Cool Tips to Make Your Air-Conditioning Dollars Go Further

Summer's almost here, which means you're probably looking for ways to keep cool. If you're like most people, you're probably relying on central air conditioning or, in some parts of the country, a heat pump to beat the heat.

Before turning on either machine this season, take a few minutes to size up your situation. Some maintenance and conscientious habits could keep your current unit running several more years. And if you really do need to replace what you have, two new cooling technologies may help.

The first step is to inspect your existing unit. The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) suggests having a professional inspect it. At the least, clean the filter and make sure the outside unit is free of debris.

Once it's ready, you can take practical, energy-saving steps that can extend the unit's life. Close the shades on windows facing the sun. Plan your hot activities - cooking, drying clothes, and so on - during cooler hours of the day. For every degree you move the thermostat up, you save 3 percent on your cooling costs, says Ed Dooley, an ARI spokesman.

If after all that, you're still not satisfied with the system's performance, it's probably time to replace it. Don't assume you need the same size unit you're replacing. According to the federal Energy Star program, a third to a half of existing residential air conditioners are too big, which means they waste energy.

Step No. 1: Have a contractor calculate how big a unit you really need.

Step 2: Choose a technology. One of the most exciting cooling technologies this year is the Freon-free air conditioner. It's an important step because the United States has agreed to phase out Freon, Dupont's trademark for the most commonly used refrigerant in residential systems. Freon contains chlorine, which erodes the ozone layer high in the earth's atmosphere.

Of course, manufacturers are free to continue selling Freon air conditioners until 2010. Nevertheless, it's not too early to consider making the switch.

So far, Carrier (which also makes the Bryant brand) is the only US company selling Freon-free air conditioners. Its air conditioners and heat pumps are so popular, "we can't keep up with the orders," says John Anderson, a product market manager for Carrier's residential air conditioners.

Other large manufacturers, such as Lennox, York, and American Standard (which makes the Trane line) are expected to come out with their own Freon-free models soon.

The other technology making inroads in the US is ductless air conditioning. Already popular in Japan, these systems use small pipes to move the refrigerant from the outdoor condenser coil and compressor to indoor fan units that cool each room individually. That way, you only pay for cooling the rooms you use.

All the manufacturers mentioned above make ductless systems, as do many others, including Enviromaster International, Lintern Corporation, Mitsubishi Electronics America, and Sanyo Fisher (USA) Corporation.

Although both of these technologies save energy, they tend to be more costly. So you'll have to judge whether the money you save in cooling costs will make up for a bigger investment upfront.

For more information on air-conditioning, get ARI's free brochure on 42 ways to save money on cooling. It's available on the Internet or by sending a self-addressed stamped business envelope to: ARI; Department D98; 4301 North Fairfax Drive (Suite 425); Arlington, VA 22203.

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