CENTRAL AIR Central air-conditioning is the most popular type of cooling system in the United States. More than 75 percent of households with a cooling system use central air, according to the latest data from the United States Energy Information Administration.
But New York City is one of the big outliers. The reason: Its building stock is older than that of most major American cities, according to estimates by the Department of Buildings, with about three-quarters of the buildings constructed before 1960 — in other words, before central air-conditioning became popular. Retrofitting older apartments with central air means installing a condenser outside the home, a fan-and-coil system inside and ducts to distribute the cooled air. That’s not cheap, and it requires space, a resource lacking in many New York City apartments.
“It is very tricky to retrofit a building that was built without air-conditioning,” said Andrew Gerringer, the managing director for new business development at the Marketing Directors, a New York development, leasing and marketing company. “Buildings that have installed it” — including, he noted, some apartments at 190 Riverside Drive and Manhattan House at 200 East 66th Street — “have done so through great expense and aggravation.”
Even if you are willing to give up a closet to install a central air system in your prewar apartment, your building may not allow you to put a condenser on the roof. And retrofitting an apartment built without ductwork could be prohibitively expensive. In the best-case scenario — where you don’t have to run a pipe through your neighbor’s kitchen ceiling to get to your compressor — installing or replacing a whole-house system can cost, on average, from $2,650 to as much as $15,000, according to Fixr.com, a site that tracks home improvement costs.
Another consideration: Most central air systems lack room-by-room control, so if you want to cool the bedroom while you’re sleeping, you’ll have to cool the rest of your home, too. Still, because the ducts and mechanical components are built in, effectively hidden within the walls, floors or attic, central air is the most discreet option.
If you decide it’s right for you, check out Consumer Reports’ buying guide for reliability by brand and be sure to consider the system’s Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER), which measures how efficiently a central air-conditioner operates over an entire season (like the energy efficiency ratio, the higher the number, the better).
Hire an installer who will work with you on a well-thought-out plan for where to put the ductwork, and be sure to insulate that ductwork. Also, budget for seasonal visits by a professional to change the filter, clean the coils and perform other maintenance to ensure that the system is working properly.
Bottom line: If you have space for the ductwork, central air is a quiet, convenient and design-friendly way to cool your home.
DUCTLESS MINI-SPLIT AIR-CONDITIONER If central air is not an option, a ductless mini-split system may be your best bet. Mounted on a wall and operated by remote control, these systems still require an outdoor compressor, but there is no bulky ductwork involved. Refrigerant is circulated through tubing that connects the indoor and outdoor units.
Though not as discreet as central air, ductless mini-split systems are highly efficient, as each unit can be controlled separately. These systems can also provide heating. The cost of outfitting a 2,000-square-foot home ranges from about $1,800 to $7,000, according to Fixr.com; the more wall units you need, the higher the cost. As with central air, you will need a professional installer and should budget for an annual maintenance check.
WINDOW UNITS Inexpensive and easy to install, window units are among the most popular options for cooling individual rooms. Starting prices range from $129 for a small unit designed to cool a 150-square-foot room to $599 for a larger unit designed to cool a 1,600-squre foot space, according to Lowe’s.
To figure out what size you need, measure the room you want to cool and calculate the overall square footage. You can find the recommended cooling capacity (measured in British thermal units, or BTUs, per hour) for your room size at Energystar.gov/roomac.
Be sure to take into account sun exposure and how the room is used. If the room is heavily shaded, for example, the Energy Star chart recommends reducing capacity by 10 percent. If more than two people regularly occupy the room, add 600 BTUs for each additional person. In the kitchen, increase capacity by 4,000 BTUs.
Based on five summers’ worth of research and tests, The Sweethome, a product review site owned by The New York Times, recommends the LG LW8016ER (about $210) for most spaces measuring between 300 and 350 square feet. It not only cooled as efficiently and effectively as other window units of similar size and price tested by The Sweethome, it was also quieter, with a lower volume and deeper pitch. For those willing to pay more for an even quieter model, The Sweethome recommends the Frigidaire Gallery FGRQ08L3T1 (about $300).
If your windows are horizontal-sliding or crank-out models, casement air-conditioners like the Frigidaire FFRS0822S1 ($460) or the Kenmore 77223 ($550) are widely available options, according to The Sweethome. And while most people want their air-conditioners to be as inconspicuous as possible, those willing to pay for something with visual appeal might consider Friedrich’s Kühl line, which starts at $600 for a window unit and offers $50 panels in colors including cobalt blue, deep red and pink diamond. For other recommended units, check out Consumer Reports’ Window Air Conditioner Ratings.
SMART AIR-CONDITIONERS If you want to control your window unit with your smartphone, most of your options have glitches. “A smart appliance is supposed to make your life easier,” said Liam McCabe, who covers appliances for The Sweethome. “But so far, every smart A/C that we’ve tested has done the opposite.”
Even the best of the smart window unit air-conditioners tested last summer, the Frigidaire Gallery Cool Connect FGR0844S1 (about $300), stopped consistently responding to commands from the app over time, he said. Mr. McCabe is in the process of trying out GE Appliances’ new smart air-conditioners, which operate using Amazon Alexa, but said he had more tests to do before he could recommend them.
For controlling whole-home systems, or central air, the sleek Nest Learning Thermostat ($245) is the best option for most people, according to The Wirecutter, another product review site owned by The New York Times. If you want to change the temperature without getting up from the couch, it allows you to do so using your smartphone or computer, or with your voice via Google or Amazon Echo. Nest also learns the temperature you like and builds a schedule around when you’re home, which can help reduce energy bills.
BUILT-IN AIR-CONDITIONERS Don’t want to block the view with an unsightly window unit? Built-in air-conditioners, also known as through-wall units, are mounted in a metal sleeve that goes through an opening cut in the wall.
While The Sweethome has not tested any wall units, Mr. McCabe pointed to the LG LT0816CER as a good bet. “We know that the very similar window version is very good, and the other choices are either more expensive (sometimes much more), less energy-efficient” or difficult to find in stores, he said. “You might be able to find a cheap wall-sleeve A/C made by Midea and sold under various brand names, including Arctic King, Westpointe and Comfort-Aire, among others,” he wrote in his air-conditioner review. “But they’re generally not available through major retailers.”
PORTABLE AIR-CONDITIONERS These free-standing units, most professional reviewers say, should be used only as a last resort. Portable air-conditioners are not only more expensive, less efficient and noisier than window units, but they sit entirely inside the home, taking up valuable floor space, and use unsightly venting tubes that look as if they belong on the back of a washing machine. In short, they are bulky, ugly and don’t work very well.
Consumer Reports found that these units delivered only about half the cooling capacity they claimed, with few lowering the temperature to even 80 degrees after 100 minutes running.
Still, if you live in a building that does not allow window units, this may be your only option, apart from a fan. If you decide to go this route, The Sweethome advises that units with two hoses are better than those with one, and recommends the dual-hose Whynter Elite ARC-122DS (about $500). Consumer Reports suggests the Friedrich ZoneAir P12B (about $600).