Running the A/C consumes more than 2,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year in the average air conditioned home [source: Energy Savers]. At a rate of 11 cents per kWh, that works out to an annual cost of more than $220. Your actual cost per kilowatt-hour may be higher or lower, and your energy consumption may be greater or smaller depending on the size and location of your house, but using the averages, let's assume that you could save $220 per year just by turning off the A/C. Is it worth it? If you live in the Deep South, chances are your response is a resounding, "Heck, no!" But if you multiply the energy used to cool your home by the millions of households cranking up their central air on the hottest day in August, you may be inspired to look for ways to cut back on cooling without turning off the A/C all together.
For most of us, extreme heat is merely a source of discomfort, but it can also be a very real danger, particularly for children and the elderly. Heat waves account for an average of 700 deaths each year in the United States, more than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. That number is expected to grow to as many as 5,000 per year over the next several decades as climate change brings a rise in average temperatures [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. So how can we protect ourselves from the heat without pumping more carbon emissions into the atmosphere and making the problem even worse?
Fortunately there are some remarkably simple steps you can take to reduce energy use and save money while still enjoying the benefits of A/C. The easiest change by far is to set the temperature on your thermostat just a few degrees higher. Energy Star recommends keeping the temperature at 78 degrees while you're at home and as high as 85 degrees when you're out for the day [source: Energy Star]. While your exact savings will vary based on the size of your home and the temperature outside, raising the temperature by just 2 degrees can save you about 14 percent in cooling costs over the course of the summer, even if you run a ceiling fan to offset the warmer temperature [source: Energy Star].
A programmable thermostat, which costs anywhere between $40 and $100, can save you an average of $180 every year in cooling and heating costs by automatically adjusting temperature settings during times when you're regularly out of the house, such as for work or school [source: Energy Star]. And if your air conditioning unit is more than 10 years old, replacing it with a more efficient Energy Star qualified model can save you as much as 20 to 40 percent on your cooling costs [source: Energy Savers].
If a new air conditioner is not in your current budget, be sure to maintain the system you have. Change the air filter every month during the summer, and be sure the outdoor unit is clear of weeds, shrubs and any other overgrowth or obstruction.
What if you're determined to cut out cooling costs or you don't have air conditioning at all? On the next page, we'll look at some ways to stay cool without A/C.