Staying Cool This Summer May Cost More Because of Covid

In April, when millions remained home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American household electricity bill rose 22% year-on-year. Now as the mercury creeps past 90 degrees and many folks continue to work from their air-conditioned homes, nearly three-quarters of Americans say that they’re concerned at the prospect of higher-than-usual energy costs.

That’s according to a new survey from Sense, a Massachusetts-based company that makes smart-energy monitors for homes. Yet, despite the combination of rising bills and an economic crunch, Sense says that many aren’t doing anything to combat those cost worries. 

Nor are they doing much to counter electricity usage’s cost to the environment. 

Indeed, according to the U.S. Energy Department (DoE), AC usage accounts for about 6% of all electricity produced in the U.S. and emits about 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, or roughly Nigeria’s entire carbon output in 2016. And these figures will only get worse: Climate change—along with rising prosperity in India and China—means that the amount of energy used on cooling is likely to increase exponentially in the future.

Still, keeping cool and green without blowing a bundle isn’t an oxymoron. In fact, many cost-conscious consumers have already turned to using electric fans—rather than ACs—to trim their bills. But not all fans are created equal. Ceiling fans, for instance, do a particularly good job at cooling larger rooms. They can also be used in conjunction with an air-conditioning unit set up to four degrees higher than normal without noticeable changes in room temperature.

Meanwhile, whole house fans, which draw cool air in through windows and subsequently remove it through the roof, are good substitutes for air conditioning in many North American climes, adds the DoE. But installing these fans is complicated and best left to a trained tradesperson.

If you own your property or plan on renting for the long term, also consider putting in rolling shutters and heat-reducing window films—a longtime favorite of office buildings in tropical climates—to reduce exposure to the sun. Installing such films starts at roughly $750 for smaller homes, though prices can rapidly increase.

If you haven’t bought an AC unit yet, look into purchasing one with Energy Star certification. These devices are often so energy efficient that the EPA says if every AC unit in America had one, greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by more than 6 billion pounds annually. Regular AC users will also find it’s worth setting up a smart thermostat or energy monitor to regulate their electricity usage.

“Most people can’t tell how much their appliances are contributing to their utility bill,” says Mike Phillips, cofounder and chief executive of Sense. “So when you are able to see it in real time, you can start making better decisions.”

While such technology has been around for some time, applicable units have only recently dipped below $200 each. Smart monitors and thermostats can also pay for themselves over time: a basic Sense kit, for instance, costs about $320 including installation fees; savings, however, can reach roughly $100 per year, according to a study of Vermont households using such devices. Although units installed after 2016 aren’t eligible for federal tax incentives, it’s worth checking  your local government or utility for potential rebates.

It’s also important to clean your AC unit’s filters and carry out other regular maintenance. “Maintenance can keep the entire system working at optimum efficiency, which can have a very big impact on your ongoing costs,” says Phillips. According to Rebecca Matulka, a former official at the Energy Department, swapping out a dirty filter for a cleaner one can reduce an air conditioner’s energy consumption by as much as 15%.

And finally, don’t forget to turn off always-on devices like sound bars and gaming sets, which emit heat and account for almost a quarter of the average utility bill, according to Sense data. “In the winter, this means you get some of it back to heat your home,” says Phillips. “But in the summer, you are paying twice. Once for your ‘always-on’ device as it creates heat and then again for your AC to remove the heat.”

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest