Warming up to several air-conditioning alternatives


May 23, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie and Ron Nodine

THERE ARE some topics we just can't say enough about. Roof leaks is one; broken toilets is another. And (especially this time of year) air conditioning is definitely one that can be expounded upon.

Recently we wrote about central air-conditioning systems, but now it's time to talk about alternatives.

One option, of course, is the window unit. It is great for cooling individual rooms, and allows you to choose which room you want to cool. Such units are relatively inexpensive and you can install them yourself. Before you run to the store, you need to consider some things.

Depending on the size of the unit, you might need a 220-volt circuit to power it. Even if it is a 110-volt unit, an air-conditioner should have its own circuit, which means the wiring goes directly to the circuit breaker panel with its own breaker. The size of the breaker depends on the amperage required by the unit. This part of the installation should be done by a licensed electrician.

Installing the unit in the window is not difficult, but even the small units tend to be quite heavy. While one person can install a smaller unit, it might take two or three to install a larger one.

Once it's in the window, the weight of the unit is supported by the sash. Most wood windows can easily support this, but with vinyl windows you might have a problem. Especially with larger units, the weight can cause the sash to bow over time. Larger units can be installed in vinyl windows if their weight is supported by something other than the window. Many units come with struts that can be attached to the window or the outside of the house.

If you don't want units blocking your windows, you can consider through-the-wall or split-system units. A through-the-wall unit is just like a window unit, except it's installed in the wall. It costs about the same as window units, although it costs more to install. While you don't block the window, you have the unsightly unit sticking from the side of the house. The noise level will be similar.

The split system's setup is like a central-air system. The air handler (the fan and cooling coil) is mounted on the interior wall and resembles what you would see in a hotel room. The condenser is outside like a central-air unit and looks the same but smaller. This type of unit is good for larger rooms because of its greater cooling capacity.

Another good thing about the split system is that the noisiest part of it is outside, not in the room. It requires no window space and can be hidden from view on the outside if you have aesthetic concerns. A fence or plantings will hide the outside part, and the cooling lines, especially if they have to be run to an upper story, can be disguised with a downspout.

This type of system might not be practical for all applications. From a cost standpoint, you would spend more to put one of these in each room than you would for central air. And this system will require a heating/cooling contractor for the installation.

Like every home project, installing air conditioning requires you to do some homework. Decide what system best suits your lifestyle and your house, and spend some time finding an electrician or contractor you can work with.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at hw@renovator.net or Karol at karol.menzie@baltsun.com. Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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