NEW YORK (AP) It's summertime, and that means energy bills climb along with the temperature.
Air conditioners and water coolers boost electricity use significantly at a time when energy prices are rising because of a shortage of natural gas, which is used to fuel many of the nation's power plants.
The Department of Energy estimates that the average American family spends close to $1,300 a year on utility bills, about half of it for cooling and heating. But the bills can be held in check with some no-cost or low-cost steps in the short run and some conservation-minded investments in the longer term.
''There are a lot of things people can do that don't cost anything,'' said Ronnie J. Kweller of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C. ''People just have to become more conscious of their behavior.''
She added: ''If we use too much natural gas this summer, we're going to have an even bigger problem with supply for the coming winter heating season.''
The alliance notes that many energy-saving steps have little or no cost:
Simply closing the blinds to block the afternoon sun can help keep a house from overheating. Leafy trees or vines also can help to shade windows.
Turning off lights, television sets, computers and other electrical devices when they're not in use will lower a family's electricity consumption. The ''sleeper'' functions on computers and other office equipment can also cut electricity use.
Cleaning or changing the filters in air conditioners regularly will provide more-efficient cooling. At the same time, cleaning the coils on refrigerators will improve performance.
Consumers will get even more for their money by adjusting their thermostats just a few degrees, Kweller said.
''If you turn the thermostat up and use ceiling fans, you won't sacrifice comfort at all,'' she added.
Even better is an investment in a programmable thermostat, Kweller said. Families can set the thermostat's timer so the air conditioner is off while they're out of the house at work and turns on shortly before they return home in the evening.
''That way you won't be cooling the house when everyone is out, and you'll still come back to a comfortable home,'' Kweller said.
She noted that programmable thermostats have the added advantage of cutting home heating bills in the winter by allowing families to reduce heat levels during their sleeping hours.
Other projects may have higher costs up front but bigger payoffs in the long run.
The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency sponsor the ''Energy Star'' program to help consumers and businesses use energy more efficiently, not only to help them save money but also to protect the environment.
Switching to products that carry the Energy Star from air conditioners to heat pumps, water heaters, insulated windows and home appliances can cut a family's home energy bills by up to 30 percent, the department estimates.
The program's Web site at www.energystar.gov offers ''A Guide to Energy-Efficient Cooling and Heating'' which gives suggestions when to invest in new products and which ones to consider.
It says, for example, that if an air conditioner needs frequent repairs or is more than 10 years old, it should be replaced. A new Energy Star-certified unit will probably be 20 percent more efficient than the old one, it says.
The Alliance to Save Energy has produced a booklet titled ''PowerSmart Easy Tips to Save Money and the Planet.'' An interactive version of the booklet is available on the alliance's Web site at www.ase.org/consumer, which also has a home energy calculator to help families estimate the savings from various environmentally friendly improvements.
The Department of Energy offers a consumer guide, ''Energy Savers Tips on Saving Energy and Money at Home.'' It's available at the Web site of the department's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse at www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo.
Both booklets can be ordered thru the Federal Citizen Information Center at 888-878-3256. The PowerSmart booklet, No. 573-K, is free to callers. The Energy Savers booklet, No. 337-K, costs $1.
Families also can get tips on energy-saving steps at the Web sites of city power authorities and many major utilities, including Pacific Gas and Electric's www.pge.com, Washington Gas' www.washgas.com and ConEdison's www.coned.com.
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