Cold Comfort

Kristine Hayes

MY HUSBAND AND I CAN now say we survived our first Arizona summer. When we moved from Portland, Oregon, to Phoenix, we weren’t sure how we’d cope with the abundant sunshine. There was also another unknown: How much would it cost to keep our home comfortable when the temperature outside soared?

We heard stories about residents in our retirement community paying upward of $350 a month for electricity during the summer season. Since we’re living on a fixed income, we began researching ways to help control the cost of cooling our home.

Our first step? Having 19 solar panels installed on the roof. While the initial cost was steep—$15,000—we felt confident that, over the 30-year lifespan of the panels, we’d eventually recoup our costs.

Next, we replaced many of the 40-year-old light fixtures in our home. We installed LED fixtures which, in addition to being energy-efficient, give off far less heat than incandescent bulbs. We had a smart thermostat installed as well. By signing up to participate in an energy-savings program through our electricity provider, the thermostat and its installation were free.

Once the thermostat was installed, it took my husband and me a few days to compromise on temperature settings. Like most couples, we differ in our temperature preferences. I tend to tolerate heat better. We ultimately settled on keeping our home at 78 degrees during the day and 74 degrees while we slept. While those settings would have been uncomfortably warm for us in Oregon, 78 degrees felt refreshing on a 114-degree day in Arizona.

Over the course of the summer, we also adjusted our daily schedule to align with the lower electricity rates we get during certain hours of the day. On weekdays, our rates are substantially higher between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. This means making a concerted effort to run most of our appliances either early in the day or late at night.

How did our finances fare during our first Arizona summer? Since our solar panels were installed in January—but we didn’t move into our home until May—we accumulated nearly $150 in credits toward our summer electricity bills. This meant our first bill with a balance due didn’t arrive until August.

During July and August—the two hottest months in Arizona—our electricity cost averaged about $3.50 per day. We were so pleased with the reasonable cost, we decided to have two small air-conditioning units installed in our garage and utility room—two areas of our house that weren’t cooled by our large rooftop unit. Even with the addition of those units, our average electricity cost is still well below $4 per day.

We suspect that, by November, we may achieve a “net zero” electricity bill. During the winter months, our utility plan changes over to a different schedule of hourly rates. Between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., our electricity use will be charged at a “super off-peak” rate. That rate is currently less than the crediting rate from our utility provider for the solar energy we produce. By strategically running our appliances during those daytime hours—combined with less extreme outdoor temperatures—it’s possible we may even rack up a few dollars in credits to use next summer.

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