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How to lower air-conditioning costs without sacrificing comfort

Baby, it's hot outside. And it's not even summer. Before your central air-conditioning system kicks in, make the most of technology and commonsense smarts. From programmable thermostats to shady oaks, it's all good. The best systems manufactured today save 20 to 40 percent more on cooling energy costs than those made just a decade ago, the Energy Department reports. But even if you're not in the market, you can still cut costs and maximize the cool.

Mimi Andelman, Times HomeLink editor

HOW COLD IS IT?

Like your home a crisp 72 degrees? You're paying for it. Keeping the thermostat at 78 degrees is optimal, said Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy Florida.

"For every degree cooler, you're adding 10 percent to the cost of cooling your home," she said. That's not the entire electric bill, but heating and cooling represent the biggest cost to the vast majority of customers.

CHECK IT OUT

Progress Energy Florida offers a free Home Energy Check. After identifying areas for improved energy-efficiency, the company offers referrals to a list of approved vendors. Rebates are offered for a number of improvement costs, from higher-quality attic insulation to energy-efficient windows and more. Checks can be done online, by phone or, for a more comprehensive check, at an in-home visit. Go to www.progress-energy.com or call toll-free 1-877-574-0340 to set up an in-home visit.

• • •

Tampa Electric Co. offers its free Energy Audit, also identifying ways to save energy and reduce annual energy costs. Audits online, by phone or in-home. Go to www.tampaelectric.com or call toll-free 1-888-223-0800 to set up an in-home visit.

SHOPPING? READ THE LABELS

Energy-efficient air-conditioning is measured by federal standards intended to protect the environment and educate the consumer. All systems must meet minimum ratings, measured in numbers, but beyond a certain number they qualify for an Energy Star. The higher the better for efficiency — and overall savings. But the highest number may not necessarily be the best choice for your home, as there are certain factors, from square footage to house type, that affect cooling needs. Ask a qualified salesman to explain what's best for you.

ENERGY STAR: All air conditioners and other appliances that meet energy-efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and Energy Department get the Energy Star. In 2010, our use of such energy-efficient appliances prevented greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to those from 33 million cars, and also saved nearly $18 billion on utility bills, the government reports.

SEER: The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio measures the efficiency of a central air conditioner. The SEER number ultimately measures how efficiently a cooling system will operate for an entire season. To be considered high-efficiency and receive the Energy Star, the SEER rating needs to be a minimum of 14.5 for the typical split system (compressor outside, air handler inside).

EER: The Energy Efficiency Ratio measures how efficiently a room air conditioner will operate when the outdoor temperature is at a set figure, 95 degrees. To be considered high-efficiency and receive the Energy Star, the EER rating needs to be a minimum of 12.

THE TO-DO LIST

 Install ceiling fans in bedrooms for a cool night's sleep.

 When you're not home, shut the blinds.

 You help nature, nature helps you. Plant shade trees.

 For south-facing family rooms, install awnings.

OH, THE HUMIDITY

A dehumidifier may boost and complement your central system so that you can turn up your thermostat. How will you know? It's how you'll feel. Models, some portable, typically remove 25 pints of water and up per day, collecting into a reservoir you empty or drain through a hose. Frigidaire 25-Pint Dehumidifier, Model FAD251NTD, around $160, big-box stores.

SET IT AND FORGET IT

A programmable thermostat is inexpensive and easy for a home-owner to install. Options may include separate weekday and weekend settings or multiple settings for each day, and be operable by iPhone or Internet, or even from the couch.

For best savings, set temperatures to maximum setpoints for long periods of time, at least eight hours — while you're at work, and overnight.

A typical single-family home may save $180 a year by nudging the thermostat up 7 degrees in the daytime and 4 degrees at night (as well as setting it down 8 degrees in winter, daytime and nighttime). Priced from $30 to $200, depending on features.

When buying, make sure it's compatible with your model. Honeywell 7-Day Programmable Thermostat, back-lit, touchscreen, Model RTH7600D, about $100, home improvement stores.

$300 IN YOUR POCKET

If you purchase an approved air-conditioning system this year, you'll receive a possible maximum $300 tax credit depending on the cost of your system. Prior to 2011, the credit was as much as $1,500, but the $858 billion federal tax bill signed into law in December cut tax credits for energy-efficient improvement.

Sources: Department of Energy; www.energystar.gov; Alliance to Save Energy (ase.org); James Dulley

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

• SEER ratings need to be 14.5 or higher to be considered a high-efficiency appliance; the EER rating needs to be 12 or higher.

• The maximum tax credit possible for 2011 is $300.

How to lower air-conditioning costs without sacrificing comfort 05/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 5:49pm]

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