Air conditioning has come a long way over the years, and there are a lot of options to choose from.Central Air Conditioners
Separating the various styles, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and defining their intended applications will help you narrow your search and find what will work best for you.
Efficiency, comfort, and installation requirements are all important factors to consider; so before you begin shopping systems and consulting HVAC technicians, let's start with the basics.
Central air conditioners are undoubtedly the most common style of air conditioning found in single-family homes. You can easily recognize a home with central air conditioning by the large box-shaped outdoor condenser, but they also utilize an indoor coil and a blower.
The biggest factor to keep in mind with central air conditioning systems is that they require duct work. Ducts carry the cool air from the blower to distribute it to each room in your home. If your home doesn't already feature ducts, you may not enjoy the amount of labor and cost that goes into installing it.
Some older homes will be a lot more difficult to install duct work in. In some cases, it may not be possible. To avoid the complications, cost, and labor of installing air ducts, consider a ductless mini split system.
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Mini Split Systems
Mini split systems are similar to what you'd expect from central air, but they require no duct work, and they're much more efficient. Instead of ducts, mini splits feature individual a/c units in each area you're conditioning. Instead of duct work carrying air through your home, mini split systems carry refrigerant through small tubes from the compressor to the a/c units. The tubes can be fed through a small 3 inch hole into your home, so there's much less installation involved than with duct work.
Mini splits enable you to condition specific zones, meaning you don't have to cool all of the rooms in your home if you're only using two. This provides better efficiency, saves you on utility costs, and even enables you to set custom temperatures for each zone.
With a ductless mini split system, you can set the family room to 72 degrees while maintaining a cool, comfortable 67 degrees in your bedroom when sleeping. You can also install a mini split unit in your garage or workshop area. When you're using the area, you turn it on; and when you're not, you can turn it off to save energy.
Mini splits are also an effective way to condition one or two rooms that are under-served by your current air conditioning system. If you have central air, but have since built on an addition to your home, you may not want to install new duct work to condition that new part of your home. A mini split system can be added to heat and cool your new living space.
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Window Air Conditioning Units
You've most likely seen a window air conditioner before. Just as the name implies, they're installed in your window. These units are placed in an open window with no screen, and are held in place by the window itself. They typically have gaps on either side of the unit, as the window will generally be wider. These gaps must be closed off in some way, and people tend to get pretty creative in doing so.
In the winter, these units should be removed so that the window can be closed off. However, people often tend to cover the outside of the unit with a plastic garbage bag and tape plastic wrapping or cardboard over the gaps to seal the cold out.
They're less efficient than mini split and central air conditioning systems, and they're also much louder. This is because they contain the condenser, the coil, and the blower all within the single unit. This puts the compressor just inches from your living space, introducing significantly more noise into your home.
Portable Air Conditioning Units
Like window units, portable air conditioning units also contain the condenser, coil, and blower all within the same unit. Because of this compact design, they're less efficient than mini splits and central air conditioning systems. However, these air conditioners are also less efficient than window units, due to their lack of fresh air intake.
While there are some units with air intake hoses, most have one hose to eject hot air out through a window. Because most portable air conditioners don't have a fresh air intake hose, they're only ejecting air. This creates a vacuum, which forces air to seep into the home from outside in order to make its way to the unit.
This air seeping in from outside is hotter and more humid than the air in your home, which counters the cooler dryer air that the portable unit is putting out. Because of this counter-productive side-effect, portable units further lack in efficiency. In addition, they still block a window because the exhaust hose must be installed in an open window.
Packaged Terminal Air Conditioners (PTACs)
Packaged terminal air conditioners, often called PTACs, are similar to a window air conditioner, but they don't install in a window and require a lot more installation work. PTAC units are installed through your exterior wall. This means you must cut a very large hole through your studs, drywall, and siding.
Often times, especially in residential applications, this installation will require framing work to maintain structural integrity. While they don't block a window, they're still rather noisy, less efficient than mini split or central air systems, and are not ideal for conditioning your entire home.
Packaged terminal air conditioners are typically found in hotels, nursing home facilities, some high rise apartments, and the occasional hospital room. They're not typically found in single-family homes or apartments, as their installation requirements outweigh their efficiency and effectiveness in those applications.
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