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How to stay cool (and save) this summer

Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 11:54 a.m. CDT

By Bob Vila

If the heat of summer has already gotten the better of you, there are a number of ways you can keep your cool. Many cost little or nothing and rely only on a change in habits. Others are a bit more technical and require an investment, but will pay dividends for many summers to come. Here are some beat-the-heat suggestions for keeping cool at home during these dog days of summer.

No. 1: Seek shade

Trees, umbrellas, awnings and arbors covered with vines or outdoor fabric all create shade. So does a big straw hat.

No. 2: Cook outdoors

Turning on the oven to broil burgers or boil water for pasta generates heat and moisture. Cook outdoors if you can; if not, opt for lighter meals that don’t need a lot of cooking time.

No. 3: Move the air

Catch a breeze where you can, and use fans when you can’t. If you live in a place where the nights are cool, use window fans and whole-house fans to bring in the cool air. Don’t own a fan? Open the windows on the upper and lower floors to create what’s called the “stack effect” — as warm air exits the upper level, it will draw in cooler air at the ground level. Turn fans off and close the windows when the sun comes up.

If you live in a place where the nights are warm and muggy, use ceiling fans and floor or table fans to move air across your skin. Keep in mind that indoor fans make you more comfortable, but only when you’re in the room to feel the breeze they create. To save electricity, turn them off when you leave.

No. 4: Seal the leaks

If your air-conditioning system’s ductwork has not been checked for leaks or undergone leak-sealing improvements, complete this work as soon as possible. Leaks can diminish system performance in both cooling and heating modes by as much as 40 percent. Another way to improve system efficiency is to have ducts insulated if they are located in unconditioned areas like crawl spaces or attics.

Ducts are not the only things that need sealing. The average house is like a sieve: Air leaks in and out from dozens of places. It’s important to air-seal your home to keep cool air in and to prevent warm, humid air from entering and condensing on cool surfaces. Begin in the attic, using caulk or foam sealant to fill gaps around recessed lights, bath vents, ducts and other wall and ceiling openings. Then add insulation. It, too, will help prevent attic heat from moving to the living space below.

Move on to the basement or crawl space. Make sure windows and vents are shut during hot, humid weather. Seal around hatchways and bulkhead doors, and also look for small gaps around perimeter joists (the framing atop the foundation walls). By sealing under your home, you’ll slow that stack effect and retain cool air in your home longer.

No. 5: Bring on evaporation

Whether it’s water or refrigerant, evaporation consumes energy and can be used to cool the air. Kids who spend the day running through a sprinkler know this. So do desert dwellers who wear cotton — cotton wicks moisture from your body, speeding evaporation and making you feel cooler.

Evaporative coolers have reappeared in big-box stores and online this summer. They are simple machines that blow air through wetted pads. As the water evaporates, it cools the air. These units do not cool to the same degree as an air conditioner, but they can lower the temperature 5 degrees or more, depending upon the relative humidity and temperature. Evaporative coolers perform best in dry climates, but some homeowners who live in humid regions use them to stay cool outdoors on patios, decks and screened porches. Evaporative coolers must be filled with water and cleaned regularly.

No. 6: Reevaluate your AC

Make sure your air conditioners are properly sized for the spaces you’re cooling. An oversized window unit, for example, will cool the room quickly and turn off without performing its dehumidification duties. If it doesn’t run long enough to lower the humidity, you’re going to feel clammy and uncomfortable, even when the temperature is relatively low. A room that’s 80 degrees with 20-percent relative humidity feels like 78.6, while 80 degrees with 90-percent relative humidity feels like an oppressive 85.6. Refer to this Energy Star chart to find the right size air conditioner for you.

For the same reason, it’s just as important to avoid an oversized, central air-conditioning system, not to mention the fact that you pay more for higher-capacity equipment. As you update or renovate your house, reevaluate your air-conditioning system. If, for example, you add insulation and air-seal your home, your existing system, once correctly sized, may now be oversized. Contact your HVAC service provider to calculate your home’s current load (demand during the hottest days of the year). If it isn’t a match with your equipment and the unit is an older model, consider one of today’s high-efficiency units. They are much more efficient, making the payback relatively short.

No. 7: Prioritize maintenance

Check filters and either clean them or replace them, depending on the AC equipment you’re running. If you own a pet that sheds, check filters frequently. Outside, prune vegetation growing around your outdoor compressor. Other tasks, such as clearing condensate tubing and cleaning coils, should be handled by a trained-and-certified HVAC technician on an annual basis.

Related:

Bob Vila is the home improvement expert widely known as host of TV’s This Old House, Bob Vila’s Home Again, and Bob Vila. Today, Bob continues his mission to help people upgrade their homes and improve their lives with advice online at BobVila.com. His video-rich site offers a full range of fresh, authoritative content – practical tips, inspirational ideas, and more than 1,000 videos from Bob Vila television.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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