Tips on buying an air conditioner

As the hellish temperatures of summer approach, the worst thing that can happen (besides spontaneously bursting into flames) is having your lovely bowl of ice cream instantly melt. You now have two options: 1) eat your ice cream while sitting in your refrigerator, or 2) buy an air conditioner. We suggest the second option, because buying an air conditioner is a lot cheaper than treating frostbite.

Your search for an air conditioner doesn't need to be a traumatic experience (unless someone holds up the store). This SYW will tell you EVERYTHING that the salespeople won't tell you, including how powerful a unit you really need, how much you should pay, and how to make sure it will last for many summers to come.

We'll even explain how an air conditioner works: there are two small dwarves named Ned and Boo that live inside every air conditioner in the world. When you turn your air conditioner on, they begin to dance, which makes them breathe heavily. And as everybody knows, dwarf breath is very cold. Voila!

(You should be aware, however, that there are these "scientists" out there who would say that an air conditioner consists of two separate parts: a condenser and an evaporator coil. A refrigerant gas is compressed and then cooled within the condenser before being sent through the evaporator coil to cool the air that circulates around it. A blower then forces the cooled air out into the room.)

What type of air conditioner do you need?

There are two different kinds of air conditioning systems out there: a unit air conditioner, and a central cooling system. What's the difference? A unit air conditioner is the big box you put in your window, and a central cooling system hooks your entire house up to one system, and each room gets cooled through vents. Guess which one is more expensive?

If you're reading this SYW, then a unit air conditioner is probably what you're looking for. It's the best kind to get if you live in a small house, apartment or studio, or if you've just added an extra room on the house and don't want to hook an entire system up to it. It's also cheaper (usually costing in the $150 - $250 range if you get it on sale, but more about that ). If you have a relatively large house that you want to get cooled quickly with the flick of a button, then you might want to consider getting a central cooling system, but this can cost you thousands of dollars. Click to read more about the process of installing a central cooling system.

Where do you need it?

OK, so let's assume that you decided to get a unit air conditioner. Good choice, friend. The first thing you need to do is select the room in which to install the unit. Be aware that if you select a room that is connected to an adjacent space through an open door or archway, the two rooms together constitute one room when trying to buy an air conditioner. Interpretation: you will have to purchase an air conditioner efficient enough to circulate air sufficiently for the size of both rooms together. Keep this in mind when you how many square feet the air conditioner is going to keep cool.

Also, remember that cool air does not travel around corners, so don't expect to place an air conditioner in a curving hallway and keep your bedroom at the other end of the hall at 65F. It won't work.

Measure the room and window

It's important to measure your selected room (or rooms) VERY carefully. Why? Because 90% of your decision-making process involves the size of the room that you want to keep cool. So measure the entire room once, twice, or even three times to get it right. Write down the height, width, and length of the room.

You also have to measure the dimensions of the window in which the unit will be placed. How embarrassed would you be if you spend all this time to get an air conditioner only to find out that it doesn't fit in the window? Furthermore, some brands don't list the precise dimensions of their air conditioners on the units themselves, so you should bring a measuring tape and measure it yourself. If you're a guy, you're probably already used to measuring your unit, so this shouldn't present a problem (we couldn't resist).

There are three types of unit air conditioners you should consider: window unit, built-in window, and split system.

  • Window unit:
    The window unit is (usually) easy to install into any standard double-hung window. It should offer multiple cooling options (low - high). This is the kind that most people get because it's the cheapest; you just stick it in a window and hope it doesn't fall on anyone below.
    Cost: $250-$800
    Weight: approximately 120 lbs.

  • Built-in window:
    The built-in window again can be installed into any standard double-hung window, or it can even be installed right into your wall. This unit offers heat/cool and cooling with heat pump features as well as the standard cooling options. It's fancier than the standard window unit and it does more stuff, but it also usually consumes more energy (leading to higher electric bills).
    Cost: $500-$800
    Weight: approx. 90 lbs.

  • Split system:
    The split system provides an outside air compressor option for quiet cooling (this type won't unexpectedly hiss at you, causing you to drop your coffee in your lap). But these almost always have to be professionally installed, adding to the cost.
    Cost: $300-$1,000
    Weight: approx. 70 lbs.

All of the above types are typically run at 115 Volts or 230/208. Either will work just fine in almost any outlet. Select the type that best accommodates your needs and the type of room in which it will be located. Most people find that the window unit is plenty, so we suggest that you go along with that.

Before you get ready to go shopping, it's a good idea to check out or some other product-rating publication so you know which models are recommended based on what you're considering buying. Don't select a no-name brand without researching it or you won't know what kind of quality and durability you're getting. If you aren't interested in hunting down air conditioner brand ratings, then pick a brand you already trust, such as General Electric, Amana, Sharp, or Whirlpool.

Now you're ready to go to the store. To find one, we suggest that you look in your newspaper for air conditioners that are on sale and see what else they have in stock. We also recommend that you go to a "superstore" that specializes in selling appliances such as air conditioners (they tend to have the best people on staff to help you in fact, they're super). And most importantly, don't forget to bring your room dimensions along with you.

Btus and EERs

Once you arrive at the store, the first thing you should look at are the air conditioner's Btus and EERs.

  • Watch your Btus. The first thing you're going to come across when you go a/c shopping is the term "Btus." Here's what it means: every air conditioner has a cooling capacity number that ranges from 5,000 to 18,000 Btus. The higher the Btu value, the stronger the air conditioner is. (For the people out there interested in such things, "Btu" stands for "British thermal units.")

    "Oh, then I should get an air conditioner with the most Btus possible, right?" NO. Believe it or not, it is possible for an air conditioner to be too powerful (even on its lowest setting). Furthermore, the more Btus an a/c has, the more it costs. Btus are the best indicator of what air conditioner you should buy, so carefully figure out what you're looking for. The smaller the room, the fewer Btus needed. There are two methods to figuring out how many Btus you need:

    1. Find the square footage of the room (multiply its length and width). Then check out this to see where you fall.

    2. Find the square footage of the room, and multiply the answer by 35. That'll get you in the right ballpark.

    Here's an example: Let's say your apartment is 12' x 15'. So that's 180 square feet. Using method (1), you know that you should be looking for an air conditioner in the low 6,000 Btus. Using method (2), you are recommended to get an air conditioner with about 6,300 Btus (180 X 35).

    In addition, you should follow the following guidelines for proper selection:
    • If the room is shaded, reduce the Btus by 10%.
    • If the room is very sunny, increase the Btus by 10%.
    • If you plan on placing the air conditioning unit in your kitchen, add 4,000 Btus.
    • If more than two people will regularly be in the room (e.g., an office), add 600 Btus per person.

  • Find the EER number for each unit. "EER" stands for "Energy Efficiency Ratio." Air conditioners with high EERs are good, because they cost less to operate. Unfortunately, they're also more expensive, so you have to find a balance. Air conditioners' EERs usually range from 8.2 to 10.5. So if you're going to have your air conditioner on 24/7 and you're planning on keeping it for a couple of years, then it's worthwhile to get an a/c with a high EER. If you only need an air conditioner to last you through the summer (and you're planning on being at the beach most of the time anyway), get an air conditioner with a low EER.

Here are some other things to think about when purchasing your air conditioner:

  • Warranty: Perhaps the most important feature of all, particularly if you have a history of bad luck with electronics. Be sure that your air conditioner comes with at least a one-year warranty that covers labor and parts on the entire unit. This way, if something breaks down, you can return it and get a new one or send it in to be serviced free of charge. Some stores even offer an extended warranty plan (typically covering four to five years instead of just one) for an extra fee. This may be a smart purchase if your electronics always seem to break right after the one-year mark.

  • Temperature range: If it spans less than 20 (e.g. 68-86F), it may not be sufficient for your needs, particularly if you live in a hot, arid climate such as Hell. Or Florida.

  • Temperature increments: Be sure that the temperature can be incremented in notches of 1-2. This allows for greater precision and prevents electricity waste. If you have the cash, get an air conditioner with a digital system (as opposed to a dial), because it allows greater precision.

  • Sleep setting/Energy saver switch: Some unit air conditioners have a sleep setting so that at night when you are sleeping, the air conditioner slows the cooling process to a minimum, saving money and energy.

  • Slide-out filter: Every unit air conditioner has a filter that must be cleaned. Save yourself an immense hassle and get a slide-out filter air conditioner, not a frame-enclosed one. The slide-out filters are easy to remove and re-install.

  • Fan speed settings: How many fan speeds are offered on the unit? The more settings available, the better the energy saving will be (and the more choices you have).

  • Installation: Make sure your unit air conditioner comes with installation directions. There's nothing worse than getting the thing home and suddenly realizing you have no idea what you should do with it. If you have any questions about the installation process, definitely ask a store employee for advice before you leave and attempt it yourself. Some air conditioners require that you drill holes into walls, bricks, or your sister. It would be nice to be aware of such things in advance.

Also, make sure to bring a friend with you to help carry the air conditioner and install it once you buy it . . . they're heavy!

Unfortunately, your job isn't over once you've bought your unit air conditioner. You have to make sure to get your air conditioner serviced regularly or it will lose around 5% of its efficiency every year. Maintaining your air conditioner routinely will prevent you from having to spend cash later on to fix all the parts that have gone sour (aren't you glad you got an extended warranty?). It can also help you avoid irritating allergic reactions caused by dust.

Here's what you have to do to give your a/c a long lifespan:

  • Clean and change your filters often and keep stuff away from the unit's mechanism to keep it running at optimal efficiency.

  • When you plan to be away from home for the day, turn your air conditioner on a low setting (or even better, turn it off). It will ultimately save you up to $50 per year if you are conscious about doing this every time you leave your home.

  • Make sure that your room has tight seals around every window and door. This will maximize the energy efficiency of your home during both the summer and winter months, particularly when you're using your air conditioner.

  • ESPECIALLY make sure that you seal off the edges of the window where the air conditioner rests. Use foam, cardboard and duct tape, a dog, whatever you can get your hands on to make sure that the cool air blowing out the air conditioner doesn't escape right out the window.

Good luck, and stay cool.