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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 7/9/2008 7:25:33 AM ET 2008-07-09T11:25:33

Is your home equipped to handle the heat waves many areas experience in the summer months? Even though you may not be able to control the weather outside, there are still simple steps you can take to keep your home cool and comfortable and reduce your utility bills at the same time.

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And if your circumstances make it difficult for you to tackle some of these tips at home, then Tip No. 10 is just for you. It features ideas for seeking out a variety of air-conditioned havens that could give you and your family a much-needed break from the heat.

1. Ceiling fans can be your salvation. If you’re looking for ways to beat the heat, a ceiling fan can be a great investment for your home. This one appliance can make a room feel 6 or 7 degrees cooler, and even the most power-hungry fan costs less than $10 a month to use if you keep it on for 12 hours a day. Good fans make it possible for you to raise your thermostat setting and save on air-conditioning costs.

2. If you have air conditioning, use it wisely. Don’t put lamps, televisions or other heat-generating appliances next to your air-conditioning thermostat. They’ll prevent the air conditioner from operating as efficiently as it should. If you have a window air conditioner, be sure to use it in concert with a fan that moves cool air throughout your home.

3. Get with the program. Here’s another way to lower your energy bills: Use a programmable thermostat that adjusts your air conditioner’s setting automatically. This allows you to stop cooling things down so much when nobody’s home for long stretches of time, or at night when it’s cooler outside. You can program the thermostat to increase the comfort level in your home shortly before you wake up or return home from work.

4. Don’t give your cool air away. If you rely on air conditioning, you’re probably paying dearly for that cool air. Effective caulking and weather stripping will keep it from seeping right out of your house. Check for holes or separated joints in your air-conditioning ducts, and add insulation around ducts in attics, crawl spaces and garages.

5. Adaptto your environment. Do you live in a house with an attic that’s trapping enormous amounts of heat? If so, a whole-house fan could be well worth the investment of $150 to $400. Such fans pull air through open windows in your home and exhaust it through your attic and roof. Even if you don’t have a whole-house fan, properly placed roof vents and louvers also can help ventilate your attic and reduce heat levels in your home. Or if you live in a dry climate, you might want to invest in an evaporative cooler or “swamp cooler.” It cools outdoor air by pulling it over pads saturated with cold water. The cooled air gets sent into your home, and warmer air gets pushed outside through your partially opened windows. These systems cost between $200 and $600 and use significantly less energy than central air conditioning in low-humidity climates.

6. Your windows matter. Opt for white window shades, blinds or drapes to reflect heat away from the house, and be sure to close curtains on south- and west-facing windows during the day. Depending on the severity of the heat where you live, you also can use sun-control or other reflective films on south-facing windows and mount awnings over them.

7. Choose your landscaping wisely. Plant trees or shrubs so they shade air-conditioning units without blocking the airflow. Steer clear of landscaping with unshaded rock, asphalt or cement on the south or west sides of the house; it will raise temperatures and radiate heat to the house after the sun sets.

8. Try a trellis. Vines grown on trellises can shade the entire side of a house. This can be an especially effective way to shade west-facing windows. (Trees or a fence could work well, too.)

9. Hug a tree. Three trees situated strategically on the south and west sides of your house can reduce your utility bill by $100 to $250 a year. Tree-shaded yards and neighborhoods have daytime air temperatures that are several degrees cooler than comparable areas without trees.

10. Find cool ways to escape. Again, you may be in a situation where the above-mentioned fixes are simply beyond your reach or your control. No matter what, you can dream up ways to escape the heat this summer on your own or with your whole family. Some ideas:

  • Catch a reduced-price matinee movie during the daytime in an ice-cold movie theater.
  • Kick back at the library and read for hours — and while you’re there, check out all sorts of movies, books and music for free.
  • Check your local newspaper for listings of inexpensive or free arts and crafts shows, music festivals, art exhibits, theatrical productions, concerts and home tours taking place in air-conditioned venues.
  • Contact your local community center or your city or county pool and ask about free or low-cost programs and classes for yourself and your children.
  • Hang out in a roller-skating rink or ice-skating rink during the daytime. Even if you don’t feel like skating, you could bring a good book along and watch your kids, friends or relatives skate.

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