It’s hot just about every place in the United States, but the impact of record heat is having its greatest effect, for the second time in as many years, on the homeowners in the West.

Especially on their electric bills. According to wire service stories, many Californians will be paying twice as much for electricity and gas this summer as they paid in the spring.

Although it is easy to lecture about the need to save energy and provide suggestions on lowering cooling costs, when it is 101 degrees in the shade in downtown Pasadena, the tendency for most is to crank up the central air conditioning.

When the utility bills arrive, however, many less-affluent homeowners — and even those who can afford higher costs — reconsider ways to conserve energy.

Utility costs should be a factor in any home-buying decision. If the buyer will stretch his paycheck to the limit just to meet the mortgage, costs of heating and cooling might put him or her over the edge.

Even those with comfortable margins for financial error should ask the seller for copies of the previous year’s utility bills to get a proper handle on monthly costs.

If a home inspector suggests that heating and cooling systems are outdated or inefficient, the buyer should then investigate how much it would cost to replace the inefficient units for more efficient ones.

If a high-efficiency heating and cooling system is much more expensive than a standard one, the buyer must then determine the payback period in lower energy costs for his or her investment.

If lower energy costs helps the buyer recoup his investment after four years, and the buyer only plans to remain in the house for two, then he or she is paying too much.

If this is the buyer’s house for the next 10, then the investment is worth it.

Whatever the decision, the heating and cooling system should be regularly and professionally maintained, so that when a buyer shows up with the home inspector, the system will be an asset to the seller instead of a liability.

In the meantime, there are certain things homeowners can do to use less energy and lower utility costs, even as the summer sun blazes unmercifully overhead.

The suggestions are from the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.:

  • Ceiling and other fans provide additional cooling and better circulation, enabling you to raise the thermostat and cut down on air conditioning costs while staying just as comfortable.
  • Cooling and heating can be half of the average family's energy bill. Clean or replace air conditioning filters monthly. Maintain your air conditioning equipment with a professional "tune-up" to save you the cost and inconvenience of a breakdown during the hottest days!
  • You don't have to run the air conditioning unnecessarily all day. A programmable thermostat automatically coordinates indoor climates with your daily and weekend patterns, increasing home comfort and reducing energy waste. Or, install a timer on your room air conditioner so it doesn't run while you're not home, but comes on shortly before you return to a cool, comfortable house.
  • To cut your utility bills by 30 percent, look for the Energy Star label, the symbol for energy efficiency, when shopping for room air conditioners, central air conditioning systems, major appliances, lighting, and home electronics. Find retailers near you at www.energystar.gov .
  • Shift energy-intensive tasks -- laundry and dishwashing -- to off-peak energy demand hours: nights and weekends. Do full loads when you use clothes washers, dryers, and dishwashers.
  • Turn off everything not in use: lights, TVs, computers. Activate "sleep" features on computers and office equipment.
  • Close blinds or shades on the south-- and west-facing windows of the house during the day or install shading devices such as trellises or awnings.
  • Cut your air conditioning load, reduce pollution, and fight your local "heat island" effect by planting leafy trees and vines around your home and installing reflective tiles on your roof and adequate insulation in your attic -- which can often reach temperatures of 115 degrees or higher!
  • If you are refinancing your home because of lower interest rates, consider wrapping in energy-efficiency home improvements that would reduce your monthly energy bills. The interest on those expenditures would then be tax-deductible.

    You can perform an energy audit of your house to determine where the problems are. On its Web site, www.ase.org/checkup, there is a simple checklist that offers a quick analysis of potential dollar and pollution savings, taking into consideration climate types and energy prices.

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