By Sidney Schuhmann Levesque, Contributing writer
That is, unless you get summer savvy! There are numerous ways you can beat the heat in West Texas and still be comfortable during the hottest months of the year.
Mark Sutphen, president of Batjer Heating & Cooling, said making sure your home is insulated properly can make a big difference in your utility bills. Attic insulation can provide a big bang for your buck.
Simple, inexpensive ways to make your home energy efficient include insulating walls, weather stripping around windows and doors and caulking. You can also unplug underutilized appliances, phone chargers that aren’t being used and other electronics.
Reduce the heat load
Lessening the burden on your air conditioning unit is important. In Abilene, most air conditioners can handle the heat load that comes along with 100 to 105 degree temperatures outside, Sutphen said.
But when the temperature starts inching past 105o, air conditioners can’t keep up, he said.
To help your A/C, try reducing the heat load inside your home.
Some of the ways you can do this is by limiting heat-causing activities during the hottest part of the day, which is around 4 to 5 p.m. This includes cooking, showering and using the clothes dryer. It’s best to do those activities in the morning or after the sun goes down, Sutphen suggested.
Try grilling outside rather than turning on the oven or stove.
“Don’t create anymore heat in the house than you have to,” Sutphen said.
Removing as much moisture as possible from the air during peak heat hours is also wise and will allow you to be more comfortable at a higher temperature and prevents the A/C from having to work harder to remove the moisture from the air. Running a dishwasher, for example, can contribute to the home’s humidity.
He also advised covering sun-drenched windows and turning off heat-producing electronics such as computers during peak temperature times.
“There’s a lot of electronics we leave on all the time that produce heat all the time,” Sutphen said.
Incandescent light bulbs suck up energy and produce heat. Instead, try compact fluorescent light bulbs or LED lights, which use one-tenth the amount of electricity as traditional light bulbs. Also, turn off lights when you are not in the room. Recessed, or canned, lights also produce heat, Sutphen said.
“Those are just a bunch of little heaters up there,” he added.
He suggested dimming or turning off canned lights, especially during peak heat hours. He also noted that it’s common for recessed lights to leak cold air from inside the house up into the attic.
Many people don’t realize that turning on an exhaust fan in the kitchen leads to cold air being sucked out of the house. That causes the air conditioner to have to work longer to replace it. Bathroom exhaust fans do the same thing.
Service your A/C
When it’s 100 degrees outside, the air conditioner will be working at full capacity.
Make sure you have the proper size air conditioner for the amount of square feet you need cooling. And make sure your unit is in good, working condition.
Sutphen advises having your air conditioner unit serviced annually. It’s important, for example, to clean the condenser coils. If the coils aren’t clean, they don’t transfer heat as well and it reduces the air conditioner’s capacity.
“A good spray with a water hose doesn’t hurt,” Sutphen said.
During an annual service check, a technician will inspect all the wires, the refrigerant level and measure the air conditioner’s output to make sure it’s working properly.
Changing the air conditioner filter is important as well. A dirty filter hurts efficiency, Sutphen said.
The rule of thumb is to change a one-inch filter every 30 days. A two-inch filter should be changed every 60 to 90 days, and a six-inch filter can last about a year.
Batjer Heating & Cooling, which serves a 90-mile radius around Abilene, sells a washable air filtration system called Trane CleanEffects that claims it can reduce dust in your house by up to 50 percent.
“It is an incredible filter,” said Sutphen, who uses it in his own house. “If you’re talking about indoor air quality, it makes a big difference.”
Program your thermostat – with your phone
Another great way to save energy in the summer is a programmable thermostat that allows you to turn down the air conditioning – or turn it off – at times when the home is unoccupied.
Sutphen recommends setting the thermostat at 85 degrees in the warm weather when the house is empty and 55 in the winter. And when it is occupied, set it where you feel comfortable and can tolerate the temperature. For example, Sutphen said that might be 72 to 74 degrees in the summer and 68 to 70 degrees in the winter.
“Me, personally, I’m comfortable at 76 degrees (in the summer),” he said. “It’s whatever people get accustomed to.”
Taylor Electric Cooperative, which serves Abilene and eight counties in the Big Country, offers customers a free programmable ecobee brand thermostat with a touchscreen that can be controlled remotely through their smart phone or iPad.
The flexibility it allows people is the key to saving on your electric bill, said James McKee, business development director at Taylor Electric. For example, if you have the thermostat programmed to start cooling down the house before you arrive home at 5:30 p.m., but your plans change, you can re-program the thermostat from your cell phone.
“We’ve had people program their thermostat from Saudi Arabia,” McKee said.
The thermostats can be controlled via a phone wirelessly with Wi-Fi. Feeling chilly in the morning? If your cell phone is on your nightstand, you can turn on the heater without getting out of bed. On vacation and want to check the temperature of your house? You can check that via your phone, too.
This kind of Wi-Fi thermostat also tracks how much energy you consume and alerts homeowners when problems arise, such as an air filter that needs changing. Some customers who have viewed their thermostat reports found out their air conditioner was running all the time and needed to be repaired.
The ability to control your thermostat from anywhere has a lot of cost-saving benefits, McKee said. Typically, the air conditioner and water heater can represent 60 to 70 percent of your electric bill, he said.
Other ways to save money include turning on the ceiling fan, opening windows on cool days and delaying turning on the air conditioner in the spring as long as possible.
And when you finally do turn on the air conditioner, test out different temperatures to see how high you can keep it and still feel comfortable, said Ryan Holmes, marketing director at Taylor Electric, which has nearly 12,000 members. Even lowering it a few degrees can save big dollars, he said.
Block the sun
Covering sun-drenched windows can block the solar rays that not only warm your home, but fade and heat furnishings as well. Some window coverings provide better insulation than others.
Mike Breckenridge, who owns Budget Blinds of Abilene with his wife, Julie, said the first thing he asks customers is what they want window coverings for–blocking light, privacy or decoration? Some people struggle with a southwest window, for example, that heats the room so badly they can’t stand to be in there.
There are several solutions for this kind of problem, Breckenridge said.
One solution is a solar screen placed over the window that can block 80 percent of the sun’s rays. Allen Huskin, Clearlight Windows & Doors owner, said solar screens are a fiber material that come in several colors and can add privacy. Most importantly, they can help you lower your thermostat.
“We call it an instant shade tree,” Huskin said.
Clearlight Windows & Doors applied solar screens to the many windows at Hendrick Medical Center several years ago, and they are still in place today.
Another solution for a sun-drenched window is applying film. A window tint is applied to the interior of the window that can block ultraviolet solar rays that can protect floors and furniture from fading, Breckenridge said.
Budget Blinds of Abilene applied this kind of window tint to southwest-facing windows in the backroom of a home on Sayles Drive. It’s made a world of difference in the room’s temperature, Breckenridge said. The homeowners liked the result so much they are having window film added to the east side of their home as well.
Window film has different sun protection levels, just like sunscreen lotion, and varies from 15 to 90 SPF. The higher the SPF level, the darker the window tinting and the more mirrored it can look, so that’s something to consider when choosing the right film, Breckenridge said.
Window tinting is labor intensive, but long-lasting if applied correctly, he said.
Another good sun blocker that also gussies up a room are plantation shutters. Breckenridge said they are the best interior treatment for protecting windows. When closed, they block the sun’s heat and trap it between the shutter and the window.
The best product for blacking out a room, such as a media room, and eliminating light as much as possible are honeycomb, or cellular shades, Breckenridge said. They serve another purpose as well.
“They are really good for insulating,” Breckenridge said.
He has installed a mesh fabric window covering in many businesses, including restaurants and salons, and on residential windows that face the backyard that blocks heat well.
“The cool thing about those is you can still keep your view,” said Breckenridge, who handles the blinds, shutters and shades part of their Budget Blinds business, while his wife handles drapery orders. Their Abilene-based franchise serves the Big Country.
The latest in window efficiency
If your home has single-pane windows, you might consider investing in all new windows, especially if you plan to stay at least five years.
The least energy efficient windows out there are single-pane windows with an aluminum frame, many of which were made in the 1960s and 1970s, said Huskin, whose parents started Clearlight Windows & Doors in 1974.
The highest efficiency window his company makes has three sheets of glass separated with air cavities that are injected with colorless Krypton that adds insulation and slows down heat transfer. Then the windows are triple coated with Low-E, a metallic coating you can see through that blocks solar heat like sunscreen lotion.
Clearlight windows also have a vinyl, foam-filled frame made out of virgin vinyl (not recycled material) with UV inhibitors that keep the vinyl from cracking and getting brittle in the sun, which can lead to energy loss.
Even historic buildings can still retain their charm with new energy efficient windows, Huskin said. His company just installed new windows in the Anson Opera House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Clearlight was able to emulate the wooden muntins on the original windows using authentic-looking contoured vinyl molding. That product even comes in a wood veneer, Huskin said.
It’s another example of how you can be energy efficient and look good, too.