Don't Sweat It! 9 Tips for Getting Air Conditioning on a Budget

AC is expensive, but no one wants to spend the summer sweltering. Simple adjustments, like using efficient appliances and natural cooling methods, can keep your costs manageable.
person sweating

Summer 2017 is here, and that means one thing for millions of people: air conditioning. And while we may take AC for granted, it's generally an expensive luxury.

If you're shopping for a new air conditioner, you'll notice quite a few different sizes and models. Here's a quick primer on staying cool and keeping your wallet from overheating while picking out an AC unit.

Know How Many BTUs You Need Based on Room Area

Chances are you already know that BTU stands for British thermal unit, and the more BTUs an air conditioner cranks out, the stronger its cooling power. But here's the problem: Most American consumers aren't sure how to translate BTUs into the square footage of a room. (No disrespect to the Brits, but maybe we need an American thermal unit, where 1 AMU corresponds to 1 square foot?)

Lobbying for the AMU aside, you don't have to guess how much BTU power you'll need to cool your space. Instead, see the chart below, or check out this (similar) handy Energy Star website. It simply correlates the area you want to cool into BTUs per hour.


So for example, an air conditioner with a rating of 8,000 BTUs can cool a room that's 300 to 350 sq. ft., or one that measures about 18 ft. x 18 ft. Of course, you still have to measure your room, but we trust you can work a tape measure and apply this formula: Area equals length times width. For irregularly sized rooms, you can always estimate by breaking down the room into smaller geometric shapes, and calculating the size of those.

Most folks think bigger is always better, but it's not always so with AC. According to the Energy Star folks, "Air conditioners remove both heat and humidity from the air. If the unit is too large, it will cool the room, before it has a chance to remove the humidity. The result will be a room that's not very comfortable to spend time in," and "That cool moist air will make the room feel damp and clammy." Damp and clammy isn't much better than sweltering.

Use a Ceiling Fan, Too

It's one thing to run an air conditioner in your room. But combine its power with a simple ceiling fan, and you can have the best of both worlds. Often costing less than a penny an hour to run, ceiling fans have an immediate impact on your domestic comfort once you buy and install them. They generally start at about $40 apiece. The nice thing about a ceiling fan is it can make you feel anywhere from 3 to 8 degrees cooler.

SEE ALSO: Your No-Sweat Guide to Buying a Fan

Calculate Your Yearly Costs Before You Buy

When you buy any air conditioner these days, it should come with one of those bright yellow Energy Guide stickers on the box that tells you exactly how much the unit will cost to run. Take this into account, as it's part of your total cost for both buying and operating the unit.

Get an Energy Star Model

If your unit is more than 9 years old, seriously consider replacing it. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, room air conditioners that are ENERGY STAR certified are typically 13% more energy-efficient than standard models. Depending on how long you hold onto that new unit, you could save $99 or more over its lifetime in energy costs alone — a de facto rebate just for upgrading to an Energy Star model.

The key number to look for is the energy efficiency ratio, or EER: The higher the EER, the more efficient the unit. So if you replace an old EER 5 unit with a new EER 10 unit, you can cut your cooling costs in half. You should also look for the "Energy Star" and "Energy Guide" labels when purchasing a window unit. An energy-efficient unit will cycle the compressor on and off so it doesn't operate continuously. And Energy Star central air units have higher EER ratings and use 8% less energy when compared to conventional new models.

Room air conditioners that are ENERGY STAR certified are typically 13% more energy-efficient than standard models.

Consider Central Air

If you're thinking about upgrading to central air, it's easy to beat yourself up for being an energy hog, or to get intimidated by the sticker price. Yes, it's true that central units will use a lot more power than, say, a single window unit on each floor of a 2-story dwelling. But if you have more than two rooms to cool, then your best bet is to go with a central unit, which also provides long-term resale value for a home. Well-designed central systems also win out in terms of being able to filter the air for allergens and pollutants, and for controlling humidity.

Again, keep in mind that window units aren't necessarily more energy efficient than central air units. A window unit that is too small to cool a room may run continuously, wasting energy. When shopping for a central air conditioning system, make sure the SEER number (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) is 15 or better. A less efficient system will cost you more to run.

Get a Programmable Thermostat

It's easy to think that buying a new air conditioner or two will solve all of your summer cooling problems. But your AC could use a little help. With central units, for example, a programmable timer or thermostat can save you about $180 every year in energy costs by regulating the temperature when you're out of the house, and by turning on only when you return home.

Clean Out Your Air Filters Regularly

With window units, air filters get dirty, and fast. Clean your AC filter at least every month, as a dirty filter makes your AC work harder and use more electricity. Regardless of the type or age of the unit, you should change your filters after every 90 days of use.

SEE ALSO: 10 Things You Should Throw Away Right Now

Block Sunlight With Drapes

What's more, you'll use less energy cooling down a room by keeping direct sunlight out during the day. Sunlight can raise the room temperature by 10 to 20 degrees. The less heat that gets into your home, the less you have to pay to remove it. It just so happens that drapes block sunlight and heat better than blinds.

Do Some Careful Deal Shopping for Your AC

DealNews keeps an ever-updated list of air conditioning deals for you to peruse and compare. Of course, this time of year, AC sales are as plentiful as backyard barbecues. The worst thing to do is feel a heat wave hit you in the face, rush to the first store you can find, and buy the first unit you see. Do some comparison shopping, checking out multiple units for price, efficiency, reliability, and features.

The few minutes you spend comparing notes and using your shopping smarts will do more than show off how cool you are. It'll help you make a prudent choice that will keep your living space comfy all summer long, and for many summers to come.

Lou Carlozo
Contributing Writer

Lou Carlozo is a DealNews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the Managing Editor of, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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A use case where minisplits can make a lot of sense...

Cape cods / bungalows where the upstairs might not have been designed for HVAC on the upstairs or has undersized ductwork to the upstairs. Cool air doesn't want to get pushed up and doesn't want to stay there.

If it is an open or two room space a single or dual interior fan unit can do the job very nicely. Some units also act as heat pumps so they can provide some heat in cooler weather.

There are lots of creative ways to install them to minimize drilling and coolant line runs.

If you want to spend more for a recognized brand, then Mitsubishi is fine but there are well reviewed less recognizable brands that are a lot less expensive - so much less that even if they were to have shorter lifespans (not necessarily true) they'd pay back vs. the Sanyo/Mitsu brands.
If you have no budget choice, a window unit can do the job, but ouch on the downsides.

1) Visually ugly, especially if you have to put it on a public facing wall.
2) Blocks precious natural light and view of through the window.
3) Is noisy in the room where it is.
4) Blocks the use of that window when the weather is nice.
5) Creates an energy loss hole in your house's envelope. Impossible to seal up the gaps well.
6) Realistically, need them in every major room.
7) Heavy and a pain to install, remove, and store seasonally.

There are probably more...
LonnieMcClure...where did I mention the size of a "modest house"? Since you seem to know so much about the subject, how about you tell me how many feet of copper line-set will be needed for a typical 3 or 4 bedroom split level built in the 80s?
Figure each head unit to the BC controller in the attic and then of course the line-set from the BC to the condenser. Nothing fancy, just one condenser that can handle up to 8 head units (which will still leave many parts of the house uncomfortable).
While you're at it, tell me the cost of running line voltage to each unit and how you plan on taking care of the condensate drainage on each one.
Keep mind, this isn't new construction but a fully finished and dry walled home.
@Ricochet-Rabbit: You appear to have an odd idea of what constitutes a "modest house".
Window shakers and ductless!
Let's see...I have 21 supply registers. At minimum I'd need 11 head units between 2 condensers. A large ugly unit hanging off a wall in each room and I still wouldn't have close to the even coverage of my central forced air system.
Ductless split in RESIDENTIAL use is great in places like Japan where apartments are the size of a walk in closet in the US.
If someone wants to discuss the cost of a Mitsubishi City Multi vs adding duct or a high pressure system in a historic home, let me know. Hint: in addition to the ungodly cost of the equipment, each head unit requires a line set (a modest house will need hundreds of feet of insulated COPPER lines fished through walls), line voltage, control wiring and a condensate drain. And don't forget your BC controller setup that will need to be hidden somewhere.
Birds of a feather, flock together.
Central air also has to deal with losses in the ducting. As Greg the Gruesome mentioned below, consider a split ductless solution.

When I needed to replace an aging central A/C unit, I went with two window A/C units. (I would have preferred ductless, but my budget was tight). I still netted a significant savings on my monthly electric bill, and was able to cool my living space better in very hot weather as well.
Greg the Gruesome
This article mentions central air conditioning but central AC isn't feasible if your house doesn't already have air ducts (for a forced air heating system, I imagine). For houses like this, the article should mention split ductless air conditioners.