Types of Cooling Systems
Central Air Conditioners
Central air conditioners circulate cool air through a system of supply and return ducts. Supply ducts and registers (i.e., openings in the walls, floors, or ceilings covered by grills) carry cooled air from the air conditioner to the home. This cooled air becomes warmer as it circulates through the home; then it flows back to the central air conditioner through return ducts and registers.
Air conditioners help to dehumidify the incoming air, but in extremely humid climates or in cases where the air conditioner is oversized, it may not achieve a low humidity. Running a dehumidifier in your air-conditioned home will increase your energy use, both for the dehumidifier itself and because the air conditioner will require more energy to cool your house. A preferable alternative is a dehumidifying heat pipe, which can be added as a retrofit to most existing systems.
Types of Central Air Conditioners
A central air conditioner is either a split-system unit or a packaged unit.
In a split-system central air conditioner, an outdoor metal cabinet contains the condenser and compressor, and an indoor cabinet contains the evaporator. In many split-system air conditioners, this indoor cabinet also contains a furnace or the indoor part of a heat pump. The air conditioner’s evaporator coil is installed in the cabinet or main supply duct of this furnace or heat pump. If your home already has a furnace but no air conditioner, a split-system is the most economical central air conditioner to install.
In a packaged central air conditioner, the evaporator, condenser, and compressor are all located in one cabinet, which usually is placed on a roof or on a concrete slab next to the house’s foundation. This type of air conditioner also is used in small commercial buildings. Air supply and return ducts come from indoors through the home’s exterior wall or roof to connect with the packaged air conditioner, which is usually located outdoors. Packaged air conditioners often include electric heating coils or a natural gas furnace. This combination of air conditioner and central heater eliminates the need for a separate furnace indoors.
Choosing or Upgrading Your Central Air Conditioner
Central air conditioners are more efficient than room air conditioners. In addition, they are out of the way, quiet, and convenient to operate. To save energy and money, you should try to buy an energy-efficient air conditioner and reduce your central air conditioner’s energy use. In an average air-conditioned home, air conditioning consumes more than 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, causing power plants to emit about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide and 31 pounds of sulfur dioxide.
If you are considering adding central air conditioning to your home, the deciding factor may be the need for ductwork.
If you have an older central air conditioner, you might choose to replace the outdoor compressor with a modern, high-efficiency unit. If you do so, consult a local heating and cooling contractor to assure that the new compressor is properly matched to the indoor unit. However, considering recent changes in refrigerants and air conditioning designs, it might be wiser to replace the entire system.
Today’s best air conditioners use 30% to 50% less energy to produce the same amount of cooling as air conditioners made in the mid-1970s. Even if your air conditioner is only 10 years old, you may save 20% to 40% of your cooling energy costs by replacing it with a newer, more efficient model.
Proper sizing and installation are key elements in determining air conditioner efficiency. Too large a unit will not adequately remove humidity. Too small a unit will not be able to attain a comfortable temperature on the hottest days. Improper unit location, lack of insulation, and improper duct installation can greatly diminish efficiency.
When buying an air conditioner, look for a model with high efficiency. Central air conditioners are rated according to their seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). SEER indicates the relative amount of energy needed to provide a specific cooling output. Many older systems have SEER ratings of 6 or less. The minimum SEER allowed today is 13. Look for the ENERGY STAR® label for central air conditioners with SEER ratings of 13 or greater, but consider using air conditioning equipment with higher SEER ratings for greater savings.
New residential central air conditioner standards went into effect on January 23, 2006. Air conditioners manufactured after January 26, 2006, must achieve a SEER of 13 or higher. SEER 13 is 30% more efficient than the previous minimum SEER of 10. The standard applies only to appliances manufactured after January 23, 2006. Equipment with a rating less than SEER 13 manufactured before this date may still be sold and installed.
The average homeowner will remain unaffected by this standard change for some time to come. The standards do not require you to change your existing central air conditioning units, and replacement parts and services should still be available for your home’s systems. The “lifespan” of a central air conditioner is about 15 to 20 years. Manufacturers typically continue to support existing equipment by making replacement parts available and honoring maintenance contracts after the new standard goes into effect.
Other features to look for when buying an air conditioner include:
- A thermal expansion valve and a high-temperature rating (EER) greater than 11.6, for high-efficiency operation when the weather is at its hottest
- A variable speed air handler for new ventilation systems
- A unit that operates quietly
- A fan-only switch, so you can use the unit for nighttime ventilation to substantially reduce air-conditioning costs
- A filter check light to remind you to check the filter after a predetermined number of operating hours
- An automatic-delay fan switch to turn off the fan a few minutes after the compressor turns off.
Installation and Location of Air Conditioners
If your air conditioner is installed correctly, or if major installation problems are found and fixed, it will perform efficiently for years with only minor routine maintenance. However, many air conditioners are not installed correctly. As an unfortunate result, modern energy-efficient air conditioners can perform almost as poorly as older inefficient models.
When installing a new central air conditioning system, be sure that your contractor:
- Allows adequate indoor space for the installation, maintenance, and repair of the new system, and installs an access door in the furnace or duct to provide a way to clean the evaporator coil
- Uses a duct-sizing methodology such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA)Manual D
- Ensures there are enough supply registers to deliver cool air and enough return air registers to carry warm house air back to the air conditioner
- Installs ductwork within the conditioned space, not in the attic, wherever possible
- Seals all ducts with duct mastic and heavily insulates attic ducts
- Locates the condensing unit where its noise will not keep you or your neighbors awake at night, if possible
- Locates the condensing unit where no nearby objects will block airflow to it
- Verifies that the newly installed air conditioner has the exact refrigerant charge and airflow rate specified by the manufacturer
- Locates the thermostat away from heat sources, such as windows or supply registers.
If you are replacing an older or failed split system, be sure that the evaporator coil is replaced with a new one that exactly matches the condenser coil in the new condensing unit. (The air conditioner’s efficiency will likely not improve if the existing evaporator coil is left in place; in fact, the old coil could cause the new compressor to fail prematurely.)
Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioners
Ductless, mini split-system air-conditioners (mini splits) have numerous potential applications in residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. The most common applications are in multifamily housing or as retrofit add-ons to houses with “non-ducted” heating systems, such as hydronic (hot water heat), radiant panels, and space heaters (wood, kerosene, propane). They can also be a good choice for room additions and small apartments, where extending or installing distribution ductwork (for a central air-conditioner or heating systems) is not feasible.
Like central systems, mini splits have two main components: an outdoor compressor/condenser, and an indoor air-handling unit. A conduit, which houses the power cable, refrigerant tubing, suction tubing, and a condensate drain, links the outdoor and indoor units.
The main advantages of mini splits are their small size and flexibility for zoning or heating and cooling individual rooms. Many models can have as many as four indoor air handling units (for four zones or rooms) connected to one outdoor unit. The number depends on how much heating or cooling is required for the building or each zone (which in turn is affected by how well the building is insulated). Each of the zones will have its own thermostat, so you only need to condition that space when it is occupied, saving energy and money.
Ductless mini-split systems are also often easier to install than other types of space conditioning systems. For example, the hook-up between the outdoor and indoor units generally requires only a three-inch (~8 centimeter [cm]) hole through a wall for the conduit. Also, most manufacturers of this type of system can provide a variety of lengths of connecting conduits. So, if necessary, you can locate the outdoor unit as far away as 50 feet (~15 meters [m]) from the indoor evaporator. This makes it possible to cool rooms on the front side of a building house with the compressor in a more advantageous or inconspicuous place on the outside of the building.
Since mini splits have no ducts, they avoid the energy losses associated with ductwork of central forced air systems. Duct losses can account for more than 30% of energy consumption for space conditioning, especially if the ducts are in an unconditioned space such as an attic.
Compared with other add-on systems, mini splits offer more flexibility in interior design options. The indoor air handlers can be suspended from a ceiling, mounted flush into a drop ceiling, or hung on a wall. Floor-standing models are also available. Most indoor units have profiles of about seven inches (~18 cm) deep and usually come with sleek, high-tech-looking jackets. Many also offer a remote control to make it easier to turn the system on and off when it’s positioned high on a wall or suspended from a ceiling. Split-systems can also help to keep your home safer because there is only a small hole in the wall. Through-the-wall and window mounted room air-conditioners can provide an easy entrance for intruders.
The primary disadvantage of mini splits is their cost. Such systems cost about $1,500 to $2,000 per ton (12,000 Btu per hour) of cooling capacity. This is about 30% more than central systems (not including ductwork) and may cost twice as much as window units of similar capacity.
The installer must also correctly size each indoor unit and judge the best location for its installation. Oversized or incorrectly located air-handlers often result in short-cycling, which wastes energy and does not provide proper temperature or humidity control. Too large a system is also more expensive to buy and operate.
Some people may not like the appearance of the indoor part of the system. While less obtrusive than a window room air conditioner, they seldom have the built-in look of a central system. There must also be a place to drain condensate water near the outdoor unit.
Qualified installers and service people for mini splits may not be easy to find. In addition, most conventional heating and cooling contractors have large investments in tools and training for sheet metal duct systems. They need to use (and charge for) these to earn a return on their investment, so they may not recommend ductless systems except where a ducted system would be difficult for them to install.
Room Air Conditioners
Room or window air conditioners cool rooms rather than the entire home or business. If they provide cooling only where they’re needed, room air conditioners are less expensive to operate than central units, even though their efficiency is generally lower than that of central air conditioners.
Smaller room air conditioners (i.e., those drawing less than 7.5 amps of electricity) can be plugged into any 15- or 20-amp, 115-volt household circuit that is not shared with any other major appliances. Larger room air conditioners (i.e., those drawing more than 7.5 amps) need their own dedicated 115-volt circuit. The largest models require a dedicated 230-volt circuit.
Energy Efficiency of Room Air Conditioners
A room air conditioner’s efficiency is measured by the energy efficiency ratio (EER). The EER is the ratio of the cooling capacity (in British thermal units [Btu] per hour) to the power input (in watts). The higher the EER rating, the more efficient the air conditioner. National appliance standards require room air conditioners to have an energy efficiency ratio (EER) ranging from 8.0–9.8 or greater, depending on the type and capacity, and ENERGY STAR® qualified room air conditioners have even higher EER ratings.
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers reports that the average EER of room air conditioners rose 47% from 1972 to 1991. If you own a 1970s-vintage room air conditioner with an EER of 5 and you replace it with a new one with an EER of 10, you will cut your air conditioning energy costs in half.
When buying a new room air conditioner, look for units with an EER of 10.0 or above. Check the EnergyGuide label for the unit, and also look for room air conditioners with the ENERGY STAR label.
Sizing and Selecting a Room Air Conditioner
The required cooling capacity for a room air conditioner depends on the size of the room being cooled — room air conditioners generally have cooling capacities that range from 5,500 Btu per hour to 14,000 Btu per hour. A common rating term for air conditioning size is the “ton,” which is 12,000 Btu per hour.
Proper sizing is very important for efficient air conditioning. A bigger unit is not necessarily better because a unit that is too large will not cool an area uniformly. The oversized unit will also cool the room to its thermostat set point and shut down prior to properly dehumidifying the room, leaving the area feeling damp or “clammy.” A small unit running for an extended period operates more efficiently and is more effective at dehumidifying than a large unit that cycles on and off too frequently.
Based on size alone, an air conditioner generally needs 20 Btu for each square foot of living space. Other important factors to consider when selecting an air conditioner are room height, local climate, shading, and window size.
Verify that your home’s electrical system can meet the unit’s power requirements. Room units operate on 115-volt or 230-volt circuits. The standard household receptacle is a connection for a 115-volt branch circuit. Large room units rated at 115 volts may require a dedicated circuit and room units rated at 230 volts may require a special circuit.
If you are mounting your air conditioner near the corner of a room, look for a unit that can direct its airflow in the desired direction for your room layout. If you need to mount the air conditioner at the narrow end of a long room, then look for a fan control known as “Power Thrust” or “Super Thrust” that sends the cooled air farther into the room.
Other features to look for include:
- A filter that slides out easily for regular cleaning
- Logically arranged controls
- A digital readout for the thermostat setting
- A built-in timer
Installing and Operating Your Room Air Conditioner
A little planning before installing your air conditioner will save you energy and money. The unit should be level when installed so that the inside drainage system and other mechanisms operate efficiently.
Don’t place lamps or televisions near your air-conditioner’s thermostat. The thermostat senses heat from these appliances, which can cause the air conditioner to run longer than necessary.
Set your air conditioner’s thermostat as high as is comfortably possible in the summer. The less difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures, the lower your overall cooling bill will be. Don’t set your thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner; it will not cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling and unnecessary expense.
Set the fan speed on high, except on very humid days. When humidity is high, set the fan speed on low for more comfort. The low speed on humid days will cool your home more effectively and remove more moisture from the air because of slower air movement through the cooling equipment.
Consider using an interior fan in conjunction with your window air conditioner to spread the cooled air through your home without greatly increasing electricity use.
Remember that the efficient operation of any air conditioning system relies on a properly insulated and air sealed home.