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Modern Air Conditioning Options for Older Homes & Buildings


When you’re renovating an older building for modern living (especially one in an urban setting like NYC), adding modern conveniences can be a challenge. Air conditioning is a prime example.

Older buildings often don’t have the space to install the ductwork needed for traditional systems. Also, electrical systems may be sufficient to handle the load of today’s AC equipment. While upgrading the electric can be expensive, finding the space for air conditioning equipment is more of a problem. Doing it wrong can often mean damaging original plaster, floors and woodwork. Even in the best case, installing traditional equipment usually means giving up closet space or lowering ceilings to make room for equipment.

That’s why it’s smart to consider alternative air conditioning systems for older homes, as well as small businesses renovating older buildings. In New York City, historic brownstone townhouses are frequently renovated for both uses. Here we will discuss the problems with older solutions, and introduce 3 more modern air conditioning options for older homes that you may not know about.

2 poor air conditioning options for older homes

In older structures like NYC brownstones, the heating system typically consisted of a boiler and radiators. If the space was renovated a few decades back, it might even have baseboards. But chances are, there is no ductwork like in newer homes that use forced air heating and ducted air conditioning.

Building in the ductwork for a traditional air conditioning system can be done, but it requires tearing holes in walls and ceilings, and even lowering ceiling heights to make room for the ductwork. In a historic space, you’re probably looking to preserve the original finishes and not having to give up beautiful high ceilings to add air conditioning.

Builders may misinform you about the air conditioning options for older homes. You may be told that window units and through-the-wall units (similar to what you find in hotel rooms) are your only choices when you don’t have existing ductwork and don’t want to tear up your space to add them.

You already know you don’t want those options. They are noisy and ruin the aesthetics of your space. Not to mention the possibility of condensation drips causing damage to the exterior of the home.
Also, regulations for historic buildings may prohibit cutting new holes in exterior walls, which means no new through the wall units.
So, what are some better air conditioning options for older homes? Read on to learn about 3 newer types of air conditioning that don’t require traditional ductwork.

3 ideal air conditioning options for older homes

VRF Systems
VRF systems are one of the best modern air conditioning options for older homes. Like traditional central air conditioning systems used for residential and light commercial spaces, VRF systems have an outdoor condenser unit and indoor air handlers. But the similarity stops there. VRF systems can be installed without ducts. Instead, refrigerant lines connect multiple smaller indoor fan coil units installed throughout the space.

This sophisticated new VRF system technology is capable of providing not only cooling, but also heat, and even both simultaneously to different areas within the space. The use of multiple indoor units provides the ability to create zones that can be individually controlled. What’s more, these VRF systems are very quiet and energy-efficient because the variable-speed compressor runs only at the capacity needed for the current conditions.

That also means you get consistent comfort conditions in your home, with no hot or cold spots. You can also take advantage of mobile control technology that lets you adjust temperature settings for each zone from your smartphone or mobile device.

BONUS: VRF systems are one of the best air conditioning options for older homes because they are extremely reliable with fewer breakdowns, due to reduced wear and tear on the parts.

One caveat: make sure you choose an installer who is experienced with VRF systems. These systems are extremely sophisticated and require a high level of expertise. If you choose a company that doesn’t understand the unique requirements of a VRF system, you’ll end up with sub-par performance and you’ll pay more in the end to have an expert come in to fix it.

Related Article:You Can’t Afford to Make These 7 Air Conditioning Installation Mistakes.

Ductless Mini Splits
Split systems get their name because they have two major components: the compressor and condensing unit (often called the outdoor unit) and the evaporator coil and air handling unit (often called the indoor unit). In a ductless split system, the outdoor and indoor units are connected by a small conduit with refrigerant and electrical lines. The outdoor unit is typically installed under a window on the outside of the building, or in a mechanical room if available. The indoor unit can be wall mounted, or can be installed in the ceiling if there is adequate clearance (and cutting a small hole in the ceiling is not prohibitive).

As the name implies, mini splits are small systems and are most often used to add cooling to one or two rooms. While quieter than wall or window units, they are not as quiet or efficient as a VRF system. They are often good air conditioning options for older homes when adding AC to an attic or other supplemental space.

High Velocity Systems
A high velocity HVAC system is one of the smartest air conditioning options for older homes because it is designed for spaces that can’t accommodate large ducts. Instead, the high velocity system includes small, flexible ducts (only 2 inches in diameter) that can be fed through walls and around obstacles without cutting big holes in walls and ceilings. The small ducts are also insulated to reduce noise. The system also includes a blower and coil unit in a single, small box that can fit in tight spaces.

Read more: Residential HVAC Services: Innovation Improves Cooling in NYC Luxury Homes

Choosing between air conditioning options for older homes can be tricky, and that’s why you need the advice of HVAC experts. They can point you to the right type of equipment for your space, recommend the best brands (and the ones with smallest equipment if that is a big concern). Most important of all, they can make sure your load calculation is done properly so your new system has the correct capacity for the usage requirements.

Want to learn more about the best AC options for your needs? Get this handy guide: The Ultimate Guide to Air Conditioning for NYC Luxury Residential Spaces.
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