If you're a homeowner who is trying to make your home more energy efficient, cutting air conditioner use seems like one area where you could really make a difference. However, that could affect how comfortable your home is during hot weather -- and if it gets too uncomfortable, you'd only end up turning the air conditioning up again. Instead, turn to your landscaping to help your air conditioning run more efficiently and help keep your home naturally cooler. Here are three ways you can give your air conditioning and energy usage a break.
Shade on the South and West
Plant tall trees or hedges on the south and west sides of the home, which are typically the sides that get the hottest sun in the summer. By providing shade on those sides during hot weather, you reduce the amount of heat that can transfer into your home and cause your air conditioner to work more. The added shade results in a cooler house and thus less air conditioner use.
Make sure the trees or hedges are fast-growing species with sturdy root systems -- you don't want your nice, shady trees toppling over on a windy and rainy day. Depending on your growing zone and how much room you have for the plants, you could choose trees like the northern red oak in cooler areas in the eastern United States. The northern red oak grows up to 2 feet per year, which is considered a fast rate. West coast homeowners could use the valley oak or California white oak. If you need a tree with a more compact canopy, there's always the Leyland cypress, a nice, conical tree. There are many, many more species to choose from.
Protect Outdoor Equipment
Planting a hedge or several smaller plants around any outdoor equipment, like a compressor, not only protects the compressor from the hot sun, but it can also catch rocks and other debris that get thrown up by lawn mowers. The debris will land in the hedge, rather than hitting the side of the equipment.
There is another way you can protect the outdoor components through landscaping, and that's through clearance. Do not place plants right next to the compressor and condenser, for example. This Old House says to give those at least a 2-foot clearance on all sides.
Cover Asphalt or Concrete Areas and Paths
If you have an expanse of asphalt or concrete adjacent to the house, try to keep it shaded. Add an awning or pergola with vines. If you let the expanse remain unshaded, sunlight can reflect off of the surface and up toward the house, creating glare and extra heat. If you don't need a flat expanse of concrete or asphalt but need to install a path, try to use stepping stones surrounded by groundcover plants, which won't send bright reflections back up toward the house.
If you want more information about enabling your air conditioning to run more effectively, talk to an HVAC contractor. They will be able to tell you what they've seen done at other properties in the area and which strategies have worked out well.