A/C costs could jump 50% for people locked down amid the coronavirus

During the hot summer months, workers typically pass their days in the well air-conditioned office buildings. And the employers pay for the A/C.

Free food had been a go-to perk of pre-COVID workplaces, but as many workers around the country are now stuck at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, free air conditioning may turn out to be the benefit workers miss most.

Estimates for air conditioning often use 8 hours per day as a benchmark for calculating costs. With workers asked to work remotely by many companies this summer, many will be on the hook for an additional 8 hours of A/C usage per day, doubling their cooling costs. 

(If you currently run A/C 16 hours per day, costs would rise 50%.)

According to Energy Star, a program run by the Environmental Protection Agency, air conditioning will be the most significant increase to households’ power costs this summer. 

Estimating the cost increase

People’s cooling situations are as different as their housing situations, with energy prices, housing size, cooling unit efficiency, dwelling insulation, and personal preferences governing the price tag. But data from Google’s Nest, which controls millions of central air conditioners around the country, has data that can be used to make some estimates for certain cases.

Nest found that a typical central air system often uses 3,500 watts and costs around $110.88 per month to run for eight hours a day at a national average of 13.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. 

For an extra eight hours a day during weekdays, that’s $192 per month.

For window units, Nest estimates costs of $45.60 each per month and a split system costs $28.50 each per month, so adjusting upwards for increased usage could mean $78 per window unit and $49 per split per month. This is all based on an average energy price of 13.2 cents per kilowatt-hour — which varies throughout the country. 

Surge pricing may be in play

Further complicating the problem is if demand changes the cost of energy. Utilities like ConEd often offer time-of-use rates, which effectively means energy is more expensive during peak hours and cheaper when demand is low. (This is exactly like Uber’s surge pricing.)

“Timing is everything,” ConEd says on its website. “Under our time-of-use rate, you’ll pay less during off-peak periods than you would under our standard small commercial or residential rates, and more during peak and summer super-peak times.”

A Nest thermostat is installed in a home in Provo, Utah, January 15, 2014. REUTERS/George Frey

During the hot summer in New York City, for example, ConEd’s peak rates, which are 8 a.m. to midnight — the workday — are 21.97 cents per kilowatt hour. For a 40-hour work-week alone, this would add $53 per month per window unit to the normal cooling costs. For a 3,500-watt central air system, that’s an extra $129 per month.

For four hot months, that could be more than $500 compared to last year.

Interestingly, however, the Energy Information Administration said that demand in New York City had been down about 20% in March and April, temperature adjusted (mainly because schools and business were closed). But this may not necessarily translate into cheaper prices.

For people who don’t have the budget to add cooling, studies indicate that productivity, already dampened by suboptimal ad-hoc working environments brought on by the COVID crisis, could suffer further with high temperatures. 

Though people may be happy to leave behind preposterously cold air-conditioning temperatures in offices (68°F in the summer is an unconscionable assault on the earth’s seasonality and especially difficult for women), studies have shown productivity falls above 80°F.

Considering the A/C cost problem, Energy Star passed some tips onto Yahoo Finance, recommending products bearing its certification, routine checks on air filters in units that could harm efficiency, and the use of smart thermostats.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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