Summer Comfort Without the Summer Expense: Keep Your Energy Bill Down & Help the Environment

Temperatures may be going up but there's no reason you can't keep your energy bill down this summer if you take advantage of a handful of ideas that will save you money - and keep you comfortable - in the warm-weather weeks and months ahead.

The average homeowner spends about $240 a year just on air conditioning, but you can cut that electric bill and still keep your cool. The Natural Resources Defense Council has compiled some tips from top energy experts (and a few good lifestyle hacks from real people, too) to help make sure you enjoy the summer without breaking the bank.

Let's start with the smallest and easiest things you can do to put a little change back in your pocket:

Don't feed the vampires!
Vampires are those plugged-in electronic devices and appliances - from the microwave oven to the miscellaneous protected outlets and hot water recirculation pumps - that continue to suck electricity even when you're not actively using them. NRDC's report "Home Idle Load: Devices Wasting Huge Amounts of Electricity When Not in Active Use," found the average annual cost of this wasted "idle" or "standby" power is $165 per U.S. household. Typical vampire devices include cable and satellite set-top boxes, game consoles in connected standby mode, computers when left on 24/7, the extra fridge in the garage that you only use a few days a year, and audio devices like amplifiers. For a home idle load self-diagnosis and action guide, go here. While you can take steps year-round, especially make sure to switch off and unplug all unnecessary devices when you leave for vacation.

50 shades of sunlight
Another easy idea: On cool mornings open those windows and let air circulate throughout the house. As soon as it warms up outside, close the windows, and draw the curtains to trap the cool air in and block direct sunlight out. The air conditioning won't need to run till later in the day, saving you money. This same trick works in the evenings for climates with cool summer nights.

Cold or comfortable

Air conditioning is a huge energy drain that can be stopped at the thermostat. When the temps outside are in the upper 80s and 90s, you can still feel comfortable even if you nudge the thermostat to 78. A good rule of thumb: if you have to wear a sweater to keep from being too cold, think about resetting the thermostat.

Programmable thermostats
Even better, invest in a programmable thermostat that can cut energy use by 20 percent to 30 percent. Programmable thermostats range in price from $25 to $250, and the more expensive ones include the ability to remotely adjust the settings via your smart phone. Consider setting the thermostat to 78 degrees when you're home, 80 or higher when you're away for part of the day. And if you are going away for the weekend or a longer vacation, set it to Off completely so that it doesn't cool the house and waste your dollars for nothing!

Is your central heater still drawing standby power all summer long?
If your heating system is not also providing air conditioning and you're not going to need the heater for several months, you might want to pay a visit to your furnace closet. Why? To make sure the furnace is completely off instead of continuing to draw 6 to 12 watts of power 24/7 in "standby mode." Unplug it or flip the switch to off position to power it off completely.

Free the flow
Once you have your thermostat set, let your AC do its work! As the name implies, "air conditioners" were meant to cool the air - so don't cover vents with furniture or let drapes hang down in front of them, blocking air from cooling the room. Also, take a look at the central air conditioner unit outside. Make sure it is free of debris or anything that would limit its access to the air around it. You'll also prolong the life of your device if you can shade it from direct sunlight.

Change your air filter

A clogged air filter makes your air conditioner (and furnace) work harder, resulting in wasted money on energy bills. If the filter is dirty or hasn't been changed in three or more months, replace it with a new one.

Be a fan of fans
Ceiling fans are a wonderful substitute for air conditioning when it's warm out but not overly hot or humid. Fans don't actually cool rooms, but make you feel cooler by moving air across your skin. That's why when you leave a room, you should turn off the fan first. (If you need to buy fans, be sure to look for ENERGY STAR® ratings. And while you're at it, look for rebate offers - it's money back in your pocket.) Also, many ceiling fans have a light kit with one to five light bulbs so make sure each socket has an energy-saving LED bulb inside. The LED bulb will use five times less energy than the old incandescent and due to its efficiency, it doesn't give off as much heat. Plus LED bulbs last 10 to 25 years, saving annoying bulb changes.

The original windows
The windows in your home can make an enormous difference in how much you pay for cooling (and heating, too). Make sure your windows fit tight and are well caulked. Leaky windows allow the cold air from your air conditioner to seep outside, making your AC work even harder and costing you money, (If you need new windows - and if you live in an older home-consider an ENERGY STAR-rated window made just for your area of the country. And again, ask about rebates.) Check out the information at: Energy OutThe Window?

Out with the old (AC) and in with the new
If your AC is more than 12 years old, replacing it with an ENERGY STAR-qualified model could cut your annual cooling costs by 30 percent. Replacing old window units with new efficient ones can save up to $90 in electric bills over the life of the units. (And check with your local utility to see if they offer rebates for the efficient models.)

Here are also a few non-electricity related tips to help keep cash in your pocket this summer and help the environment:

Don't waste water
If you live in an area without drought restrictions, water your lawn or garden in the morning or evening when evaporation is lowest. Install a drip irrigation system connected to a timer - you'll be able to better control the flow. If you live in an area with water shortages like California don't waste precious drinking water on your landscape. Take advantage of your water supplier's turf rebate program and replace your thirsty lawn with a beautiful, drought tolerant garden filled with native plants.

Consider a rain barrel
Rain barrels capture runoff from your roof and store it until you're ready (or need) to use it in the height of summer when rainy days are few. You would be surprise how much water you can collect from even a small storm and many water suppliers offer rebates for those as well. Also, consider putting a bucket in your shower to capture water for your lawn or garden.

Cover the pool
If your home has a pool, be sure to cover it when it's not being used. Heated pool water evaporates, meaning the water has to be replaced and more energy is needed to heat it.

Use a commercial car wash
Washing your car yourself can use 100 gallons of water, and the run-off goes untreated into the storm drain. Commercial car washes typically use less than 40 gallons of fresh water per wash and the discharge goes to the local treatment plant and not down the storm drain, which flows to the local bay or river.

Save on gas
Properly inflated tires can improve car mileage by up to 3 percent, cutting you gasoline bill by as much as $60 a year.