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Utility Expenses - Stay Cool! (Saving money on air conditioning)

Authored By: Madeline Anderson-Balmer on 4/12/2022


Three to four decades ago, it wasn't uncommon for people to live (and work and go to school) in buildings that weren't air-conditioned, even in the warmer southern parts of the country. These days, the combination of global warming, and lower prices on window units, make the idea of air conditioning a little more realistic and for many, a must-have. That includes those in the cooler but sometimes more humid northern states. Yes, I meant that. More humid in the northern part of the country. Don't believe me? I looked it up! According to the 2022 report from USA by the Numbers website, the top 5 most humid states include:

  • Iowa
  • New Hampshire
  • Alaska
  • Maine
  • North Dakota

Who knew? But we all know what it's like to wake up on a hot sticky summer morning, take a cool shower, and realize that feeling will only last until you start getting dressed. No one wants to sleep with a Ziploc bag of ice to get some respite from the heat (I've done this). And while sleeping with a box fan whirring through the night might be comforting for some, it's only drawing in the sticky air of a summer night to give the impression of being cool. As we move toward summer, are you starting to wonder whether window A/C units or central air are the way to go? Which will work with your budget? This post provides some points to consider when making that choice. Because believe it or not, summer IS just around the corner.

Air conditioning – Should you use a window unit or go for central air

Let's be honest. If you've already got a furnace and ductwork in your home, central air may be cheaper than you think. Getting a quote is usually free, and if it still doesn't fit your budget, at least you know. And maybe you can finance it, or create a savings plan for next year. Don't forget, MIT FCU offers loans that can help make it happen. More on that later.

No ductwork? That's an issue. You can have ductwork added, but if yours is an older home or even an antique, installing ductwork may not be possible. Regardless of you situation, if central isn't going to work, you still have options! 

Pros and Cons for Window Units vs. Central Air

Central air provides a constant temperature throughout your house. That fact alone makes it an attractive option. But if your house isn't large, or you're not home during the day, maybe one or two window units would be better. I mean, why cool an empty space, right? Also, believe it or not, window units run much more efficiently than central air. And they're easy to replace or move if the time comes. I hate to say it, but I had FIVE window units when I recently sold my house. I gave them all away because the new place has central air. It would have been nice to add central to that last house, but with a furnace on one side and a boiler on the other, the ductwork would need major work. The cost, even for split units, didn't make sense for us. So we bought five window units and ran them all summer. Yes, our electric bill was higher, but not as high as paying for all that ductwork when we knew we’d be selling in a few short years. You need to take more into consideration when you're weighing budgets. 

Window air conditioning units are cost-effective

On the hottest days of summer, who hasn't looked at that stack of air conditioners at the grocery store or local box store and been tempted? Wouldn't buying one or two at least make sleeping a bit easier at night? You're not wrong. Budget-wise, there are costs to both window and central air conditioning. Other than a paper fan, it's going to have some cost attached. In fact, if you only need one or two window units, it's probably cheaper than central air. That fact surprised me as well, but it makes sense. Just collect all the data and you'll be able to make the decision that works for you.

Window units are reliable

The great thing about window units is they last quite a while. According to HomeGuides, the expected age of window air conditioners is up to 10 years if maintained properly. The maintenance required is relatively simple:

  • Take them out of the window or cover them up in winter
  • Change out the air filters regularly (and clean them as needed)
  • Ensure they're installed properly to allow condensation to drain out and away from your home.

Window units are heavy and usually require more than one person to install. At my house, we left some in the windows all year round (even when we had 24" of snow"). Other than birds nesting on top of them in summer, they usually lasted 5 or 6 years at least, a bit less than the ten years expected, but we skipped a few steps in the maintenance department! 

Considering Central Air?

Suppose you already have ducts associated with your heating system or you budgeted for installation and your home and lifestyle warrant. In that case, there are some things to consider with central air conditioning. According to This Old House, if you've already got the ductwork in place with your furnace, the price to install central air may be just $3500 - $4000 and a couple of days' work.

But with central air, size matters. Make sure you take this first step seriously.

  • Smaller A/C units aren’t always the best choice. Yes, they’re less expensive. But if they're too small for your home, they’ll run overtime trying to cool your house. 
  • Got the money for the biggest unit they sell? Bigger doesn't mean better when it comes to air conditioning. In fact, it may cost more to run! AND, if it's too big, and works super efficiently when it comes to speed, your home may end up damp with humidity because the air doesn’t have time to adjust. Now you've got cold air but a damp house. Who wants that?


Should you go with ductless split units (aka Heat Pump Cooling and Heating)?

HGTV provides some excellent pros and cons for consideration if you're looking at mini splits for your home. They're not always the answer for a home if winter temps drop below 0 degrees. And they can be expensive as far as upfront costs. But they do work for many homes. For members living in MA, Mass Save also offers rebates and some solid information on ductless heat pump systems. If you're not a Massachusetts resident, the information is still beneficial, then check your local state for more information on rebates. 

Keep in mind, depending on the size of your home, you may need multiple units, and you may not like the look of those units installed "through-the-wall." But get a quote and more information on this option if you don't want to or don't have the option to use a system that requires ductwork. Split units also offer individual room control on temperature and are great for heating a garage, workshop, or basement area that otherwise does not have heat or AC. 

Location, location, location!

Regardless of the decision you've made, there is one more important consideration. Deciding where to place the unit outside your home. You'll need to think about the sound of the unit, and any exhaust coming from it. Avoid placing it under a bedroom window or near an office window to avoid noise impact on people using that room. And don't build a decorative box for it, or hide it under a deck since that will also restrict exhaust and may reduce the efficiency of your unit. A nice decorative fence or trellis covered with flowers gives you circulation and camouflages the equipment and exhaust pipes just as easily.

Ways to stay cooler without getting air conditioning

Whether you don't want to spend the money, or just don't like air-conditioning, there are ways to stay cool without it.

Fans work. Yes, you're just moving outside air inside, but the perceived temperature will be cooler when the heat index is below 90. If it's above 90, blowing air around isn't going to make anyone feel cooler.

Open some windows. Yes, if you can open two windows, you should be able to get a cross-breeze that will offer some cooling effect.

Purchase an Evaporative Cooler. It draws air over a water-soaked pad which provides a higher humidity level and a related lower room temp. We had one of these when I was young, but you placed a block of ice in a tray rather than soaking a sponge or cloth pad. It worked, but if you're going to the trouble of buying something like this, a fan may be just as easy and easier to find.

  • Use curtains. Blackout curtains make it super dark inside, but they also help to keep things cooler. Even just ordinary curtains can help block the heat if you've got big windows and direct sun shining into your room all day.
  • Get new sheets! Believe it or not, percale sheets offer a cooler sleeping experience for some people. According to Wired, it's a result of the way they're woven.
  • Try a cool scarf on the back of your neck. They sell special ones filled with crystals that will absorb water and keep it cool, or you can just use a piece of cloth dampened with cold water. 
  • Collarbone fans are simple technology that works.   They allow you to carry your own personal cooling system with you. I've seen waitresses use them in summer, and they tell me it works really well. 

As mentioned in my other posts, some organizations, like LHIEAP can assist with obtaining cooling and heating systems or assist with paying the bills to maintain either. 

If you are interested in adding central air to your home, consider a personal loan from MIT Federal Credit Union or our MassSave loan program; both offer competitive pricing and a simple way to get the funds you need to make your home more comfortable this summer. Or, if you’ve got some equity in your home, a home equity line of credit is also a great tool to cover home upgrade costs.

Summers continue to surprise us with record-breaking heat. Why not surprise yourself and your family with a new way to stay cool?

Other posts in this series of Life on a Budget


Photo courtesy of Alireza Kaviani

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