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Cheap ways to keep cool

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During the summer months, when the heat often sends beads of sweat trickling down your back, there’s nothing quite like entering the cool paradise of an air-conditioned room.

But when you’re paying for that paradise, the air conditioning seems like less of a miracle and more of a burden. The average U.S. household electric bill for June through August is expected to total $395 this summer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s a hefty bill for some cool space.

It doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of creative tricks to save money on air-conditioning. You’ve probably heard of buying a programmable thermostat, maintaining your HVAC unit, replacing filters and taking cold showers—and you’ve probably done them all.

Try going a step further and implementing some real cost-saving measures that cost less than relying entirely on your energy-guzzling air conditioner.

#1: Plant shady trees by windows

“Tree shading of a house is one of the most effective means of cutting air conditioning use,” said Peter Brown, director of residential services for the New Homes program for Earth Advantage Institute, an Oregon-based organization advocating for more energy-efficient home building.

Deciduous trees, which lose their leaves in the fall, are some of the most energy-efficient trees to plant, Brown said.

The east and west sides of your home are the best spots to plant deciduous trees, because those directions get hit the hardest by the beaming summer sun.

Planting the right trees in the right places can save around 30 percent on your bill.

#2: Using window film to conserve energy

Window films are a thin sheet of material stuck to your windows that block infrared light while still letting visible light in. By not allowing the infrared light in, the amount of heat pouring into a room from the sun is minimized and that haunting energy bill becomes a little less scary.

Gila, a company selling the films, says that they can save you 30 percent on cooling costs.

Knowing which rooms get the most sun is important before deciding to install window film.

“This product would make sense on all sides of the house except the north,” Brown said.

Before installing window films, be sure the manufacturer made a credible claim that their product will result in a lower SHGC, or solar heat gain coefficient, rating for the window, Brown said.

#3: Solar shades or screens keep heat out

“Providing window shading is an excellent way to eliminate or reduce dependency on air conditioning,” Brown said.

The majority of sunlight striking an unprotected glass window passes through it and goes right into the home. Only a small percentage is reflected. Solar screens reduce the amount of sunlight striking the window by absorbing or reflecting the sunlight away from the glass.

Mount the shades on the outside of the window to block the heat before it enters the home. For greater efficiency consider using dual shades, which are highly reflective white on one side and heat absorbing dark on the other side.

#4: Use your windows to your advantage

Window exhaust fans use less electricity than air conditioners and still cool a room, but usually only at night. By placing one of these fans in the window, the cooler night air outside air will be drawn in and circulated throughout your home.

Also consider simply keeping windows open when outside temperatures are lower than the level at which you would set your thermostat.

“At night open windows or skylights at the highest parts of your house, and one or two on the first floor and let nature do its thing,” Brown said.

#5: Consider an evaporative cooler

Evaporative coolers, also known as swamp coolers, are efficient when used correctly--and in the proper climates.

Unlike air conditioners, which recirculate the same air, evaporative coolers provide a steady stream of fresh air into the house. They operate by having a window slightly open, which allows warm indoor air to escape, and replaces it with air the evaporator cools. There are small coolers for windows, or big coolers for outside installation.

They cost half as much to install and use around a quarter as much energy as air conditioners. However, the maintenance is more demanding and they are they are only suitable for low-humidity areas.

Ilyce Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated real estate columnist, blogger and radio talk show host, and managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog. Follow her on Twitter @Glink

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