Making Summer More Energy Efficient

No matter how hot it gets, summer doesn't have to drain your energy budget. The warmer months are a good time to execute a year-round plan for smart energy use that will save money and maybe keep the earth a little greener. Here are a few ideas you might try.

Start tracking all of your energy spending. Whether you track your overall spending on paper or on computer, consider all your energy costs and resolve to do better comparison tracking year to year. The most common sources of energy spending are home utilities and fuel costs for vehicles. However, if you own a vacation home, operate a business within your residential space or have different vehicles for land or water, see if you can separate those numbers so you can more clearly identify usage patterns month to month and find ways to cut back sensibly.

Consider an energy audit. You can do it yourself or pay for the services of a certified professional, but a basement-to-rooftop energy audit makes sense in the summer months when the absence of snow and cold make it easier to inspect potential interior and exterior energy leaks. Some utility companies have home energy audits online so you can see where your energy is going. Prospective homeowners might also want to make an energy audit part of their final home inspection process. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2014, the average American spent 60 percent of their energy dollars heating rooms and water, so that's where such audits should start. Another 16 percent goes to lighting, cooling and food refrigeration. The remainder -- nearly a quarter of total home energy use -- covers all miscellaneous energy use in the house.

Watch that thermostat. In the summer, wait for the most uncomfortable nights to give the air conditioner a workout; the rest of the time, set the thermostat a little higher. For example, the Energy Department says setting your air conditioning to 78 degrees instead of 72 can save between 6-18 percent on your summer cooling bill. Also, before you spend money on a programmable thermostat or convert your real-time utility billing to a budget plan, see how much you can save by shutting off vents and closing window treatments in unused rooms and spaces. If you leave home during the day, set the thermostat higher, but make sure the temperature is still safe for your pets.

Flip the switch. We've all been admonished to turn off the lights when we leave a room, but there are other things we can do to capture random energy waste. Sensors, dimmers and timers can reduce lighting use, and installing power strips with shutoff switches can fight so-called "vampire" energy loss that happens around the house even when computers, microwaves, cable boxes, DVRs and high-end TV sets aren't being used. Unplugging non-essential appliances between uses works too.

Convert to CFLs. Swapping conventional incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) can provide lighting that lasts longer and saves money on replacements.

Check for tax credits and rebates. Make a call to your tax professional and check the Internal Revenue Service's website and EnergyStar.gov for news on residential energy credits and rebates for specific appliances and energy-saving improvements to your home. Keep in mind that Congress traditionally acts late each year to renew old credits or to approve new ones.

Consider energy-smart landscaping. Well-placed trees and shrubs can shield a home from the sun and the elements year-round, saving up to 25 percent of the energy a typical household uses. Get advice on the best places to plant and wait until fall to buy -- that's when home and garden centers typically put their trees and other plants on sale.

Start shopping for replacement appliances, electronics and building supplies. If you know you will need to replace a furnace, air conditioning system or any kitchen appliances in the next year, do your homework now and scout the best months for sales. Energystar.gov can help you find special offers and rebates on everything from water heaters to roof and building products.

Driving? Consolidate errands and gas up at cheaper times. Summer is the biggest driving season of the year and you'll typically find that gasoline prices start inching higher around Memorial Day through Labor Day. If you're going to drive, consolidate trips and consult local experts to find the cheapest days of the week to fill up. Smartphone-equipped drivers can use apps to find low gas prices near their location.

Use public transportation. The summer months are a good time to test different routes on public transportation for both work and fun. Expanding your use of train and bus travel -- and maybe testing out designated bike routes -- saves money, fuel and the environment. The additional walking or pedaling most people do when they take public transportation has health benefits as well.

Finally, read more. New energy-saving products and resources emerge every year to provide greater savings and ecological benefits. Alternative energy technologies -- such as solar or geothermal systems -- are becoming more affordable and better designed to work in a greater variety of climates. Take the time to research these technologies and options to determine whether they'll be worth future investment.

Bottom line: Summer is a great time to test new energy-saving habits. It also provides an opportunity to plan energy savings and upgrades that can save money throughout the year.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney