Keeping Cool
As seen in The Post Star
By Derek Pruitt

The thermostat at the Saratoga Springs Public Library is kept at a comfortable 74 degrees.

And with the heat index forecast to top 100 degrees today, library Director Issac Pulver said he won't be taken aback if the book haven turns into a de facto cooling center.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all to see people turn off their air conditioners at home and find public places that offer it for free," Pulver said Monday.

As energy costs spike and home owners try to trim their budgets in light of the rising costs of gas and food, keeping a high-energy air conditioner going full-blast could present a financial challenge this summer.

Finding respite in public oases such as the library is one way of beating the heat, but other options do exist.

To cut the cost of cooling, air conditioning experts suggest drawing the blinds to block heat from the sun, regularly replacing the unit's air filter, turning off unused electronics and installing programmable thermostats that automatically control the temperature.

Marty DeVit, owner of Thermal Associates in Glens Falls, also said it is important to keep attics cool by opening windows or installing vents.

If air doesn't circulate in the attic, temperatures can reach 140 degrees and strain the air conditioner, he said.

"Getting the attic cool is a real key to keeping the costs down," DeVit said.

Ideally, it would cost around 50 cents an hour to run an air conditioner in a single-family home, he said.

The average U.S. household spends $1,900 a year on energy bills, half of which goes towards heating and cooling, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Worried that figure may climb higher, geothermal systems - which use the earth's heat to create energy - are becoming increasingly popular. The renewable energy systems can cut utility bills 60 to 70 percent.

"We are going insane with them," DeVit said. "I've got three messages on my desk in the last 20 minutes, and two of them are from people interested in geothermal systems."

Irwin Rehm, of Queensbury, is getting such a system installed this month because the cost of heating and cooling his home was threatening to cut into the retiree's fixed income.

"We would have had much, much less discretionary money," he said. "The costs really scared us."

Rehm said he expects to save $3,000 on heating and cooling costs annually. At that rate, he could pay off the cost of the system - about $20,000 - in around seven years.

Energy providers are also encouraging homeowners to buy high-efficiency air conditioners, which may cost more initially but can save money over a period of years.

National Grid recently released plans to offer residents and homebuilders rebates for installing qualified high-efficiency central air conditioners.

A similar effort was implemented three years ago in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where it has had a small impact on consumer purchasing trends, said Laura McNaughton, National Grid's manager of residential energy efficiency.

"We're trying to create an incentive for getting the highest-efficiency air conditioning unit available," she said. "What we found is that in the Northeast, where there are relatively few cooling days, consumers go for the least expensive unit. Often, that's the least efficient unit, too."

National Grid's plans are subject to review and approval from the Public Service Commission, which could make a ruling sometime this fall.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, NYSERDA, also promotes using Energy Star central air conditioners, which consume 8 percent less energy than standard systems.

Colleen Ryan, a spokesperson for NYSERDA, said people are becoming increasingly interested in the energy-efficient units as energy costs rise.

"From where we started, the awareness and interest has grown tremendously," she said.

The state, meanwhile, is distributing $2.4 million in federal funds to help low-income residents with medical needs purchase high-efficiency air conditioners.

A resident of the home must have a doctor's document that he or she suffers from a medical condition that is exacerbated by high heat.

Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said it's expected 1,000 homes statewide will receive assistance.