Keep Your Cool About Summer Energy Bills

This week Gail offers tips for saving money while cooling your home.

Dear Gail,

We live in Phoenix and this summer is shaping up to be an exceptionally hot one. Since the start of June we’ve already had a number of days with temperatures in the triple digits- something not typically seen until late June-early July.

I had to retire a few years early because of a disability, so my wife and I are living on a very restricted income. Our swamp cooler is on the fritz, but, frankly, we can’t afford to replace it. With the recent spike in oil prices, our utility bills are already well above last year. Is there anywhere I can go to get help?


Dear Edward,

Absolutely! In fact, no matter what state you live in, you can apply to the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program. If you meet the income requirement, at no cost to you a contractor will come out and conduct an “energy audit” of your home. The main purpose is to look for and fix energy “drains” — things that are causing you to consume more energy than you should to cool, heat, light and run your home. The inspector also looks for health and safety hazards, such as carbon monoxide and gas leaks.

Marge Leyvas is assistant director of the Maricopa County office of the Community Services Division. That’s the arm of the Arizona “Human Services Department” that oversees all of the utility assistance programs in your area, Edward. She says part of the evaluation involves “blower door testing” to identify places where air is leaking out of your home.

Common culprits are fireplace flues and stove vents that don’t close properly. In these cases, you are literally blowing cooled air up the chimney. “Your air conditioner will be going full-time,” she says.

The best part of the Weatherization Assistance Program is that the government picks up the cost of any repairs — replacing ductwork, sealing windows, etc. — as well as the expense of replacing any old, energy-guzzling appliances you have, such as that ancient swamp cooler. According to the DOE, the average consumer saves $358 per year in utility bills. That adds up. In three years, your cumulative savings would be more than $1,800!

The Weatherization program has been around since 1976. Its mission is simple and straightforward: to help Americans who can least afford to pay high utility bills. As the DOE’s Web site points out, “low-income families spend a much larger portion of their income on energy bills” — about 12.6 percent. That contrasts to the 2.7 percent the nation as a whole spends on energy bills.

Preference is given to individuals who are disabled, elderly, and/or who have incomes that are either 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of the average income in their area. Many are single parents.

The other requirement is that you own the dwelling being weatherized. If you rent your home, you are not eligible. You also won’t qualify if your home has been previously “weatherized,” unless this occurred before 1985.

This year Congress authorized spending $242.5 million and set a goal of weatherizing 97,300 homes. While the funding comes from the federal government, the program is administered by each state with nearly a thousand community agencies being the contact point at the local level.

Not only does it sound as if you and your wife would be eligible for Weatherization assistance, Leyvas says both the state as well as local utility companies have provided funds that can be used to offset the cost of your monthly energy bill. In fact, according to Leyvas, more than ten years ago Arizona became the first state to mandate that a portion of unclaimed utility deposits be applied to reduce the utility bills of low-income residents, instead of having that money enrich the state’s general treasury.

She also says that it’s a common misconception that swamp coolers use less energy than air conditioners. “A good air conditioner can be more cost effective than a swamp cooler,” she says. So contacting her office for an energy audit could result in having air-conditioning installed in your home at no cost to you.

The Weatherization Assistance Program falls under the “Energy Efficient and Renewable Energy” division of the Department of Energy. You’ll find information and links to agencies in your area at

If you don’t qualify for the Weatherization program because your income is too high, don’t forget that through 2007 there are federal tax credits available for anyone who upgrades the energy efficiency of his/her home. For instance, if you install a new air-conditioner that meets the guidelines, you’ll get to subtract up to $300 off your federal income tax bill. There are also credits for switching to appliances that carry the “Energy Star” rating, adding insulation, sealing door jambs, and so forth.

These tax breaks are part of the Energy Tax Incentives Act of 2005. I’ve written several columns on the subject of energy saving ideas and staying out of hot water. The total maximum tax credit you can receive over these two years is $500, but wouldn’t you rather see that go into your pocket instead of Uncle Sam’s?

Think of it this way: If installing a new A/C system saves you $10 per month and the government kicks in another $300, that adds up to a $420 savings for this year. If nothing else, it helps pay for the cost of the new air conditioner.

A good resource for details about what qualifies for the energy tax credits is the Web site of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Other areas of the ACEEE Web site list inexpensive, simple steps you can take to reduce energy usage around your home.

Stay cool!


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