The cost of cool

Lisa Napoli Jul 21, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: You don’t need me to tell you that the dog days of summer are upon us. Just about everywhere in the country, thermometers soared to record highs this week. Of course with the rise in temperature comes a rise in costs to stay cool. We sent Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli in search of some ways to take the heat off your bills.

LISA NAPOLI: No matter where you live in the country, this week, the local news probably sounded something like this:

[ News open: “This is CBS2 News at 6 . . . the heat is on and so is high energy use . . . in fact we smashed a record today . . .” ]

For all of the western United States, those records are monitored here in a building in an office park just outside downtown LA.

Welcome to the Power Grid.

Operations director Tracy Bibb shows off a giant room filled with computers and serious looking people balancing the load — kind of like air traffic controllers for energy.

TRACY BIBB: “That’s exactly what we compare ourselves to, is air traffic controllers. We have to make sure that lines don’t get overloaded or congested, we have to make sure that once electrons leave point A to get to point B, that they get there safely.”

Bibb says record power use means a greater chance for brownouts so we all need to be mindful of how much electricity we use.

BIBB: “Things people can do are use a fan wherever possible, instead of air conditioners. If you’re going to use an air conditioner, set it for 78 degrees when you’re home. And when you leave the house set it for 82 or 84 degrees. Pull your blinds. Give your appliances the afternoon off.”

Consider that this year, because of rising heat and rising energy costs, the average household is going to shell out $5,000 bucks in electric and gas bills.

That’s $700 more than last year.

Rozanne Weissman of the Alliance to Save Energy says simple acts like closing ducts in rooms you don’t use can save you cash: 16

ROZANNE WEISSMAN: “One of the most important and basic things you can do is clean and replace your filters monthly. For forgetful people in particular, get a programmable thermostat. It’s a purchase under $100 often. And then there’s other basic things, caulking and weather-stripping and proper insulation to make sure that cold air is not heating the outside rather than the inside.”

Weissman says the last tip alone can save you 20 percent on your bills.

Here’s another fact that might make you adjust your A/C: For every degree cooler you make your house, Weissman says your bill will be three to five percent higher.

That could be even more in states that charge more for electricity in the summer.

[ Sound of air conditioner blowing ]

This is what $10,000 of central air conditioning sounds like.

My friend Sarah got lucky. She had planned to have a central A/C unit installed just before the heat wave. It would have been cheaper to put in room units, but this will ultimately be more cost-effective.

Although, of course, her electric bill is bound to go up. Systems like hers account for a third to a half of home energy bills.

Her contractor Emilio took me up to her roof to show me what he had to do to cool off this 70-year-old bungalow. I asked him how Sarah could make the most of her new system.

EMILIO: “Definitely keep the doors and windows sealed as much as possible . . ..”

Emilio says the trees surrounding Sarah’s house are great for natural cooling.

Fountains aren’t a bad idea either. This one outside the power grid looks very appealing these days to the people who work inside.

While they keep tabs on our electric use, their A/C busted two weeks ago-making it 85 degrees in parts of the building. Tracy Bibb says it’ll be another two weeks before a part is made so the system can get back up and running.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace Money.

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