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Wendy Gordon Headshot

Low Cost Cooling

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I was visiting a friend from college this weekend, and as her husband had warned, I was woken early Saturday by the noise of the workman completing the installation of the geothermal heating and cooling system for the house.

It was a welcome wake-up to tell you the truth. Blistering heat is blanketing much of the eastern United States, the kind that kills people who can't get relief. Though I'm no fan of air conditioning, it has become essential equipment in most U.S. homes -- 87 percent of households now have it, up 20 percent since 1993 years ago.

But climate control comes at a cost. The average household spends more than $2,200 a year on energy bills, with nearly half of this going to heating and cooling. Saving money was one of the main reasons my friends installed a geothermal system. They say it should "cut their household heating and cooling costs by 70 percent."

What struck me first was how quiet the system was compared to the average home AC, and the cool was more natural, more comfortable to the skin. But what truly sets geothermal apart is how much more energy efficient it is than electric heating and cooling. These systems can move as much as three to five times the energy they use in the process, which is why users can save hundreds of dollars in energy costs each year. And because geothermal systems are transferring heat, not creating it by burning something, they do not emit carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or other greenhouse gasses which contribute to air pollution. In contrast, the average home with an AC and no geothermal is emitting roughly 2 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

More than 600,000 geothermal systems supply climate control in U.S. homes and other buildings, with new installations occurring at a rate of about 60,000 per year. Though a mere fraction of the market, recent policy developments are offering strong incentives for homeowners to install more. The 2008 economic stimulus bill, Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, includes an eight year extension (through 2016) of the 30 percent investment tax credit, with no upper limit, to all home installations of EnergyStar certified geothermal heat pumps.  

Though the tax credit may cut the upfront costs in half, installing geothermal in your yard takes time and planning, and depending on where you live, may not even be possible. Actually, once planned, installing a geothermal system should take no more than a couple weeks, but that said, you are probably wondering whether there are any low cost cooling ideas that you can use at your house right now, to battle this week's heat. And yes, there are. The secret lies in reducing the need for the AC by keeping light and heat to a minimum, creating breezeways in your house and being sure your equipment is the most energy efficient. Here are some specific suggestions to get you through the hottest days ahead:

Shade the house: Awnings, shutters and overhangs will provide a good defense against the summer sun, but you may also use trees and tall bushes to beautify your view and reduce the sunlight entering your windows.

Close the blinds: Shutting curtains, shades or blinds on the sunny side of the house can make a big difference particularly blinder venetian shades with highly reflective light colors can reduce heat build up in your home.

Let in cool airWhen it's not too hot out, pull in cool air by cracking open lower story windows just one or two inches and place portable and window mounted fans and upstairs windows facing outward to remove the air that rises due to convection your home. This will create a stronger draft throughout the house that will keep the air cool without the use of AC. If the outside temperature is more than 77 degrees Fahrenheit, it's better to shut all the windows and pull the shades.

Tell your AC what to do: A programmable thermostat lets you save money by not cooling your house when you're not around to enjoy it. Set the temperature at 80 degrees Fahrenheit when you know you'll be away, and when you are home set it at least 2 degrees higher than you would normally. A shift from 72 degrees Fahrenheit to 74 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer will leave the room just as comfortable but means real savings on your annual energy bill.

Upgrade your AC: Whether central air or window-mounted AC, if your cooling system is several years old you can most likely save on your energy bill by upgrading to new, more efficient models. The most efficient models use inverter technology which also makes them very quiet. Thirty percent tax credits are available for units 16 SEER and better. Depending on the age of your current unit, Energy Star-rated air conditioning could save you 10 percent to 30 percent of your cooling costs. Remember to clean or check the AC filter once a month as any buildup will restrict airflow and make it less efficient.

Install ceiling fans: Fans use 10 percent of the energy consumed by AC and can make a room feel 10 degrees cooler. Replacing your AC with a ceiling fan could save you a couple hundred dollars or more a year.

Give your appliances a break: Remember it's summer. Dry your clothes on a clothes line. Grill outside, and dine by candle light. And turn off your computers and entertainment equipment at night.

Finally remember to take care of yourself on hot days. Drink lots of water. As you perspire, you lose water to dehydration and your body temperature rises. So replacing fluids is essential to keeping cool. Doctors recommend drinking at least two liters of water a day, a third on hot days. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, as they are packed with water, and avoid sugary drinks which are dehydrating. And to learn more about geothermal systems, click here.

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