Air conditioning is costing consumers more this summer.
The Energy Information Administration, the statistical division of the U.S. Department of Energy, predicts that the price of electricity will climb about 2.6 percent during 2007. Demand for electric power will grow about 1.5 percent during the year, which the EIA says is normal.
This means that if the typical consumer paid $150 for electricity to run central air conditioning in a 2,000 square-foot house in each of the summer months in 2006, for example, that bill will be $153.90 for June, July and August this year. That might not seem like a lot of money, but multiply that by the increase by the number of households in the United States and that means hundreds of millions of dollars.
These costs fall on low and moderate income homeowners the most. Diane-Louise Wormley, who oversees a program to improve Philadelphia neighborhoods, said that a key to making homeownership affordable for younger buyers is to make these older houses energy efficient so that "everything won't be going to the gas company."
Much of the housing stock in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities was built before 1950, when energy costs were low and insulation was not part of the construction industry's vocabulary. Neighborhood programs in those two cities include an energy assessment of houses to try to get heating and cooling costs down.
BASF, which built a "near-zero energy" house in Paterson, N.J., is bringing technology used to create that home to low and moderate income neighborhoods in other cities, according to Jack Armstrong, business manager for the German-based chemical company, who oversaw the project.
Armstrong said that a zero-energy home can be "cash-flow positive" to the homeowner from the "very first day," because while achieving this level of performance can add $45 to $90 in monthly mortgage payments, it can save $140 a month that the typical consumer was paying on utility bills "before the era of wildly fluctuating energy costs."
Wormley, Armstrong and others acknowledge that these solutions to energy costs and housing affordability are long-term, and will do little to help consumers deal with higher utility bills this summer.
Some recommendations from energy experts work better in some areas of the country than others. For example, in suburban and rural areas, nights tend to be cooler than in the cities of concrete and blacktop, so homeowners can open their windows after sunset and use a whole-house fan to bring cool air into the house rather than keeping the air conditioners cranked.
Some northern areas only need air conditioning a few days a year, while in Texas, half the average homeowner's summer electric costs are generated by it, according to the state's public utilities authority.
Some utility companies charge higher rates in the summer or begin tacking on additional charges to a customer's bill if he or she uses more than a certain number of kilowatt hours during a 30-day cycle.
The key is to find ways to stay comfortable while keeping costs down.
According to Ronnie Kweller of the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, there are plenty of ways to do so. One is to properly maintain the home's cooling system so that it operates as efficiently as possible. This means cleaning or replacing air conditioner filters monthly, or as needed. Some newer window units have a built-in warning system that reminds you when it is time to clean the filter. Outdoor and indoor air conditioner coils also must be kept clean. Accumulated dirt on the indoor coil is the most-common cause of inefficiency.
Keep your house closed tight in the daytime to keep unwanted heat and humidity out. If practical, ventilate at night either naturally or with fans. In addition, Kweller suggested that a dehumidifier shouldn't be operated at the same time as the air conditioner, since the dehumidifier will increase the cooling load and force the air conditioner to work harder.
Shifting energy-intensive tasks such as laundry and operating the dishwasher to off-peak energy demand hours will help increase electricity reliability during heat waves, Kweller said. If you are able to do so, don't do the dishes and laundry a little at a time. Full loads will reduce energy consumption.
When you do wash clothes and your machines are old and inefficient top-loaders, use cold water. Kweller said that doing so could save up to $63 a year and, for those worried about getting clothes clean, "detergents formulated for cold water get clothes just as clean." For increase dryer efficiency (and to reduce the chance of fire) clean the lint filter in your dryer after every load.
Keep lamps or TVs away from the air conditioner thermostat, she said, because heat they generate will cause your air conditioner to run longer, running up bills unnecessarily.
When you leave the room, shut off the lights. The heat these lights produce also can increase cooling costs, according to Kweller.