In 1997, the average home in the Northeast spent approximately $1,700 per year on energy. In the, this spending was broken down into four categories: Space heating, electric air-conditioning, water heating and appliances operation. I was surprised by the ratios, since my original thought for this post was to talk about keeping air conditioning costs low. According to their study the percentages for these categories broke down like this:
Now my idea for this post was going to cover ways to reduce your air-conditioning costs, but this study started me thinking (always a dangerous undertaking, because once I emerge from days of introspection, reading and agonizing over this data I’ll be ready to make a tentative decision and then the trouble starts). My thoughts on air conditioning reduction are still valid, I think, as a lifestyle choice, and later I’ll give my thoughts on researching things before leaping into action.
I have found that air conditioning is one of the simpler things to ease out of your life. During the winter in the Northeast air conditioning is a non-issue. The temperature even at its most freakish won’t climb into a range requiring any air conditioning for six to seven months out of the year. Spring and autumn are usually mild and don’t require air conditioning, either. We live about 50 feet from a river, and the breeze coming off the river is usually quite brisk year round, especially during the day. It usually gets very still as the river cools at night, and that’s one of the few times air conditioning might be needed, particularly if the tide is ebbing out.
During the summer, usually about three to four months, air conditioning may be necessary. We have the same breezes but temperatures rise into the mid 80s; seldom higher, but occasionally we’ll get some 90s. Three years ago the summer was so mild it seldom reached the 80s. Last year we had a few terribly hot weeks. In general, though, we don’t have the extremes of temperatures you find further inland or south.
Our house is a townhouse, but we’re lucky in that we have a corner unit and therefore windows on two sides. This provides a cross-breeze, which is very useful. We have a large green space across from us rather than more townhouses, so the breeze is not impeded.
Even with all of this considered, my first instinct has always been to crank the air conditioning to 68 or 70 all summer long. Despite the fact that I would love to have temperatures as high as 74 or 76 in the winter, I inexplicably want colder temperatures in the summer. Bubelah wants it warmer in the winter, warmer in the summer. Little Buddy so far doesn’t seem to care, but for a toddler’s sake you don’t want to keep the house at 62 (although I suppose if you wanted to dress him up you could).
But we did realize that we could keep it much warmer and accomplish five things:
- Reduce our costs. This was the obvious benefit, although as I mentioned in this post the benefit was less than I imagined it might be. However, the spending on keeping the house icebox cold was pointless, and every little bit saved helps.
- Reduce our energy usage and help the environment. We don’t participate in wind energy programs (yet) so presumably our energy comes largely from non-renewable sources. We have a fairly energy-efficient air conditioning unit, but it still requires a substantial amount of energy to run constantly.
- Keep fresh air in the house. This is sometimes debatable, since the river can get funky, and we do live close to New York which sometimes produces odd smells all its own. For the most part, though, outside air is constantly flowing through the house rather than being constantly recirculated through an air conditioning system. This makes us feel better, although I suspect it’s largely psychological. Since we have a high-end ionization filter on our central air pump (or whatever it’s called) the air is probably technically cleaner when the air conditioning is functioning than when the windows are open. I still seldom meet people who prefer the closeness of shut windows when there’s fresh air to be had.
- Reduce noise. The air conditioning is downstairs but it does whoosh out of the vents when it runs. We trade that rushing noise for outdoors noise – birds, street noises, children and other suburbia background buzz. It makes you feel more connected to your neighborhood.
- Make ourselves generally more comfortable outdoors. The transition from indoors to outdoors or vice versa can be rough if you have massive temperature differences. Everyone knows how nice it feels to walk from the 90 degree street to the 70 degree room. This feeling lasts for a few minutes, then it feels uncomfortable as your sweat chills and your lungs struggle with dry, air-conditioned air. If the air humidity is slightly less and the temperature is slightly less indoors, the transition isn’t immediately as pleasant but in the long run it is much nicer. The reverse is true, because when we go out with Little Buddy there’s not the same sense of being blindsided by humidity or heat when you step outside. I find I enjoy sitting on the balcony much more even when it’s hot.
We did all of this by following a few simple steps:
- Buy a programmable thermostat. If you have more than one thermostat, get a programmable replacement for each. Our house has two, and we can keep the upstairs air-conditioned while keeping the downstairs windows open, which is convenient when Little Buddy goes to sleep and needs cooler air to relax.
- Put up light-blocking shades, backed by thin sheers. The sun can rapidly heat up your house, so having heavy drapes on southern and western exposures really helps deflect the worst of a hot day’s sun.
- Keep the temperatures reasonable. Don’t try to sit out an 89 degree day. Use your air conditioning, but keep it at 76, not 72, because you can “re-addict” yourself.
- Keep all of the windows open. This might seem obvious, but throw open windows everywhere, even in rooms you won’t be in. This keeps the air flowing throughout the floor or the house. If you keep windows closed in just one room, that one room will get stuffy and unpleasant, and tempt you to turn on the air conditioning to “pump it clean”.
- Take a shower before sleeping. If you take a cool, soap-less shower before sleeping it washes off sweat and cools your body down, making it easier to sleep. This is still my toughest time with the air conditioning, because I am used to sleeping in an arctic chill with heavy blankets. Taking a quick cool shower makes it easier for me to sleep in a warmer room.
- Keep the lights off. This goes for other appliances, too. Appliances use 40% of your household’s energy, so that generates a lot of heat. Some, like the refrigerator, have to stay on, but consider whether lights and TVs and whatnot need to stay on. Even CFLs generate some heat, although far less than incandescents.
- Don’t backslide. Don’t think one day, just for a break, you want to sit around in the 60s. If you want cold, go to a movie or a mall. But if you start pulling the temperature back down in your home, you may get lulled into inaction sitting around in a freezer!
Don’t forget if you have a toddler to ensure that all of the windows are proofed against falling out and that any balconies or patios are secure. We are lucky because our two balconies have railing that makes it impossible for a toddler to squeeze through, so Little Buddy is free to come and go on the balcony while we sit a few feet away in the living room.
This is one of those win-win changes you can make. You will feel better, save money and help the environment. The only possible downside is if you’re a sweaty person (like me) you may have to go through more than one shirt per day.