Central Air Conditioners vs. Portable Units for Pre-War City Homes

    Air Conditioners

    They say that if a home buyer is looking for a house with personality and character, then an older home is the ideal choice. However, despite the lure of personality and character, older houses and especially pre-war city homes often have their fair share of problems and challenges.

    Possibly one of the biggest challenges with living in a pre-war city home is finding an efficient and safe heating/cooling system. Nonetheless, this does not mean that modern air conditioning systems are out of the question. As a matter of fact, owners of older homes have the liberty of choosing from various air conditioning options.

    Below, two of the available air conditioner options for older homes are explored; central air conditioning and portable air conditioning systems. Most importantly, their pros and cons are highlighted in detail to make it easier for homeowners to make a more informed decision on which system is best for their needs.

    (Source: TheTimTracker)

    Air Conditioner Systems Found in Pre-war City Homes

    Older homes, in this case, refer to houses that were built pre-war and before the emergence of modern air conditioning. As such, older homes often use certain ancient/outdated air conditioning systems such as;

    • Cast-iron Radiators

    These systems are normally comprised of a coal power boiler and multiple radiators each in a different room of the house. The boiler heats up water which is then circulated through pipes to the individual radiators hence heating up the house. Though efficient and cost friendly, it has the disadvantage of heating up slowly and worse, distributing heat unevenly in the house. Interestingly, it also has a reputation for holding heat for longer periods.

    • Hot Water Baseboard Systems

    These are also known as hydronic heating systems or simply as baseboard radiator systems. Traditional hot water basement systems had boilers that could run on natural gas or oil. They work on the same principle as radiators except the water circulation pipes are installed within the baseboard. As water runs through these pipes, it radiates heat throughout the room.

    • Forced Air Heating System

    Some pre-war city homes may also have forced air heating systems installed. This system is comprised of two main components; a furnace which heats up air and ducts through which the hot air is circulated through the house. Older systems ran on coal while others ran on fuels such as natural gas or oil.

    Pre-war city homes may either have ductless air conditioners or in some cases ducted systems in the form of the forced air heating systems.

    1. Central Air Conditioners for Pre-War City Homes

    This is one of the options many owners of older homes first consider when they think of updating the air conditioners in their houses. In a central A/C system, hot air is cooled at a central location after which it is distributed to and from different rooms in the house through fans and ductwork. It works on the concept of compression; the refrigerant gas is compressed hence enabling it to absorb heat out of the house and also creating cooler air.

    There are two types of central air conditioner systems;

    • Split system central air conditioners are the most popular. In split systems, the condenser is located outside and is contained in a metal cabinet while the evaporator is located inside the house. Some systems may also have furnaces or air handlers in the indoor cabinet. The evaporator coil facilitates the exchange of heat so that the refrigerant warms up while the air in the room cools down. Experts recommend split systems for houses that already have furnaces but do not have A/C.
    • In packaged central air conditioners, a single cabinet holds the condenser, the compressor, and the evaporator. In most cases, this cabinet is placed on the roof. Fans pulled warm air from the room and into the ducts and taken to the single cabinet where it is cooled and dehumidified by the refrigerant. The cool and dehumidified air is then pushed through ducts and blown out into the different rooms in the house. The combination of all the elements in a single cabinet eliminates the need for a separate furnace.

    Central Air Conditioners

    What it Entails

    Most experts agree that retrofitting older homes with central air conditioners is easier and much more affordable when the house already has air ducts. Nonetheless, it is still an expensive affair as it may cost a minimum of $2,600 and up to $15,000. Professional technicians may take between 2 and 3 days to complete the installation.

    However, while some pre-war city homes may have ducts, there is always the possibility that the ducts are faulty or need improvement to enable them to accommodate the central A/C. Having the ducts inspected, therefore, emerges as one of the most important steps before installing central A/C. For example, homeowners may need to upsize the furnace blowers in their homes, seal ducts or some cases, replace older supply registers with new ones which improve airflow by up to 25%.

    Homeowners may incur additional costs of between $1000 and $3000 for this. Homeowners may also need to install high-efficiency air filter systems in older air ducts hence incurring another extra $500 to $1000.

    Also as important is the need to perform a heat gain calculation on the house. Homeowners should ensure that they delegate this duty to contractors who are familiar with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America Manual J load calculation.

    This calculation gives a rough idea of the amount of heat gain one’s home is likely to experience. With this knowledge, it is possible to determine which air conditioner unit size is appropriate for the house.

    Air conditioner unit size is important as it determines unit efficiency and cost. An undersized unit may require more energy as it needs to operate longer and harder to cool the house. On the other hand, an oversize unit uses more energy than is needed to cool the house hence resulting in higher utility costs. Furthermore, oversize units are not effective in the dehumidifying air.

    Thirdly, there is a need to determine the energy efficiency of the air conditioner unit. This is normally known as the seasonal energy-efficiency rating (SEER). The SEER of an air conditioner unit determines how many British thermal units (Btu) an A/C removes for each watt of electricity it uses up. Higher SEERs are preferred as they lead to lower operational costs. However, such units are also more expensive to install than units with low SEERs.

    Fourthly, it is important to note that some pre-war city homes may not have the electrical capacity to accommodate the additional needs of a modern central air conditioning unit.

    In some cases, older homes may have small electrical panels that are incapable of accommodating the central air conditioner. In such cases, homeowners may have to incur additional costs due to the need to upgrade the circuit breaker box. The cost of this upgrade may fall anywhere between $1500 and $3000. What’s more, one may require permits from the DOB to make changes.

    Ductless Pre-War City Homes

    Contrary to what many people think, it is possible to install central air conditioners in older homes that do not have air ducts. However, the cost of installing new air ducts makes it a significantly expensive endeavor.

    Indeed, the cost of installing new ducts in the attic and basement may cost a minimum of between $3000 and $5000 and as much as $15,000 depending on factors such as the size of the home, location of ducts and contractor fees. Installing a central air conditioner from scratch also takes a longer time to complete; in some cases even weeks.

    Furthermore, installing new ducts may require major structural alternations particularly to the walls, floors and possibly ceilings. In such a case, homeowners may have to submit detailed architectural plans for board approval and also to obtain necessary approvals from the New York Department of Buildings.

    It is possible to have the ductwork done through small and less intrusive holes in the ceiling, floors or walls rather than structurally modifying the walls. However, a contractor experienced in retrofitting is a must for this, and this may mean paying more. In the case of packaged central air conditioners, building regulations may not allow one to put a condenser on the roof of pre-war city homes.

    Pros of Central Air Conditioners

    • Firstly, a central air conditioner provides consistent temperatures everywhere within the house. This is because the air of the same temperature gets pumped through the ducts.
    • Another benefit of using central air conditioners is the fact that they also improve the quality of the air through the air filters which remove allergens from the air.
    • They are also considered relatively quieter than other options. This is because the cabinets containing the compressor are usually outside. Operational noise is also lower than that of most units such as window air conditioners and free standing units.
    • It is easier to install central air conditioning in pre-war city homes that already have ducts.
    • Owners of pre-war homes in New York also stand to benefit from rebates if they install units with high SEERs. For instance, units with SEERs higher than 15 may qualify for rebates of $300. Similarly, sealing ducts may also attract rebates of up to $600.

    Cons of Central A/C

    • As evidenced, installing central air conditioning units in pre-war city homes is an expensive venture particularly if ductwork is damaged or if ductwork does not exist at all.
    • It has also emerged that installing central a/c is time-consuming and process intensive. Homeowners are often required to perform duct inspections, heat gain calculations and in some cases, even seek permits from the department of buildings.
    • A central a/c system is also likely to increase energy bills. Research suggests that on average, air conditioning may consume at least 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity on an annual basis. Leaking ducts may also lead to additional energy costs.
    • Homeowners will also have to incur the extra costs of duct maintenance to avoid the buildup of mold and bacteria in the ducts.
    • Additionally, central A/Cs do not allow for room-by-room adjustment of temperature.

    2. Portable Air Conditioners

    Portable Air Conditioner

    Portable air conditioners are compact, free-standing air conditioning units. Their compactness means that it is easy for those using them to move them from room to room with general ease. The units often use wheels to enhance portability.

    With this in mind, portable air conditioners come off as units that are particularly useful in cooling (and heating) specific spaces (rooms).They are therefore ideal for smaller pre-war city homes as well as for those who only need to cool a single space in their homes.

    Different designs of portable units work in a variety of ways. For example single duct portable units work by drawing hot air from the room for purposes of cooling and releasing some of the hot air outsides. However, this often results in pressure reduction in the room subsequently leading to more warm air entering the room from other parts of the house. This means that such units overwork themselves in an attempt to cool the room.

    On the other hand, dual hose portable air conditioners use one hose to suck in air from the outside after which the air is used to cool the unit. The second hose is then used to expel hot air.

    While this system does not result in negative pressure, it is less efficient as it uses warm air to cool the compressors. What’s more, most also use two internal fans subsequently leading to higher consumption of energy.

    It is important to choose a portable air conditioner that has enough BTUs to cool the targeted space. Most experts recommend an average of 18,000 BTUs per 1000 square feet of space.

    A portable unit with BTUs that are less than the recommended is less efficient in cooling the targeted space due to having to deal with bigger heat load than it can handle.

    Pros of Portable Air Conditioner Units

    • The very first advantage of using these units is their portability. Moving them from one room to another is easy.
    • Portable air conditioners are more affordable than most other air conditioning options including central air conditioning. Some are found for as little as $500 while the premium ones may cost more than $1000. They are therefore ideal for owners of pre-war city homes who are on a budget.
    • Unlike central air conditioners, portable units are easy to install and do not require following any building codes or seeking any permits. They also have flexible venting options with some venting through the ceiling, others through the window and others through sliding doors.
    • They are ideal for pre-war city homes which cannot have window air conditioning units.
    • Many portable air conditioners also dehumidify the air.

    Cons of Portable Air Conditioners

    • The biggest of portable air conditioners is the fact that most have low SEERs. The minimum governmental requirement for portable units is 10 SEER yet most portable units do not even meet this requirement. Those that meet or exceed this requirement often cost significantly more.
    • Since all mechanical components of the unit are in the room; they emit noise
    • Many portable units require regular drainage particularly if they have a dehumidifier function. This means it’s hard to leave the units unattended for long.
    • Many experts have also questioned the efficiency of portable units. For example, they may take too long to cool a room or may not even cool it as well as they claim.
    • Portable units are only ideal for use in small and individual spaces.

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