Neighborhood hero

North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow (left) gave 19-year-old De'Angelo Gadson-Ward a citizen's award Thursday. Battalion Chief Eric Phillips (right) described how the Fort Dorchester High School senior battled a May 12 apartment fire on his own.

Dreamstime

With the hot months of summer just around the corner, rising power bills related to air conditioning won't be far behind.

But there are some lost-cost measures you can take now to reduce those energy needs.

In my own home, I treat this as a personal challenge. My family has been able to reduce household demand for electricity in each of the past three years, and we're trying for four in a row.

Utility rates have been going nowhere but up, outpacing inflation year after year, so we know that cutting our demand for power will pay increasing dividends each year.

Of course, there's a limit to how low your power needs can go, and each improvement in efficiency makes it harder to find additional ways to save.

The steps we've taken have ranged from investing in a very efficient HVAC unit when our old one needed to be replaced to small and affordable measures such as installing programmable thermostats, insulating the water heater and using compact fluorescent light bulbs.

We also generally keep the thermostats at 68 in the winter and 78 in the summer during times when we're home. Energy experts will tell you that going just one or two degrees warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer can make a big difference in power bills.

Our household electric bills average $165 a month for an 1,800-square-foot, two-story house. And we're hoping to drive those bills lower.

With that in mind, I'm preparing now for one of my seasonal rituals, and it's one that you can try at home as a cheap and simple way to boost efficiency.

I'm talking about spending around $10 and getting some rope caulk and a can of spray foam.

The spray foam is for sealing gaps around water pipes where they go into the walls under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. The rope caulk is for temporarily sealing some large older windows I don't plan to open all summer, as well as the drafty drop-down stairway door to my attic and the flue on the fireplace.

I love rope caulk.

If you've never seen or used it, rope caulk is a substance with a consistency somewhere between modeling clay and Silly Putty.

It typically comes in coils of gray "rope" not quite the thickness of a pencil, and you just press it into place. And you can remove it just as easily, which makes it perfect for temporarily air-sealing a window or door that you might want to open when the weather is nice.

For doors and windows that need to be opened and closed regularly, stick-on latex or foam weather stripping is a good choice for sealing gaps.

Spray foam, unlike rope caulk, is ugly, messy and essentially permanent. But it's great for sealing up the big gaps that are common in the hidden spaces where pipes have been punched through the wallboard, particularly on exterior walls.

One additional inexpensive step to take while preparing for the summer cooling season is to check the filters on the air intakes for your cooling system and see if they need to be changed. A dirty filter makes the system work harder and consume more power.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552. For more money-saving tips, go to postandcourier.com/personal_finance.