How to use your shades, blinds and curtains to beat the heat

Air conditioning is blissful during the summer but running it non-stop during a heat wave will have you cursing when you get your utility bill. Fortunately, clever use of blinds, curtains and other window treatments can help keep your house cool and your bills in check. The Department of Energy reports that smart management of window coverings can reduce heat gain by up to 77 percent. And as a bonus these same practices can reduce heat loss in the winter. Here are some energy-saving suggestions from the DOE that'll pay off immediately.

Awnings. Window awnings can reduce solar heat gain by up to 65 percent on south-facing windows and 77 percent on west-facing windows, according to the DOE. For best results choose awnings in light colors that reflect more sunlight. In the winter, you can roll up retractable awnings to let the sun warm up your house.

Curtains and drapes. On summer days, keep your curtains closed, especially on windows that get direct sunlight. The ability of curtains and drapes to reduce heat gain depends on fabric type (closed or open weave) and color. Studies show that medium-colored draperies with white-plastic backings can reduce heat gain by 33 percent, according to the DOE. Hang the curtains as close to the window as possible. For maximum effect, install a cornice at the top of the draperies, seal the draperies at the sides and overlap them in the middle using Velcro or tape.

Shades. When properly installed, window shades are one of the simplest and most effective ways to save energy but they need to be drawn all day to work. Mount them as close to the glass as possible within the window frame, creating a sealed space. Reversible shades that are white on one side and dark on the other can be switched with the seasons with the white side reflecting the sun in the summer and the dark side absorbing it in the winter. Quilted roller shades and Roman shades with several layers of fiber batting act as both insulation and an air barrier and are more effective than other soft window treatments.

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Blinds. Because of the horizontal slats, it's difficult to control heat loss through interior window blinds, although they do offer some flexibility. Unlike shades, you can adjust the slats to control light and ventilation. When completely closed, highly reflective blinds can reduce heat gain by around 45 percent, says the DOE. They can also be adjusted to block and reflect direct sunlight onto a light-colored ceiling, which diffuses the light without much heat or glare.

Reflective films. Window films are best for homes in regions with long cooling seasons. Silver, mirror-like films typically are more effective than colored, more transparent films and east- and west-facing windows benefit most because of their greater potential for heat gain. Keep in mind that reflective films are tricky to clean and impair outside visibility.

Best Buy air conditioners
If these old-fashioned tricks don't help you beat the heat, consider buying a new, more energy-efficient air conditioner and run it in energy-saver mode. The Kenmore 70051 is our Best Buy among small air conditioners. Despite its bargain price of $190, the 43-pound unit offers great cooling power. The Sharp AF-S85RX, $200, sold at Costco is a Best Buy in mid-sized air conditioners. It has a digital display, built-in timer, auto-fan speed and a five-year warranty. Two large air conditioners that we named Best Buys include the Frigidaire FRA106CV1 and the LG LW1210ER, both $320. Both were aces at keeping a room comfortable and continued to operate under brownout conditions. For more choices go to our air conditioners' ratings, which include 15 top air conditioner picks.

—Izabela Rutkowski

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