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Take the heat off your air conditioner; if the high cost of keeping cool makes you hot under the collar, try these tips for reducing summer electric bills.

TAKE THE HEAT OFF YOUR AIR CONDITIONER

A large Texas-based heating and air-conditioning contractor tells it like it is: "Most people use an air conditioner like they do an automobile," he says. "They don't worry about efficiency. They just pay the fuel bill and run the darned thing until it quits. Then they call the service-man."

Few of the 50 million U.S. owners of air conditioning understand how air conditioners work. Most of us set thermostats too low and forget to change filters. We stack lawn furniture on the outside condenser housings and let grass clippings clog the coils. Most important, we fail to have the systems checked professionally at least once a year. As a result, we waste millions of energy dollars every summer.

If a home is not constructed properly, a homeowner can do little to improve efficiency. But plenty can be done about maintenance: Take thermostats, for example. Few homeowners understand why the summer thermostat should never be set lower than 75 [deg.]F. Georgia Power's Bill Starrs, in fact, recommends moving thermostats to 78[deg.]--or as high as can be reasonably tolerated. The reason: Every degree below 75 raises air-conditioning operating costs an additional 5 percent. "When homeowners find out it costs 25 percent more to keep their house temperature at 70 degrees--they move those thermostats up to 75 in a hurry!" says N.B. Estes, the head of an AC service-and-installation firm in Atlanta.

An air-conditioning system can lose efficiency from any number of mechanical or electrical causes. If a leak occurs, some refrigerant may be lost; low refrigerant levels mean low cooling efficiency. If a fan motor or belt becomes worn or damaged, too little air will be moved over one or both sets of coils. In either case, efficiency will be greatly reduced--and the system may even be damaged. And if the contacts in the thermostat switch become dirty or worn, the system may be needlessly overworked--another loss of efficiency.

To avoid these complicated problems, have your home air-conditioning system inspected annually by a reliable service contractor. If it's been years you've taken action, don't delay any longer. The price of a service contract is based both on the size of your equipment and on whether you contract for labor only or for labor and parts. If a contractor recommends correcting bad design or cheap installation, check the proposal with another firm--but don't give the second contractor any more information than the first. And consult with your local utility. It has representatives who work specifically with homeowners to plan new systems or to update existing ones.

By making some very modest alterations, homeowners themselves can do a number of things that can actually improve the efficiency of a room or a central unit. The following are the most important:

change the filter--Air flow is critical to your system's efficiency. Cold air is heavy and hard to move; a clogged filter makes it all the harder and puts further strain on the fan motor. Permanent filters should be cleaned every 30 days, as in the manufacturer's instructions; disposable filters should be replaced on the same cycle.

Seal the ducts--Forced air in a central-duct system is under pressure; it will escape wherever the duct joints are poorly connected. Duct tape is available at most hardware and home-improvement stores. Sealing the ducts is as simple as pulling the tape off the roll and sticking it around the joints. After sealing, the ducts can also be wrapped with special insulation. This is most helpful if the ductwork travels through a very warm or humid area, such as an open crawl space.

Insulate the attic--Adding a layer of insulation to your attic can cut your cooling bill in half. The average savings, utility experts say, is about 20 percent, or $100 for every $500 of summer cooling costs. Home-improvement retailers sell the insulation, and most of them will be happy to instruct you in its proper use.

Vent the attic--You know what can happen to a car parked in the sun with the windows rolled tight: Temperatures build to the point that expanding air may burst the windows. Imagine an attic without ventilation: Heat is transmitted through the ceilings to the rooms below, and your air conditioner must work that much harder. Ridge and soffit vents allow air to circulate through a hot summer attic. Shade exposed units and areas--Your air conditioner gets rid of its heat through the condensing unit mounted outside your home, so it makes sense to place the condenser in a shady spot. This rule applies to the placement of room air conditioners as well. Always mount room-AC units on the shady side of the house, or otherwise shade them from the direct sun. For that matter, when selecting roof shingles or house paint, remember that light colors reflect sunlight and thus heat. Finally, use awnings, drapes, or shades on windows that receive direct sunlight, to reduce that gain inside the house.

Remove the moisture--The exhaust fan over your kitchen-range top can do more than remove cooking odors. In the summer, it can take away the heat and the moisture as well, which will save your air conditioner that much more work. A bathroom exhaust fan should be used whenever bathing or showering. These fans, like roof vents, are easily installed. They more than pay for themselves in the savings from reduced energy consumption.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hayes, Jack
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1986
Words:902
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