Air conditioning, along with heating, is among the most expensive uses of energy in your home.

With the hot summer months upon us, here are some simple steps to take to reduce your cooling costs and save a bit of money:

1. Check Your Cooling System

Get your cooling system checked if it hasn't been serviced in awhile. While it will cost money to have someone come out and check your system, it will ensure that your system is running properly and efficiently so you aren't wasting money the entire summer.

It will also greatly decrease the likelihood of having problems in the middle of the summer, when repairmen are busiest and charging the most. Take the time to ask how often you need to replace the filter (usually every month) and have them teach you how to replace it so you can do it yourself.

2. Have an Energy Audit

Do you know which parts of your house are costing you the most to cool or heat? Having an energy audit done will help you determine where air is escaping, causing your system to work overtime.

Many energy companies will come out free of charge or for a small fee and do an audit of your entire house. Call your local utility company or visit its Web site to see whether it offers this service.

If your local utility doesn't offer an energy audit, you can do it yourself over the Internet with Home Energy Saver , which will give you information and comparable energy-use statistics for homes in your area. If your costs are significantly higher than other homes, hiring someone to come out for an energy audit -- even at full cost -- probably makes sense.

If done by your utility company or a professional, an energy audit will provide you with information on the steps that you can take to plug the leaks and a cost analysis of how long it will take for the fixes to pay for themselves.

3. Use Fans

One of the best ways to save money is to keep your thermostat set as high as possible and use fans to keep the air in your home comfortable.

If you have ceiling fans, using them in conjunction with your air conditioner can make a room feel as much as 10 degrees cooler. If you have dual-direction fans, make sure they are spinning in the correct direction -- pushing air down, and not moving it up. If you forget to switch it from the winter setting (moving air up), you can actually heat up the room because the warm air that collects near the ceiling will be bounced back down toward the living area.

If you don't have ceiling fans, consider purchasing a small electric table fan for each of the rooms you spend time in. While not as effective as ceiling fans, they can still circulate air in the rooms and make it feel up to 5 degrees cooler. These can be found for as little as $10 at discount and home improvement stores and should pay for themselves in one season.

4. Limit Appliance Use to Off-Peak Hours

Using your appliances raises the temperature inside your house, causing your air conditioner to work harder and costing you more money.

Use appliances during the cooler evening or early-morning hours whenever possible. Some utilities will even charge less for electricity during these off-peak hours, which can save you even more money.

5. Vents

Make sure that your fireplace vent has been completely closed, so cooled air doesn't have an easy way to escape.

Also be aware of your use of ventilation fans in the kitchen, bathroom and other areas. These fans can suck out cooled air and make your air conditioner work that much harder if you accidentally leave them running.

6. Get Out of the House

The simplest way to reduce your cooling costs is not to cool your house during the hottest parts of the day.

Hot days are excellent times to do errands. If you can resist spending, a trip to the mall to window-shop will keep you cool at no cost. You can also go to the movies , which will get you out of the house and the heat. Another great place to spend the hot afternoon hours is at your local library.

By taking these simple steps, you should be able to significantly cut the costs associated with cooling your house, without suffering from the summer heat.

Jeffrey Strain has been a freelance personal finance writer for the past 10 years helping people save money and get their finances in order. He currently owns and runs

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