This episode originally aired on September 8, 2020.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

We’ve had some seriously hot days this summer. So hot, that even though I know my central AC uses a lot of electricity, I’ve broken down and turned it on. Which made me wonder, is there anything I could do to waste less electricity while I’m cooling my home? 

Here to help me out are Harrison Katz and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team. Welcome, Harrison and Fatima! 

Harrison Katz: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima Husain: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, Harrison, I turned my air conditioning on a few weeks ago. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. How much electricity goes into all of us using AC?  

Harrison Katz: Three quarters of homes around the country have some form of air conditioning system. When you add in other types of buildings, like restaurants and malls, air conditioners use 6% of ALL electricity produced in the United States.

Megan Hall: That sounds like a lot! 

Fatima Husain: And with global temperatures rising, it’s fair to assume that air conditioning use will only increase with time.

Harrison Katz: But the good news is that air conditioners are getting more efficient. 

Fatima Husain: On average, an air conditioner sold today uses 30 to 50% less energy than the ones sold in the 1970s. 

Megan Hall: So, my air conditioning system is pretty old. How do I figure out how efficient it is? 

Harrison Katz: The most common way is to find your air conditioner’s SEER rating, which stands for the seasonal energy efficiency ratio. 

Fatima Husain: The higher the rating, the more efficient your air conditioner is. Most modern air conditioners have a rating ranging from 13 to 21, but older systems can have a rating as low as 6!

Megan Hall: So, I checked, and we have a Goodman AC, model CE36 dash 16 B. I had a hard time reading the label, but people online guess that the SEER rating is probably 9 or 10. How bad is that? 

Fatima Husain: Well, Megan, I’ll say this: the U.S. Department of Energy has minimum SEER standards for central air conditioners. The minimum SEER rating allowed for ACs on sale today is 13. In 2023, that’ll rise to 14. 

Megan Hall: Does that mean I should replace my AC?

Harrison Katz: If your AC is more than ten years old, then it’s probably worth the money to upgrade to one of these newer, more efficient models. And that upgrade could save you nearly 20 to 40% of your current cooling costs.

Megan Hall: But new central air systems can be thousands of dollars — and I’m really only using it for a few hot weeks in the summer! If I’m not ready to spend that kind of money, is there anything else I can do?  

Fatima Husain: Yes, though again, it depends on your budget. You can start by examining your window frames and casing — that’s often a major source of the leaks that let cool air escape. 

Harrison Katz: If you find a leak, you might be able to plug it with fiberglass or spray insulation.

Fatima Husain: For a bigger project, you could add more insulation to your entire house, which will serve as a barrier to keep the cold air in and the hot air out

Harrison Katz: As an added bonus, all these improvements will keep your house warmer in the winter time, and can save you money on your heating bills. 

Megan Hall: So, how do I know which option will help me the most? ?

Harrison Katz: You could start by getting a sense of how much insulation you already have with an energy audit. 

Megan Hall: What’s an energy audit?

Fatima Husain: That’s when experts come to your house to measure how “leaky” your windows, walls, and ceilings are. They’ll help you identify places where the cool air from your AC is leaking to the outside.

Harrison Katz: While these changes could take a bit more work on your end, they may be just as effective, and cheaper, than a new HVAC system.

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Harrison and Fatima!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio.