Expert Q&A

3 simple steps to having a frugally cool summer


You can do a lot yourself, cheaply, to reduce the hot air coming in and stop the cool air from going out

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Question for the expert

Dear New Frugal You,
My wife and I own a home built in the 1960s. It gets a lot of direct sunlight and very little shade. Last summer our electric bills were painful! Besides stuffing the attic full of insulation, what can I do? — Josh

Answer for the expert

Dear Josh,
You’ve got the right idea. Cooling your home in the summer can be very unfrugal, especially if your home wasn’t built in the past 20 years. So let’s put together a plan to help reduce your electric bills this summer.

There are three primary ways to reduce the cost of cooling:

  1. Reduce the amount of heat that enters your house from outside.
  2. Cut the amount of heat generated inside your house.
  3. Improve the efficiency of your air conditioning system.

Let’s begin with reducing the outside heat entering your home. As you say, your home gets lot of sunlight and has very little shade. That’s a problem. Experts say that the main source of heat buildup is sunlight being absorbed through the roof and walls of your home.

If you don’t have shade trees, you can’t grow them overnight. But if you plan on remaining in the house for a while consider planting some trees on the sunny side of your home. Ask for help in selecting the trees that will grow fastest and provide the most shade, without being water-hogs.

The next best thing to a big shade tree is to provide good insulation and patch spots where outside air can invade your living space. Begin by making sure you have sufficient insulation in all the outside walls and in your attic. A local home center can tell you what R value you need based on where you live.

Adding insulation is often a good do-it-yourself job, especially in areas where there’s no trouble accessing the area to be insulated. Both the tools and the work are fairly simple.

Even with proper insulation your attic will still get hot. You want to prevent that heat from entering the living space below. One way to do that is to make sure you have enough insulation between the attic floor and rooms below.

Another way is to keep the attic itself cooler is with an attic fan. The fan pulls hot air out and replaces it with cooler outside air. The result can be a dramatic drop in temperature inside the attic and cooler air in the living space below.

Next, search your living areas for places where outside air has access through walls, doors and windows. Older homes are particularly vulnerable. It’s not uncommon when all the little cracks are added up for it to be the same as having a window wide open all day!

How can you find all those cracks? Slowly walk around the outside walls of your home with a lit candle. The flame and smoke will alert you to any drafts. Fix them with one of the many weather-stripping and caulking products available.

Another thing to consider is the sunlight streaming through windows, especially southern and western windows. Stand near the window on a sunny day and you’ll feel the heat. Outside awnings are ideal. But window tint, inside drapes or sunshades can work well, too. Plus, they won’t cost much money.

You may be tempted to buy newer more energy efficient windows. That may be a good choice, but be sure to work through the financing before you make a decision. The payback period depends on many factors that are unique to each home.

Josh, once you’ve kept heat outside, it’s time to look at heat sources inside your home. The biggest causes are cooking and drying clothes. Try to move some of your cooking outdoors. It’s a great time to use your grill. Minimize oven use. Instead, use your microwave and slow cooker — anything to keep heat out of your kitchen.

Summer is also a great time to line dry clothes. It’s healthier for both you and your clothing to spend some time outdoors. And it’s frugal, too. You’ll save the cost of running your dryer plus the extra AC needed to remove the heat it generates.

The final step is to make sure that your AC system is working as efficiently as possible. Begin by looking at the outside portion of the system. Part of its job is to distribute the hot air it removed from your house.

Ideally, the system will be in shade and have adequate airflow to dissipate the heat. Are there bushes, fences or anything else that prevents airflow? Cut them back to five feet or so away from the compressor. Add shrubbery or fences to provide shade.

Have your system checked by a professional, not only to see that the compressor is running well, but that the ductwork and inside fan are working efficiently. Clean or replace dirty air conditioner filters monthly.

You’ll want to use fans and set your thermostat in the upper 70s. Air that’s moving feels 2 degrees colder. And, adjusting your thermostat from 72 to 78 will reduce your bill by 20 percent.

Finally, a little cool psychology. Our minds relate blues and greens to things that are cold. So it might be time to bring out those cool-color throw pillows and slip covers. There’s nothing wrong with tricking yourself into being comfortable.

Now is a great time to get started. You have a month or so to get the work accomplished and you’ll enjoy the benefits all summer long.

I hope that you have a frugally cool summer!

See related: Shopping for and saving on window tinting film, Tips for teachers with children facing a no-income summer

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