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Much to the chagrin of my pregnant wife, I held off on turning on the air conditioner until last night. In the evening it was getting cool enough to open the windows and let Mother Nature cool our house. In the morning, I would close the windows and blinds before I left for work to bank the cold air from the evening. Unfortunately, due the rain we anticipated overnight, I was unable to open the windows. As the humidity grew and the temperature inched upward, it became apparent that no amount of fans would keep my wife and daughter happy (and rightfully so since it was 85 degrees upstairs).

In past years, we likely would have had our AC running at full blast by mid-May, but rising electric rates and shrinking budgets caused me to get a bit more creative this year. If you don’t mind being a little uncomfortable, you can get away with a lot of savings.

1. Open Your Windows

When the outside air is cooler than the inside, it’s foolish to keep using electricity for something nature can do for you instead. We have two separate indoor/outdoor thermometer setups (one for each floor of our house) so we know exactly when we reach that tipping point. When the temperature outside is starting to drop and has sunk at least one degree less than the inside temperature, we turn off the air conditioner and throw open the windows.

Nothing is more satisfying than getting a breeze of fresh air after having your home closed up all day.

2. Turn On the Ceiling Fans

While a ceiling fan won’t make your room cooler, it will definitely make it feel cooler by speeding sweat evaporation and they cost far less to run than your air conditioner. If you don’t have ceiling fans already, they’re not very hard to install – I’ve added or rehung five in our house so far.

Once your fans are in, make sure the fan is set to spin in the correct direction: You want the air blowing down in summer and up in winter. If you’re not sure which way the air is moving, look at the blades as they spin: If the leading edge is higher than the trailing, it is pushing the air down. Honestly, we never turn our ceiling fans off whether we have the windows open or the air conditioner on. It’s nice to have air blowing over you and making you feel cooler.

3. Put In an Attic Fan

We’re having a contractor friend come over soon and give us an estimate for installing an attic fan and a timer. When I was growing up, I loved it when we turned on the attic fan; the cool outside air rushing in the windows and the hum of the fan made sleeping very comfortable.

An attic van gives you the combined benefits of moving air (like a ceiling fan) and pulling in the cooler air from outside. Of course, a prerequisite for running this is opening your windows, so the best thing is wait until after dusk to open your windows and then set the timer to run at least until after you’re deep asleep. It’s an investment that can easily pay for itself in a couple of years.

4. Shut the Blinds

On hot summer days, the sun is your worst enemy. The last thing you want to do is have your air conditioner running full blast to offset the increase heat from the sunlight pouring in your windows. By closing the blinds, you’ll still let in enough light to see by, but you’ll reflect back the rest.

5. Run Your Furnace Fan

Many thermostats will allow you to tell the fan to run without initiating the furnace or air conditioner. By turning on your furnace fan, you cause the air to be circulated throughout the house, balancing out any cold or hot spots so that you whole house feels more comfortable. An added benefit is that it will trap any potential allergens that have been introduced by opening your windows – just make sure to regularly check the furnace filter and replace it when it’s dark enough to block light passing through.

6. Install a Programmable Thermostat

It doesn’t make much sense to cool your home while you’re gone, but it’s hard to remember to tweak your thermostat every day before you leave for work. Program your thermostat to go up by five degrees about 30 minutes or so before you leave and have it come back to your “normal” temperature a half-hour before you return. For added savings, program it to also raise the termostat by two or three degrees through the night – you’re unlikely to notice the change in your sleep.

7. Turn Up The Thermostat A Degree Or Two

It’s recommended that you set your thermostat at 78 degrees during the summer if you have central air conditioning. It’s a pleasant temperature, but isn’t necessarily the cheapest setting. If you can handle it, raise your thermostat by one or two degrees and realize a savings of about six to seven percent for each degree above 78.

8. Close Unused Vents

I don’t know about your house or apartment, but there are some infrequently-used rooms in our house. If you’re not going to be in a particular room very much or very often, consider closing the vent in that room so you’re not cooling dead space. That will cause more air to come out of the other open vents, potentially allowing you to add some cooling to a room that wasn’t getting it otherwise.

Note: I wouldn’t recommend completely shutting the vents in a basement since the air conditioner helps remove humidity and you don’t want to end up with a soggy basement.

9. Turn Off the Lights

This isn’t really a suggested limited to summer, but it’s most appropriate now that it’s heating up. If you don’t need a light on, turn it off! All light bulbs generate heat as a byproduct of producing light (even though compact fluorescents run cooler than incandescent) and why would you want to add heat to the summer mix?

What light is filtering in through your closed blinds should be sufficient to get you around the house during the day. When night falls, turn on only the lights you need only when you need them. Not only will you save electricity, but you’ll also do your air conditioner a favor.

10. Hold Off On Cooking

I love chicken salad. In the summer, there is no meal I like more – it can be eaten chilled, you don’t have to cook anything, and it’s quick to prepare. Any time you turn on that stove while your air conditioner is running, you’re taking money out of your own pockets.

During the summer, do what you can to avoid turning on the stove and, if you must turn it on, turn it on in the late evening and (preferably) after you’ve opened the windows for the night.

11. Leave Laundry Until Nighttime

Like a huge, spinning oven, your clothes dryer puts out a decent amount of heat. Much of that heat will be vented outside, but some will still leak into your house. The later you wait to turn it on, the better chance you have of not working against your air conditioner as much. If you live somewhere that has time-based metering of electricity, try to wait until the lower evening rate kicks in.

Of course, nothing beats line-drying in terms of electricity usage, but if your subdivision is like mine and bans outdoor clothes lines, running your dryer at night is the next best option.

12. Use Your Lowest Level

When I go down to the basement to grab something out of our storage, I’m quick to notice that it’s at least 10 degrees cooler down there than our first floor. And, likewise, when I go upstairs to put away laundry in the bedroom closet, I can see that it’s five degrees warmer up there. I would love to spend most of our time in the basement, but we haven’t yet scraped together the funds to finish it as a living space, so we’re stuck on our main level. If you have a basement, don’t hesitate to take advantage of its stable temperatures all year – I know we will be once we finish ours.

13. Unplug/Switch Off Unused Electronics

Not only are those wall warts eating electricity when they’re not in use, they’re also converting some of that power into heat. By unplugging everything you can and putting the rest on switchable surge protectors, you can potentially save yourself a lot of money and unnecessary heat.

Bonus: Turn Off the TV

I don’t know about you, but our TV can really heat up! It’s a seven year-old 27″ CRT and our entertainment center heats up whenever it’s on for more than a few hours. If you’re not really watching something and just have it on for background noise, you can save a lot of money and heat by switching on a radio instead. As an added bonus, switching off the TV allows you to do other things, like go outside and enjoy the cool evening air first-hand instead of using any variety of cooling devices to bring that air to you!

Stay cool and enjoy the summer for less!