Cooling Your Home from A-Z

Summer is fast approaching and that means it’s about to get hot outside! We'll soon be turning on our cooling systems for some relief. Are you looking to add or upgrade your home’s cooling ability? See below for a summary of options, pros & cons, and recommendations.

Central Air Conditioner

Basics: This is a compressor cycle unit that utilizes refrigerant in a coil to cool air inside the home. The cool air is then circulated throughout the home in the same duct system used by the furnace in the winter. 
Costs: $3,000-$6,000 for single zone unit and install*
Pros: Central AC is quiet and super convenient to operate using your wall thermostat. Provides air filtration.
Cons: This option is typically the most expensive to purchase and operate. Installation requires the services of an HVAC contractor. Cost depends on whether you want to replace an existing unit or add AC to your home for the first time. Note, before deciding to change out your unit, check your ductwork. Your home may not be as cool as you like due to leaking ducts versus an aging AC unit. If it’s a first-time install than the cost depends on whether your home is already setup for AC, if it needs additional ductwork, and/or access to install is tricky. 
Tips: Select an installer that ensures: the unit(s) is/are sized correctly, your home’s duct system is free of any damaged or leaking sections and air flow throughout your home is optimized by adjusting ducts and vents. Pay attention to SEER and EER ratings but don’t get hung-up splitting hairs. The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) is the most common rating displayed on central AC units and represents total cooling output over a typical temperature range in warm seasons divided by total energy consumed. Values range from 8-30 but the highest value units only go to SEER-23 currently. The higher the number the more efficient the unit. SEER can be a good value for unit comparison purposes in Colorado as our average summer temperatures are in the range of values used in the government test to establish SEER values (i.e. average temperature value in summer is 83 degrees). The Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) preceeds the SEER rating system and represents total cooling divided by total energy consumed based on 95 degrees outside, 80 degrees inside, and 50% humidity. Technicians tend to like the EER rating because it is a more straight forward calculation for comparing units but note that units. In summary, defer to EER values if they are available and default to SEER values if needed. We have read that units with a SEER rating higher than SEER-16 are not worth the money as these units are more expensive to repair based on their variable speed blowers.

Window Units

Basics: These units work in a similar fashion to central AC units but are much smaller and can be mounted in windows or through walls. They have a much smaller cooler capacity and are intended to cool single rooms. 
Costs: $100-$500*
Pros: Install is simple and can be done by you the homeowner. Significantly less expensive than other cooling alternatives to buy  and operate. 
Cons: Air filtration mechanisms in window units are typically less than stellar. These units have no way of circulating cool air in the room so cooling is not uniform. They can be loud when cycling on or off.
Tips: Window units are rated using the EER system as d above for central AC units. Take the time to properly install a window unit to reduce leakage of cool air between the unit and the window frame. Skip the accordion-style panels that come with the unit and install rigid panels, secured with strong adhesive tape, on both sides between the unit and the window frame.

Ductless Mini-Split

Basics: Ductless mini-split units have been popular in Europe and Asia for years and are growing increasingly popular here in the States. These units consist of an outdoor compressor unit and one or more indoor “air handling” units, which emit the cooled air into the room and house the control panel for settings. The individual pieces are typically connected by a three-inch line containing power and refrigerant lines. Each indoor unit can be controlled individually providing flexibility in cooling options on a room-by-room basis. These units skirt around the issue of needing to run ductwork through the house for central AC while providing more precise cooling options than window units. These units are also a good option for additions or garage apartments.
Costs: $1,700-$8,000**
Pros: No ductwork required, can be installed basically anywhere on the wall, quiet, much more efficient than a window unit, great filtration. Some units also provide heating capability.
Cons: Installation requires the services of an HVAC contractor. Less efficient than central AC (assuming equally sized spaces are being cooled). Units are visible inside and outside of the home.
Tips: Regularly check and clear dust and debris from the outdoor unit and ensure the indoor unit is not blocked by furniture, curtains, etc. Clean the filters regularly every four to six weeks.

Evaporative Cooler (AKA Swamp Fan)

Basics: Evaporative coolers draws outside air across moist pads located inside the unit thus cooling the air via the evaporative cooling process. The fan located within the unit blows and circulates cool air around the house. These units work  best in arid climates like ours. Evaporative coolers are capable of lowering indoor temperatures by a maximum of 30 degrees compared to outdoor temperatures.
Costs: $2,800 - $4,200* (For whole house unit)
Pros: Cost significantly less than central AC to install and uses significantly less energy to operate. Increase the humidity level in your home.
Cons: Requires regular maintenance.
Tips: The unit needs to be drained and cleaned regularly to ensure optimal performance. Units must be sized carefully to achieve the greatest benefit.

Whole House Fan

Basics: A high-powered fan that rapidly draws air up and outside of your home into the attic or through a vent pipe. These units are used at night to purge your home of warm air and draw cooler air in. 
Costs: $1,500***
Pros: Can quickly cool entire home in evening or when the air outside is cooler than inside. 
Cons: Does not provide cooling capabilities during the day and cannot be adjusted for temperature.
Tips: Look for fans that offer at least two speeds. Some variable speed fans now offer remote control access via your smart phone and the ability to set fan speed based on preferred interior temperature via your thermostat.

*Costs are based on HomeAdvisor True Cost Guide for material and install within Boulder, CO and National stats.
** Costs are based on ImproveNet estimates for materials and install of one unit systems.
***Cost is based on material & install estimates based on national average.

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