Outdoor curtains, trees, fans help reduce a/c use

As you may have noticed when you opened your utility bill, air conditioners cost you a lot of money. They also use a lot of energy, which could add to global warming — an irony because the cooler your home gets, the hotter the planet may get, requiring you to cool your home even more.

There are smart, simple ways you can, to quote Cathy Cartmill, conservation adviser with the City of Ashland, "keep the sun out of your house" in summer.

First, use external shades, such as hanging bamboo (or plastic) curtains on little hooks from your eaves. You can buy these very cheaply at local home improvement stores and hang them in a jiffy.

If you use internal shades ... hey, the sun's already gotten in your house and you've lost a significant skirmish with the ball o' fire that keeps us sweating for several months.

Another easy strategy is to get an indoor-outdoor thermometer. When it gets hotter outdoors than indoors, close the windows and doors. The sun-heated air won't come in and you can stay cool for a few more hours.

With doors and windows closed it might get stuffy — or you may get heat buildup in the late afternoon — so, instead of flipping on the a/c, just flip on the furnace fan, which moves air around the house efficiently, exhausts hot air and costs as little as $5 a month, Cartmill says.

Energy experts recommend that you not use a/c until the temperature hits 78 degrees and beyond.

After all, we evolved being able handle heat in just about any range and it can be an interesting experience in adaptation.

Another often-overlooked cooling strategy is tree shade. When you landscape, it's good to make things pretty, but also make them useful, putting leafy trees on the south side (and maybe east and west to block morning and late afternoon sun). In the winter, the trees shed their leaves and you get that small amount of heating from the winter sun.

Although it may seem tacky in our push-button, digital age, putting a fan on the coffee table really works, especially if you put a bowl of water in front of it that gradually evaporates. Evaporation cools. Old-timers remember doing this before the days of a/c — and also putting wet washcloths on their heads.

To keep energy use down, make sure to keep up with maintenance on your air conditioner, especially cleaning or replacing filters and making sure intake ducts are well sealed. The U.S. Department of Energy says 10 to 30 percent of conditioned air in the average A/C unit escapes from ducts — "an enormous waste of energy."

Newer A/C units are more efficient than old ones, so if it's a choice between an expensive repair and a new purchase, you might want to give weight to a new one. The Energy Department says it will pay back your purchase cost many times over in saved energy.

Oh, one more thing. Drink plenty of lemonade. It not only lowers your body temperature, but also the psychological feeling of heat. It also costs about a quarter, not including ice cubes.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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