What Type of Air Conditioner Should I Buy for My Pre-War City Home?


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; because there are many differences between condenser and evaporative air conditioners (read this article on CoolAndPortable.com), but this article will deal with the two most popular choices facing older homeowners: central air conditioning vs. portable (room) air conditioners. 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 (pre-1940's) and before the emergence of modern air conditioning. As such, older homes often use certain ancient/outdated air conditioning systems such as;

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.

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.

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.

New Air Conditioners for Pre-War City Homes

There are 2 options to consider for owners of older homes when they think of updating or adding air conditioners in their houses. There are portable air conditioning units and central air conditioning, which we will discuss first.   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.

1. Two types of central air conditioner systems:

Central Air Conditioners

How To Retrofit

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 oversized 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

Cons of Central A/C


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

Cons of Portable Air Conditioners

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