Some myths about staying cool, along with tips on saving money

Turn off fan when leaving a room

buy thermostats that can be programmed

Spending Smart

Your Money

July 24, 2005|By Gregory Karp

Many parts of the country have endured brutally hot weather in recent days, and more is likely on the way as August approaches. It's important to stay cool at home, but consumers are wasting a lot of money because of misconceptions about how to do it properly.

The money involved could be significant. The average U.S. household spends more than $200 a year on cooling, while hotter regions could be paying double that, according to the Alliance to Save Energy.

Here are some myths that may be costing you money:

Fans cool the house.

It's true that operating fans is cheaper than running air conditioning, but they do very different jobs.

Air conditioning cools the air, while fans just create a wind-chill effect that makes humans feel cooler than it actually is. For example, your furniture won't be any cooler with a fan.

"A lot of people seem to think it's actually dropping the temperature in the room; as a result they keep them running all the time," said Wendy Reed, an EnergyStar spokeswoman with the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Turn them off as you would a light when you leave a room."

Programmable thermostats are smart.

Some people think all they have to do is follow the good advice of installing a thermostat that can automatically adjust the cooling system and it will make the air conditioner operate more efficiently. But just installing the thermostat will save you nothing.

You have to program it to allow the temperature to rise when you're not home and start cooling again shortly before you arrive back.

Remember, the easiest way to save money on cooling is to cool the house less. A set-it-and-forget-it programmable thermostat, costing about $25 to $150, allows you to do that with fewer hassles.

"The programmable thermostat is not that expensive," Reed said. "Within a year, you'll get your investment back and more if you're using it properly."

Varying the temperature is wasteful.

Somewhere the notion began that keeping the air-conditioning cranked up all day and night during the summer costs less than varying the temperature.

"It's not true if you're talking about a significant temperature change of 5 to 8 degrees for a time that will last for more than a few hours," Reed said.

But raising the thermostat to 85 degrees if you're just running a quick errand might end up using more energy, she said.

Freezing temperatures quickly cool the house.

This is a tactic used by the same people who needlessly push the button several times while waiting at elevators and city crosswalks. It doesn't get you results any quicker. "It will take the same amount of time," Reed said. "In fact, you'll end up spending more." Instead, use the programmable thermostat to start the cooling before you arrive home, if you're on a regular schedule.

A bigger air conditioner is better.

If you get too big a unit, whether central air or a window air conditioner, you'll spend more money than you have to on the bigger unit and it will cycle on and off more frequently. That will use more energy, be louder and could cause humidity, Reed said.

"Basically, it will cost you more up front and in the long run," she said.

What to do? Make sure you're using a reputable heating-cooling contractor who uses a calculation tool to determine the best size unit for your home. "You can't just eye a house and know what size is right," Reed said.

For window air-conditioners, match the square feet to be cooled to the air-conditioner capacity in BTUs. EnergyStar has a rule-of-thumb chart that can be found using an Internet search engine and typing "EnergyStar properly sized."

Using fans and air conditioning together is a waste.

In fact, using both is a great way to save on cooling costs, if you do it correctly. Use fans only in rooms occupied by people and raise the thermostat 4 degrees. That way, you can use less air conditioning but feel the same coolness.

Changing air filters annually is enough.

You should change filters, or at least check them, every month. Clogged filters cost you because your air-conditioning system will work overly hard and will need repairs sooner.

You'll find a variety of air filters that claim all kinds of features, but your air conditioning system mostly needs to keep out dust and dirt to run efficiently. Using cheap filters changed monthly is all you likely need.

Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at

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