Low Cost Cooling Options for the Frugal Homeowner

by Gary Foreman

Low Cost Cooling Options for the Frugal Homeowner photo

You don’t need to sweat over your electric bill to keep cool in the summer. So what’s a frugal homeowner to do? Try these budget-friendly tips to beat the heat.

We’re going to be in the upper 80’s today with no relief on the horizon. Look for warm weather for the rest of the week.” When you hear a weather report like that one, you know it’s summertime. You also know that your electric bill is likely to rise with the thermometer.

What’s a frugal homeowner to do?

There are a number of budget-friendly ways to keep cool. You can prevent the heat from getting inside. You can use ‘buffer areas’ to your advantage. You can use air movement to your advantage. And you can make sure that your air conditioner is giving the most cool air per dollar spent.

Keep the warm air out.

Let’s begin with keeping the warm air outside. By merely closing your blinds, shades and curtains you can reduce the heat gain from the sun by up to 40%. If you have shutters or awnings on the outside that provide shade for your windows, they will reduce heat gain by up to 70%.

If you didn’t check your caulking and weather-stripping as part of your spring inspection, there’s still time. It’s surprising how much energy you can save with a few tubes of caulk. Don’t forget to close your fireplace damper, either.

Windows that aren’t shaded from the sun are prime candidates for reflective solar film. Installing solar film is a relatively easy do-it-yourself job. If you can handle a tape measure, razor knife and a squeegee you can tint your own windows. If you’re afraid you’ll fail, just buy enough film for one small window. Once you’ve successfully completed it, you’ll be going back to buy enough film for all the windows that need tinting!

Evaluate your “buffer areas.”

Next, you’ll want to evaluate your “buffer areas.” Most homes have an attic between the sun and living quarters of your home. The air in your attic can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you use it. In older homes, the attic was typically an unventilated space used for storage. When the summer sun beat down on the roof temperatures inside sky rocketed. Readings of well over 100 degree F. were common.

The ceiling of the highest level of your home divides that hot air from your living space. The first thing is to make sure that you have sufficient insulation in the attic floor. Attic insulation can save up to 30% of your cooling bill. Depending on your attic’s configuration and your level of expertise, this can be another do-it-yourself type of job.

Also check to see that your attic is well ventilated. Roof and attic ventilators help by allowing hot air to escape and cooler outside air to enter. With proper air flow your attic shouldn’t be any warmer than the outside air. Unless you’re a pretty comfortable with tools, adding roof and attic ventilators and fans is not a job for the homeowner. If you do attempt it yourself, remember not to cut any structural members!

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Use air movement to your advantage.

Another inexpensive way to keep cool is to use air movement to your advantage. Remember last winter when they spoke of the ‘wind-chill’? You subtracted the wind speed from the temperature to get an idea of what the air felt like. The same is true in summer. If you can keep your air moving it will feel colder.

Fans are a great way to create your own wind-chill. If the relative humidity is less than 70% you might consider opening the windows. This works best if you can open windows on opposite sides of the house and use a fan to pull air through your home. Ceiling or oscillating fans are another good way to keep air moving.

If your air conditioning vents are in the floor install reflectors to direct the cooler air upward. Remember, cool air sinks towards the floor. Experts advise trying to keep the coolest air between a height of 3 to 7 feet from the floor.

Maintain peak air conditioner efficiency.

Although air conditioners are complex, there are some things that a homeowner can do to maintain peak system efficiency. If your air conditioning filters are dirty, you’re burning money. For replaceable filters, change them every spring and fall. If you have pets you should consider a quarterly cycle, maybe even monthly. For washable filters, it’s best to clean them monthly.

Check the outside portion of your air conditioner. Cut plant growth from around the unit. Remember, the unit’s job is to exhaust hot air outside of your house. If air can’t circulate through the unit, it can’t do a good job.

You can check the system to see if it’s working properly. The only tool you’ll need is a thermometer. Compare the temperature reading between your return air duct and the register nearest the unit. The difference should be about 15 degrees. If the difference is less than 12 degrees check the air flow both inside the house and outside, too. If the air flow isn’t blocked and the circuit breaker’s not tripped, it’s time to call a service person.

Set your thermostat for savings.

One of the most commonly asked questions is how high to set your thermostat. You can cut your air conditioning costs by 5 to 7% for each degree you raise your thermostat. Experts say that most people should be comfortable with a setting of 78 to 82 degrees. If you’ll be away from home for 4 hours or more, set the thermostat at 82 degrees or turn off the system. For shorter times, it’s less expensive to just let the system on.

Try these additional small ways to beat the heat.

Don’t forget to control other sources of heat inside your home. Cooking and bathing add heat. If possible, use an exhaust fan to pull the hot air outside your living space.

If you haven’t already, wrap R-12 insulation around your water heater and exposed hot water pipes. Without insulation your hot water heater will release heat into your home. You lose twice. Once to reheat the water. Twice to remove the heat from the air in your home!

You don’t need to sweat over your electric bill to keep cool in the summer. Like so many things, common sense goes a long way. Oh, and one last tip. Don’t forget that tall, cool glass of icy lemonade! Ooh, I can taste it already…

Reviewed May 2021

About the Author

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. You can read Gary's full bio here. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews.

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