Is Your Air Conditioning Sucking Up Gas?

Even with a little relief, we’re all looking at pain at the pump this year, and any way to reduce gas costs is a good one. You may have heard that running your air conditioner less will reduce the amount of gas you burn…but is that actually true?

Sort of. But first, we need to go over what your air conditioner actually is. Air conditioning works by compressing a refrigerant, usually R-134a in cars, with an engine belt. As the refrigerant is compressed, it absorbs heat, creating cool air to blow on your overheated face. That engine belt is the tricky part: it means the air conditioner gets its power directly from the engine, instead of another source, like a battery.

So your air conditioning does burn gas, but does it burn enough to make a difference? Yep. According to a study done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, air conditioning usage can lower the fuel economy of any car by at least 20%. Or, if you want it in practical terms: 62 gallons of gas per car per year. Yes, you’ve been paying over $200 a year to keep cool. Even worse, that cranks up your tailpipe emissions, meaning not only are you burning money out of your wallet, you’re adding to the greenhouse gases that make you crank the AC in the first place!

So, what to do? Just suffer? Keep a block of ice in the back seat at all times? Install a self-mister? No, you can still use your A/C. You just have to use it judiciously. Try these ideas and tips to keep cool without wrecking your wallet:

  • Always park in a shady area. If you’re going to a location that may not have much shade, such as a mall parking lot, bring front and back car shades to block the sun. This also has the happy side effect of not making you stick to the upholstery when you get back in the car.
  • If possible, keep the windows down and the A/C off when you park. If you’re idling, roll down the windows and turn off the A/C to save a little more gas.
  • In stop-and-go traffic, roll the windows down instead. The drag will be extremely low, and won’t affect your fuel economy.
  • Keep your A/C on the lowest setting, and before turning it on, see if using the “fan” function does anything to cool down your car.
  • Service your air conditioner every year. This will help ensure that you’re getting the most out of the fuel you do burn. Make sure the refrigerant is recharged, have the belt checked, and have any parts that need to be replaced taken care of.

Stay cool this summer, but keep your wallet in mind next time you turn on that AC. Being comfortable doesn’t come cheaply, after all. Especially if gas prices go back up.

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