Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Cool it on air conditioning bills

Ahh, summer. Long days, lazy nights, the drone of a baseball game and a broken air conditioner.

A variation of Murphy’s Law says: If something can go wrong, it will when you need it most.

This time the upstairs air conditioner went down just as the first two hot weeks of summer steamrolled in. During summer in Florida, air conditioning is not optional.

Because sleeping in our respective bedrooms upstairs would have turned us into bacon strips, my 17-year-old daughter and I moved into the downstairs guest room. Fortunately, the downstairs air system works.

Adding to the ambience, my daughter sprouted a cold. For the past few nights she’s been hacking up her tonsils and building an Eiffel Tower out of used Kleenex next to the bed.

Now, in addition to sharing a double bed, we’re sharing her cold.

“We’re bonding,” I say, as we prepare for another night of this.

She groans and hands me the Kleenex box.

“Just think,” I say, “we’re probably cutting our power bill in half!”

“I just want my own bed.”

I text my landlord, again: “I love my daughter, but I’m tired of sleeping with her.”

Repairs on the house I live in and stage need to go through layers of approvals and estimates, we’re told.

Meanwhile, every morning I venture upstairs, where the temperature hovers in the mid 90s, to get ready for work. Hitting the middle stair feels like walking into a pizza oven. I take a cold shower, and try to dress before sweat turns my skin into a slip and slide. I smear melted make-up on my sticky face while angling two fans on myself to keep my clothes from clinging like plastic wrap. My daughter calls me a hot mess.

“Why does the air conditioner stop working on the first hot day of summer?” I’m on the phone with David Fairbanks, co-owner of, a Salt Lake City company that helps DIYers fix appliances and lawn tools by providing parts and know-how.

“For the same reason the lawnmower croaks the first time you haul it out of hibernation to cut the grass in spring,” he says.

“And the oven breaks on Thanksgiving!” I add.

“It’s as if they’ve been waiting for their moment,” said Fairbanks.

“It’s not my imagination then?”

“No, air conditioners really do tend to blow on the first hot day,” said Fairbanks, “often because they’ve been sitting all winter, and in some cases weren’t properly shut down. Lawn equipment tends to not fire up come spring because the gas has been sitting in the engine all winter, and the carburetors get gunked up.” (He advises letting mowers and edgers run out of gas before storing them all winter. Refill them in spring.)

Here are ways he suggests we can keep air conditioning energy and repair bills down without sweating:

To keep repair bills down …
• Clean or change the filter. Change filters regularly on your HVAC unit, and once a year clean the outdoor unit (the condenser). Every two years have a pro check the coolant. This saves money in the short term by lowering energy bills because the system will run more efficiently, and over the long term by lowering repair bills. Check your owner’s manual to see how often your system’s filter should be replaced (often two-to-four times a year), or if it can be vacuumed and re-used.

• What owner’s manual? If, like me, you don’t have a clue where your owner’s manual is, you’re in luck. Most manufacturers now post manuals on their websites. Do a Google search under the item, model number and words “owner’s manual.” You can often find a PDF version that you can store in a file folder on your computer. “They are full of information about how to keep the appliance running well, part numbers, diagrams and best operating procedures,” said Fairbanks.

• Fix it yourself. You’d be amazed how much you can save in repair bills by fixing equipment yourself, said Fairbanks. Many YouTube tutorials are available online, some specific to a model number. “Watching these can tell you not only how to fix and maintain an appliance, but also when to let someone else,” said Fairbanks.

To keep energy bills down …
• Get with the program. Raise your hand if you know how to program your thermostat. Keep it up if you actually program it. I thought so. This feature is a little pot of gold, if you use it right. If you set your A/C to 70 all day, but are gone 10 hours a day, you’re wasting money and energy. Set it to shut off when you leave and kick back on just before you come home.

• Close vents in rooms you don’t use and close their doors.

• Plant trees. Control your home’s sun exposure by planting shade trees near sunny windows and pulling blinds during the day.

• Use fans first. Before you turn on the air, see if turning on an electric fan or a ceiling fan cools the room enough. If temperatures allow, open windows at night.

• Cook outside. Using your oven and stove less will also keep your house cooler.

• Insulate. A little extra fluff in ceilings and walls helps keep you from cooling (and heating) the great outdoors.

• Unplug. Even when not operating, microwaves, coffee makers, laptops and other electronics draw power, said Fairbanks.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through


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