ALBANY, Ga. -- Nothing can kill a monthly budget quite like a utility bill.
As temperatures hover around the century mark and summer in the south gets into full swing, homeowners and renters-alike will likely feel the pinch when they open up their utility bills later this month.
Still, there are simple things that people can do to help lower their utility bills even on a limited budget.
Lorie Farkas, a spokesperson and conservation advocate for the Albany Water, Gas and Light Commission, has been working with rate payers and speaking to groups around Albany about ways to save for years.
Too often, she says, ratepayers fail to take advantage of the utility's free energy audit service that helps identify where residents are losing their money.
"It's really amazing when you walk through someone's home and you identify a few simple things, like a simple change in personal habits, or raising or lowering the temperature. It can make a significant difference," she says.
Water heaters, for instance, can gobble up to 18 percent of your power bill. Switching off the breaker when you head to work or when it won't be in use for several hours can yield noticeable savings on your next bill, Farkas says.
Energy Star, the rating system and energy conservation program administered by the federal government, also suggests wrapping your water heater in a special water heater blanket and checking the temperature to ensure you're not overheating water, which uses electricity or gas.
When it comes to surviving a sweltering summer in the South, air conditioners are a necessity.
But, especially in older homes, air units can be energy hogs, consuming vast quantities of electricity while attempting to keep a large home cool.
Farkas says to keep the thermostat at 78 or higher to help mitigate the damage to your utility bill, but be forewarned, on days when it's 100 degrees, you're unit's still going to run much of the day to try and reach that 78 degree mark.
"You have to be smart about it," Farkas said. "If it's 100 outside and you set the thermostat to 80, you're unit's still going to run all day just because it's so hot outside."
"If you're going to leave the house for more than three hours, cut your unit off," she says. "When you get home from work, it may still be hot, but chances are, for the next several hours the temperature will begin slowly dipping into the night hours and your unit won't have to work as long to cool down your house."
Zone cooling also often works in larger, more drafty homes.
That involves investing in a window unit or portable air conditioner in rooms where you stay the most if they're far from the A/C unit like a bedroom or laundry room.
Rather than using your big old clunker of an air conditioner to cool down one room -- along with the rest of the house -- cut the main unit off and use the window unit to cool the room you're in.
Newer model units come with remotes and timers to help you be the most efficient user of your window-unit power.
And, Farkas says not to forget the ceiling fans.
While fans alone don't cool the air, they do have a cooling effect on the body, and, when set on "low" in conjunction with an air conditioner, can help remove the cold-sucking humidity from a room, she says.
If you're blessed with a yard, creative use of landscaping can save you some money on your heating and cooling costs and can make you feel more comfortable.
If you have a bedroom or often-used room that faces the afternoon sun, consider planting a deciduous tree along that side of the home.
"In the summer, when it has all of its leaves, it'll shade the home from direct sunlight and cool the rooms on that side of the house," Farkas said. "In the winter, the leaves are gone and light flows through, helping to warm the house."
Inexpensive paper "solar" or "knockout" window blinds can also help lower the temperature in rooms that face the sun that have windows.
For many homeowners, insulation is an often-needed but seldom-done component to any home energy plan.
While most people know that the attic is one of the top locations for insulation, Farkas says that people rarely insulate their flooring, costing them on their utility bill and impacting their comfort levels.
"I'd say that 90 percent of the homes that we inspect don't have insulation under the floors," Farkas said. "And it's such an easy thing to do. It's literally a weekend project that could have a big impact on your heating or cooling costs."
It's estimated that 20 to 40 percent of a home's heating and cooling energy comes and goes through the floor.
Home improvement stores sell insulation often sized to the most common width of floor joists in crawlspaces. And with simple clips called "Tiger Teeth," no drilling, nailing or stapling is needed to do the job.
In the South, homeowners need to buy insulation with a high R-Value -- somewhere between R-30 and R-38 -- in order to see a significant impact.
Renters and homeowners alike can also save some money simply by using a feather. Take a feather around the doors and windows of your home. If it moves around significantly, you've got a draft problem that can be easily resolved with caulk or foam.
Changing a few habits can also help save some money.
Turn off water while you're brushing your teeth to conserve water; only open refrigerators or ovens when it's necessary and don't stand in front of the refrigerator trying to make up your mind on what to eat.
Plan on taking showers in the same part of the day -- in the morning or at night -- so you can turn off you're water heater and avoid multiple trips in and outside while you're at home.
If your water bill is sky high and you don't know why, put a few drops of food coloring into your toilet's tank and see if the bowl turns colors without you flushing.
Farkas says a leak the size of a ballpoint pen cap can cause up to 1 million gallons of water to be consumed in a three-month-period if gone unchecked.
In the end, if you're not sure if you're home is energy efficient, take advantage of WG&L's free energy audit. They'll come out, do an analysis and tell you what you can do to help lower your utility bill.
And when you upgrade your appliances, fixtures or light bulbs, look for the energy star label to make sure you're getting the most energy efficient products on the market. Often, large ticket items such as tankless water heaters and ultra-efficient refrigerators and HVAC systems come with a tax rebate to help defray the up-front costs.