Low-cost cooling tips when the heat is on

Late summer days mean fun in the sun – kids running through sprinklers, building sandcastles, and playing at the park. Unless it’s so hot, you’re mostly looking at the outdoors through the window of an air-conditioned house.

An eight-day stretch of 95-plus days, with DC’s infamous humidity, felt like being trapped in a sauna, and we’re not alone in feeling the heat. Much of the Northeast was roasting. Central and eastern Europe had heat waves. The Middle East has seen record-breaking temperatures as high as 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Globally, last month was the hottest July on record.

As we all crank up the air, how can we keep cool while keeping the energy bills down?

Here are five simple ways:

  1. Close window shades or drapes during the day to block out sunlight and keep the inside temperature cooler. Highly reflective interior blinds can reduce heat gain by about 45 percent, while drapes with white plastic backing can reduce heat gain by 33 percent.
  2. Manage that thermostat. Your cooling costs increase by up to 5 percent for every degree you lower the temperature. And don’t cool an empty house. According to the Department of Energy, you can save as much as 10 percent a year on cooling and heating bills by turning your thermostat 7 to 10 degrees from its normal setting while you’re at work.
  3. Avoid using items that generate heat. Common culprits are incandescent lightbulbs, which waste 90 percent of energy in the form of heat, the stove and oven, and the clothes dryer. Replace heat-intense bulbs with CFLs or LEDs, take advantage of summer fruits and vegetables for a no-cook meal, and hang your laundry to dry.
  4. Hang out in the lower levels of your home if possible. Heat rises, so the basement or first level may feel cooler. You may even want to sleep there on roasting hot nights.
  5. Turn on ceiling fans (counter-clockwise) and portable fans to circulate air when you are in the room. It doesn’t actually cool the room, but it makes you feel cooler by helping sweat evaporate faster. You can also cool off by putting a cold cloth on your wrists or neck or taking a cold shower. Remember to drink plenty of water on hot days. Organizations like the Red Cross provide checklists to help you prepare for the heat.

For future summers, consider planting shade trees, especially on the southwest side of the house, or building a trellis with climbing foliage. Take a closer look at your windows and doors to make sure cool air isn’t leaking out. And explore ways to increase attic ventilation and reflective insulation that blocks the transfer of heat from the roof and attic into your house.

Heat waves are expected to become more frequent and intense, so taking simple steps now can reduce cooling bills in the future.