8 Ways to Keep Your Cool this Summer
Planning to add a cooling system to your home this season? Let’s get your investigating done now so you can get it installed before the first heat waves hit. To help you sort through cooling options, here’s an overview of products that may enter the picture:
1. Central Air Conditioning
Central Air Conditioning is the most popular cooling option. If you have a central ducting system to deliver heat to your home, central AC is a relatively simply addition in most cases.
Components & Operation
A “thing-a-ma-jig,” otherwise known as an evaporator coil, is installed in the ducting adjacent to the furnace, and a relatively large piece of equipment (condenser) is placed outdoors, usually on the ground alongside your home. These two components are connected by copper piping which circulates refrigerant, and an electrical line is needed to connect the outdoor unit to your home’s electric service panel. The important part? Cold comes out of the air registers and you smile.
The installation is typically a one day event and requires professional expertise. Handling the refrigerant requires a license, a permit is required from your local municipality, and the work and tools are specialized. It’s not rocket science, but choosing a professional who has the proper credentials and training, and who won’t cut corners is critical for the long term health of the system and effective, efficient operation.
Electrical Use & Efficiency
Electric bills for central air conditioning will vary depending on the size and insulation values of your home, the efficiency of your new AC system, your usage patterns, outdoor temperatures, and how well the system is maintained. Air conditioner efficiency is typically measured by the SEER rating, with the higher the number the better. Efficiency ratings for new central air conditioners range from a minimum of 13 SEER up to a super-efficient 25 SEER.
Multi-stage air conditioners, which include 2-stage systems that operate at a high and low output level, and variable output air conditioners that run over a wide range of output levels, are great product options. When these systems are operating in a lower output mode they consume less electricity, make less noise, and provide optimal comfort. Of note, you need to have a furnace with comparable multi-stage technology to install one of these AC units, so to take advantage of this great technology a furnace upgrade may also be in the cards. Multi-stage furnaces and air conditioners are great choices for our widely varying Colorado climate!
2. Ductless Air Conditioners & Heat Pumps
Ductless air conditioners and heat pumps (also referred to as ‘ductless’ and ‘mini-splits’) were once considered a specialty product, for homes with no central ducting system or in situations where only spot cooling or heating was needed. While those remain the most common applications, these products are so effective, efficient and popular that more and more customers are choosing a ‘ductless’ solution for their entire home.
Like central AC, ductless air conditioning systems have a condensing unit installed outside the home. Indoors, instead of ducting, they use ultra-quiet, modern looking blower units which can be installed in a variety of locations and configurations. Ductless condensing units are extremely quiet and system efficiency ratings exceed that of central air conditioners in almost all cases.
The greatest advantage afforded by ductless systems is the zoning approach, allowing you to cool or heat just the areas in your home that are being used, saving money that would otherwise be spent cooling unoccupied spaces. And importantly, with zoned operation each area has its own thermostat, meaning that people in different rooms can comfortably adapt to their own ‘internal thermostat.’ The battle over the thermostat rages in a lot of households and ductless technology can really make a big difference.
Ductless systems aren’t anything like window units. They are stylish, permanent upgrades to your home and come with an investment cost to match. But there is no air conditioning product that will provide better comfort or more efficient operation, and product satisfaction is unmatched.
3. Whole-House Evaporative Coolers
Roof mounted, central evaporative coolers have been a mainstay in our semi-arid Colorado climate for generations. They provide excellent cooling under the right conditions, with operating costs well below that of air conditioning. If you prefer keeping some windows open, like humidity, and don’t object to equipment on the roof, this would be a great option to consider.
Evaporative coolers are best suited for homes with a conventional, asphalt shingle roof, where the unit can be easily accessed for installation and servicing, and with an attic space right below to house a new ducting system. Using a large fan, outside air is drawn through wetted pads inside the roof unit, then blown through ceiling diffusers into the home. It’s pretty cool.
In order for the evaporative cooling system to perform properly, windows and/or doors must remain open during system operation. You help direct the cooling by what you open and close. As this operating description might convey, evaporative cooling offers less control over the indoor environment than central AC, and there are even times when outdoor conditions are not ideal for optimal performance, like periods of higher than normal humidity.
Contrary to popular opinion, a professionally installed high quality evaporative cooling system is often comparable in cost to a high efficiency central air conditioning system. So why install an evaporative cooler? It uses less electricity, introduces fresh air, and adds humidity instead of removing it. If those answers resonate with you as positive features, then an evaporative cooler should be on your radar.
Evaporative coolers are not for everyone. If you prefer more predictable temperature control, would be bothered by high indoor humidity, have home security concerns, or live in a noisy or dusty area that would make leaving windows open a concern, a different type of system might be more to your liking.
4. Window & Thru-The-Wall Air Conditioners
Window and thru-the-wall air conditioning units are AC systems that are condensed into one compact box. Part of the unit hangs outside of the house, so that heat removed from the living space can be dumped to the outside, while the front face extends into the living area and houses the controls, fan, and the air delivery grille.
Window units, as the name implies, are supported in a window frame during the summer and are typically removed at the end of the season. Thru-the-wall units are installed permanently, requiring that a large hole be cut into the wall to make a home for it.
These units are designed to cool a particular area, and therefore multiple units would be needed to provide whole-house cooling. The main advantage of this type of equipment is cost. You can purchase them online or at a discount store, and an HVAC professional is not needed for the installation. While some models will just plug into a standard outlet, depending on the electrical specs of the model you choose, you might need an electrician to run a new power circuit.
There are some major drawbacks with window and thru-the-wall units. Foremost is noise. The compressor is directly inside the unit, meaning right in your living space. You will know when it’s running! A high tolerance for noise would be good. Cosmetics should be considered as well. The AC unit will be very visible from the outside, and of course, the front cover will be prominent on the inside as well. For window units, there is also the semi-annual ‘honey do’ project of removing it when summer is over and reinstalling it when warm weather returns.
While window and thru-the-wall units carry considerable ‘baggage,’ they can provide cooling at the right price to keep you from going hot weather bonkers if a more permanent solution is not in the cards.
5. Window & Portable Evaporative Coolers
We’ll start this topic with a disclaimer: We find window mounted and portable evaporative coolers to be unsatisfactory systems and don’t recommend them.
In order for an evaporative cooler to be meaningfully effective, it needs to move a lot of air. Window models that move a large amount of air tend to be loud and create so much airflow that the living space in front of them becomes unpleasant to use (think ‘wind tunnel’ effect). Smaller capacity units that produce less disruption are unlikely to produce adequate cooling. From a cosmetic standpoint, you have a large box hanging off the house year-round, or, if you don’t want to see it over the winter, you need to remove and reinstall it annually. Portable models create less disruption and often provide a temporary moment of satisfaction when first cranked up, but because of their limited capacity they don’t generate lasting relief. Keeping temporary units supplied with water and connecting up the ‘air hose’ are also challenges that typically put an end to their reign. Many storage spaces in homes are cluttered with portable evaporative coolers that didn’t make the cut.
As advertised, we recommend staying away from these products.
6. Portable Air Conditioners
A product that has made a nice splash in recent years in the home improvement retail market are portable air conditioners. Imagine a small, compact, self-contained AC system on wheels, with built-in fan, controls located on top of the unit, and with a large flexible exhaust hose that needs to be run outdoors. These units fill a niche for spot cooling where flexibility of location is desired. These would not be expected to be ideal in homes for cosmetic reasons, but for emergency use or a quick fix, they can fill a need.
7. Fan Systems
Products like whole-house fans, ceiling fans, and attic ventilators can help keep you cool, or even cool down your whole house under the right circumstances. Taking advantage of the ‘wind-chill effect,’ de-stratifying indoor air, exhausting heat from a stagnant attic, or pulling cooler outside air into your home in the evening are all interesting possibilities that these products offer. These fans can be used in conjunction with a primary cooling system to increase comfort and reduce your overall cooling expense.
8. Other Possibilities
In the Rare Or Not Quite There department, research continues on cold water-based chiller systems, which are prevalent in commercial and industrial applications, but are not yet a competitive player in the home cooling marketplace. Adapting that larger system technology to residential products is still a work-in-progress.
For those of you building a new home, especially with a large yard, geothermal cooling (and heating) may be worthy of consideration. There is a significant upfront investment, but for those looking to minimize their footprint the concept and return could be rewarding.
In the Denver and Boulder, Colorado area, contact Save Home Heat Company for installation and service of central and ductless air conditioners, evaporative cooling systems, whole-house fans, ceiling fans, and attic ventilators. Save Home Heat provides professional heating, cooling, plumbing, drain, and electrical services to Boulder-Denver homeowners.