When it comes to residential air conditioning in the United States, you'll usually encounter three standard systems: split central air conditioners, portable units, and window units. These air conditioners can vary dramatically in terms of efficiency, power, and application, so understanding a bit about them can help you to make the right choice for your home.
An excellent place to start is by examining how efficiency can vary between each option. Since air conditioners essentially act as heat transport systems, more efficient units also tend to perform better.
Window Units: Straightforward and Effective
Like every other air conditioning system, window units operate by using a refrigerant to transport heat energy from your home's interior to the outside environment. The three essential components in this system are the compressor, the evaporator coils, and the condenser coils. The compressor "pumps" refrigerant through the system, collecting heat at the evaporator and shedding it from the condenser.
The compressor and condenser coils sit on the part of a window unit that hangs out of your window, separated from the faceplate and evaporator coil by heavy insulation. In other words, the hot side of the air conditioner is entirely outside, allowing it to reject heat that it gathers from your room more efficiently.
The primary advantage of window units is their cost and targeted cooling. You can use a window unit to cool down just a single room, saving you money on utility bills over a whole-home system. The downside is that it's often challenging to seal the surrounding window, reducing some of their inherent efficiency.
Portable AC: An Upgrade?
Portable units are essentially window units that remain entirely inside your room. This design has a notable downside: the hot components (the compressor and condenser) are in the space you're trying to cool. A flexible duct transports heat from the condenser coils to a window, but this is much less efficient than locating the coils outside.
Although they tend to be less efficient, portable units are helpful for spaces where window units are impractical, such as in basements or rooms with oddly shaped windows. Because of their lower efficiency, you may need a larger unit to provide adequate cooling.
Split Central Systems: Efficiency and Power
Finally, central air conditioning systems use a split design. The hot components live in an outdoor condenser unit kept entirely separate from the home. Refrigerant travels through a line set to an indoor evaporator coil, and a blower and ductwork distribute cool air throughout the house. These systems generally provide maximum efficiency by using large, fully self-contained outdoor units.
Central air conditioners offer the best combination of comfort and energy efficiency for many homeowners, but retrofitting into older homes may not always be cost-effective. If your home requires a cooling upgrade, then consulting with an experienced AC contractor is the best way to find an option that's right for you.
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