As the summer of 2010 turns into one big long heat wave that never seems to break, consumers are finding themselves more worried than ever about their home cooling and other energy bills. They are also feeling particularly powerless (no pun intended) to do anything about it: Reasonable people may debate the need for air conditioning when it’s a toasty 86 degrees. Not so much when the temperature remains in the triple digits even after the sun has set.

But even during the hottest summer on record, there are things you can do to lower your power bills. Some will pay off immediately and some will provide a return on investment in years to come. Some are tips that are timeless, but sometimes forgotten. And some are newer approaches to saving costs that you may not have heard about. As we await what is typically the hottest month of the summer, we thought they were all worth passing on.

  1. Think about peak demand. We all know that the more power we use, the more we spend. But many of us fail to realize that electric companies charge more during times of peak demand. How much more? A lot.  According to some informed estimates, 10% to 20% of overall electricity costs in the U.S. come from the top 100 hours of demand. Turn the lights on at those times of day and you’ll pay first-class rates for what feels like coach service. It’s not really that hard to determine peak usage times. They are when you and everyone else need the most power. Think of the hot summer day around dinner time when the air conditioner is running, the family is returning home from school and work and errands need to be done. You may not want to sacrifice a cool home entirely at such times, but with a little planning, you could easily delay the laundry, the cooking and other energy sucking errands. Better yet, plan to be out of the house at times when everyone else is parked in front of the A.C.
  2. Reconsider solar. If you are like most people, you like the idea of having a solar panel on your roof to defray the costs of traditional power, but you think you can’t afford the upfront investment, or worry that the equipment will not pay for itself in your lifetime. In parts of California, a new Solar Affordable Housing Program is bringing solar power to low- and middle-income households that don’t have money to spare. The program relies on solar incentives, grants, donations and corporate sponsors to cover equipment costs and it provides volunteers to help with the installation. If you don’t live in a region covered by this program (there are other similar ones throughout the country) you should still consider solar panels, which in recent years have seen significant price reductions.
  3. And speaking of roof tops, the simple step of painting your roof white can produce significant power savings. This tip comes straight from Energy Secretary Steven Chu and it’s a basic fact that people who dwell in warm climates have understood for centuries. When you paint a roof or an entire house white, it absorbs a lot less heat. When Energy Secretary Chu delivered this tip to viewers of Comedy Central last year, he said that if the world could somehow manage to turn all its roofs white within 20 years, it would save about 24 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or the same amount the entire world emitted last year. One disclaimer: If you live in a region that gets quite cold in the winter, you may want to stick with your dark roof, which can keep homes warmer during cold sunny days.
  4. Don’t be penny wise/pound foolish. Keeping the car windows down in lieu of turning on the air conditioner can make sense sometimes, but not when you’re driving down the highway at 65 miles per hour. That just creates drag on the car, eating more gasoline. Likewise, while driving a longer distance to get cheaper gasoline may make sense if you know of a place that offers a large discount, it’s less likely to get you ahead at all if you’re talking pennies. In all of your energy purchasing decisions, try to getting caught up on small incremental savings that may cost you a lot of time and discomfort, and keep your eye on the changes that will save you consistently over the long term.
  5. Unplug. Yes, we did just say that some days are so hot that air conditioning is non-negotiable. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit in an air conditioned home with separate televisions and multiple computers running throughout the house, and the lights on in other unoccupied rooms. Sometimes it takes an outright power outage to remind you of some of the little ways you can painlessly reduce your power use. Turn off the television and read a book. Turn off the lights and go to bed an hour early. Sit on the porch and catch the evening breeze. Kick back with a drink and observe the stars. Or camp out with the whole family in the backyard, and remember the simple pleasures of getting away from it all, where the only sound is the crickets.