Along with rising gasoline prices, Americans are going to have to deal this summer with higher costs for cooling their homes.
The U.S. government's Energy Information Administration recently estimated that electricity prices will run about 5 percent higher this year than last, while natural gas prices are expected to increase some 7 percent.
The average homeowner will spend about $2,170 for energy this year, about half of it for heating and cooling, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.
There are many steps families can take to hold down cooling costs that don't require big investments, such as installing ceiling fans. Other projects may need some long-term planning and budgeting, such as the replacement of a central air conditioning unit. But steps small and large can pay off in energy savings, experts say.
"There's little question but that we're probably in for a period of high — and rising — fuel prices," said Jennifer Amann, a senior associate at the council and co-author of its "Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings." "So every investment you make in efficiency is also a hedge against the uncertainty in energy prices."
One way families can learn about improving the energy efficiency of their homes is to visit the new interactive Web site created by the government-backed Energy Star program, which rates products based on energy efficiency guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Denise A. Durrett, spokeswoman for the Energy Star program, said the site at www.energystar.gov aims "to get people thinking and talking about energy-efficient products, energy-efficient services and ways to save energy in the home."
The site features a two-story home with a full basement and attic. Click on stars scattered around the house and various cooling tips will pop up.
If you click on the star on the ceiling fan in the living room, for example, you'll be told: "In summer, run the blades counterclockwise (downward) to cool more efficiently. On hotter days, dialing up the thermostat by only 2 degrees and using your ceiling fan can lower air conditioning costs by up to 14 percent over the course of the cooling season."
Click on the air conditioner in the bedroom and learn that units with Energy Star certification "use at least 10 percent less energy than standard models."
For many families, energy efficiency is a year-round issue.
Samantha Pearson of Lewisburg, Pa., said that she and her husband, Stephen Buonopane, have tried to adopt what she calls "a fairly energy-efficient lifestyle."
Pearson, an architect currently staying home with the couple's two children, said the family recently purchased a new Toyota Prius, which combines a gas engine with an electric motor to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.
The couple has renovated an old brick home "and didn't even consider central air," relying instead on good ventilation and shade from neighborhood trees for cooling.
Pearson, who participates in the Center for a New American Dream, a citizens group based in Takoma Park, Md., that encourages environmentally sound consumption, said she believed more and more families were aiming to be more energy-efficient not only because of rising costs but also because of changing attitudes.
"People are starting to look for alternatives they can adopt, such as solar hot water," she said. "And they're looking for clean energy sources, like using wind energy or investing in wind generation."
Amann of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says consumers can take a number of small steps to cut fuel consumption this summer:
- Clean or replace filters on air conditioners
- Turn down the temperature setting on your water heater to 120 degrees
- Use the energy-saving settings on refrigerators, dishwashers, and clothes washers and dryers
- Install a programmable thermostat so energy isn't wasted when you're not home
- Use cold water rather than hot to wash clothes
- Substitute compact fluorescent bulbs for incandescents.
Amann said homeowners also should take the time to look at bigger projects, such as improving attic insulation — which helps contain heat in the winter and cool air in the summer — or replacing entire cooling systems.
"If you've got a major appliance that isn't working great, give yourself time to think about it and how you're going to replace it," she said. "If it's a water heater, a heating or cooling system, and it fails, you're forced to make a decision under pressure and may not have a lot of options ... and (fuel) efficiency can get lost in the equation."