Ask the Architect

Making the switch to central air


Q. We’ve always had window air conditioners, and want to get central air. It’s quieter, and we’d get our windows back. As we figure out costs, we just want your opinion as to whether it’s worth it. We realize we’ll have less room in our attic, and we think we’ll lose some space in closets where the ducts go from the attic through the second floor to the first floor. We got an estimate that was pretty expensive, $15,000 dollars. Do you think it’s worth it?

A. There’s a lot to consider. Many people don’t know the many issues of retrofitting central air conditioning into a home. In planning and paying for a new system, consider that, generally, it adds value to the home, but in doing so, you are required to obtain a building permit, which includes multiple steps, from filing a site plan, showing the location of the outside condenser unit, to an attic plan, showing how the fan unit is mounted with a location for the condensation drain pan, and information on whether the home is in a flood zone and how the outside unit will be mounted above the base flood level.
You will also need an electrical certificate and final inspection for an electrically powered system, and a plumbing permit if the system is gas-fired. Most systems are electrically powered. Then you should consider that your county tax assessor rates homes with central air as having greater value, so you will be taxed at a higher rate for central air than for your current windows units. That’s right: Your taxes will increase along with your energy bills.
Window units are my last choice for cooling systems because they are unsightly, can be unstable, need to be tilted out and downward to avoid condensation from dripping into the window, and aren’t energy-efficient if kept in the window year-round, since cold air gets into the room through flimsy sealing around the units. The least costly system is actually having individual separate controlled room units in through-wall sleeves, higher in the wall and away from windows, not just because it is only a little less unsightly, but because you avoid the tax increase, the building permit process and expenses and the disruption to the home, including the loss of valuable access and storage space in the attic and closets.
I regularly see where central air system installers ignore your best interests by placing the ductwork across the middle of the most accessible area of an attic to make their installation easier for themselves, disregarding your storage and access needs. The installers often move attic insulation and neglect to put the insulation back around the newly installed units, which may keep you cool in the summer but can make you freeze in the winter. The latest energy code requirement is to insulate the attic rafters so the attic unit is part of the cooled area. More on split units next week. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.