Smart Ways to Slash Your Summer Bills

Steven Holbrook

Summer is here, and as the temperature rises, your energy bills probably will, too. But you don't have to break the bank to beat the heat. Here's a guide to the small and large projects that will help slash your summer utility bills.

Starting small. You don't need a huge undertaking to generate significant savings this summer. Even the simplest changes can save you some cash.

For starters, you can exchange your current energy-eating (and, let's face it, slightly drab) light bulbs for long-lasting, efficient fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs last four to 10 times longer than regular light bulbs, and you'll save about $6 per year on energy bills, according to Energy Star, a government program that promotes energy-efficiency. Fluorescent bulbs are also the choice of the Consumer Federation of America, an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that specializes in consumer advocacy. In its guide to buying new light bulbs, the CFA attributes the value of fluorescent bulbs to their durability and low energy consumption, and says each bulb will save you up to $50 over the bulb's lifetime.

Insulation keeps your house warm in the winter, cool in the summer and reduces heating and cooling costs by as much as 20 percent, according to Energy Star. Energy auditor Pascale Maslin, owner of Energy Efficiency Experts in Washington, D.C., recommends insulation because of its high utility and low cost. "Insulation is easy to install and affordable," she says.

[Read: 5 Smart Money Moves to Make This Summer.]

Maslin recommends heavy insulation of your attic and the area under your roof to prevent cool air from escaping your home. A roll of insulation costs about $15 at home improvement stores, but professional installation can run between $400 and $1,800, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Movin' on up. Midsized projects can be your ticket to cost- and energy-efficient ways of cutting your utility bills this summer. These projects take a little more effort to put together than the small purchases, but your wallet will thank you for your effort.

One improvement is installing a programmable thermostat. When used properly, this device can save users up to $150 per year, and it's generally more accurate than a regular thermostat, according to Energy Star.

"[Programmable thermostats] are one of the most important things to install in the home," says Mel Hall-Crawford, the CFA's energy products director. "The system should be programmed to allow the home to use less energy while no one is home. If the home is empty, it can be warmer."

Maslin suggests turning the thermostat down by eight degrees when you're sleeping or out for the day. "That alone will save you about 20 percent on your cooling bill," she says. Programmable thermostats are sold at home improvement stores for as little as $20, but may cost as much as $250.

Weather stripping your house is another midsized project. In homes that haven't been weather stripped, air leaks account for 30 to 40 percent of heating and cooling loss, according to Energy Star. Hall-Crawford says weather stripping, when done correctly, can make your home more comfortable and save you money at the same time. "If you're letting hot air in during the summer, you're working against the cooling system, wasting energy and losing money on your energy bills," she says.

[See: 8 Energy-Efficient Home Improvements That Save Money.]

Weather stripping materials cost as little as $5 at home improvement stores, but professional installation will run you between $300 and $400.

Go big and go home. Don't let the price tag on these projects discourage you. Although they can be expensive, the benefits you'll reap will more than make up for the cost.

Upgrading your high-end appliances (such as your dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer) to be more energy-efficient is a good way to drive down your summer energy costs. Your refrigerator, for example, consumes about 13.7 percent of household energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, you can reduce this amount significantly by correctly maintaining your current refrigerator, or by purchasing a new one. According to Energy Star, a 2009 model fridge will save 40 percent more energy than models produced as early as 2001.

"The refrigerator has come a long way," Hall-Crawford says. "Modern models are much better than they were in the 80s and 90s, and the standards are just getting better." Hall-Crawford also suggests looking for the Energy Star logo, which means the product meets or exceeds federal efficiency standards.

Solar panel installation is another large-scale project that can cut your energy bills. It's one of the costlier projects, but you'll see a dramatic cut to your energy expenditure, says Dean Hapshe, president of Majestic Son and Sons in Patchogue, N.Y., which specializes in solar heating and electric systems.

Hapshe, who has been in the solar energy business since 1980, says solar panels can eliminate most residential electric bills, and, with higher-efficiency panels, you'll recover your initial investment.

[See: 50 Smart Money Moves.]

On the other hand, Maslin believes the cost of solar panels outweigh the potential benefits. "Many houses are not being built with efficiency in mind," she says. "Consumers should look for the 'low-hanging fruit' and fix the small, affordable things in their house first. Then they can look at things like solar panels."

Hapshe says you should expect to spend between $7,000 and $25,000 for a solar system installation, but the price depends on the brand of panel and the amount of available roof space. Homeowners can expect to earn back at least a portion of that investment through savings within five or six years.

With these projects under your belt, you'll be ready to escape indoors from the heat without worrying about your next monthly bill.