ceiling fans. “I use those in the bedrooms and would like one in the dining area,” she says. “I prefer them over the air conditioning.”
Fans create a wind chill effect that cools people down, not the whole room. And while ceiling fans are the most efficient, a box fan or another portable fan will get the job done, too. The Department of Energy says that using a ceiling fan allows you to set the thermostat about 4 degrees warmer and be just as comfortable.
Listen to your body
Unless you are very old, young or ill, there’s no medical reason to panic if your air conditioning goes on the fritz during the summer (or you want to try going without, for serious savings). “If the human body is working normally, even if you’re exposed to external warmth, your body temp should stay the same,” says physician Kyle Smith. “For the vast majority of people, air conditioning and keeping cool is purely for comfort.”
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