This Old House? Or, This Old Money Pit?
How to Add Central A.C. to Your Old House Without Breaking The Bank
According to the last Census, about 50% of houses in America were built prior to 1975. Combine summer's scorching temperatures with aging homes and the result is a lot of homeowners sweating their lack of central AC. If this includes you, what are your options? Well, that depends…
Does your house have pre-existing ductwork? If the home already employs a forced-air heating system — indicated by air ducts within the walls and flooring — installing central AC isn’t difficult or cost-prohibitive. Typically, installation takes only a day or two. Fewer man-hours mean a relatively inexpensive price tag averaging $3,000 to $4,000. That said, it could be more depending on how well the existing air ducts were installed; the state of your ducts is no small matter because leaky ductwork accounts for significant energy loss. In fact, the experts at ENERGY STAR® state: “In a typical house, about 20 to 30 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, holes, and poorly connected ducts. The result is higher utility bills and difficulty keeping the house comfortable, no matter how the thermostat is set.” Consult an HVAC pro to gauge the current condition of your home’s ducts.
Now, if there are no ducts, the layout of your house can affect implementation and installation costs. Adding ductwork is easiest when there’s plenty of open space for maneuvering down in the basement and upstairs in the attic. A split-level home entails very different work than a two-story or ranch, for instance. New ductwork is labor-intensive, usually taking about three days to install and the cost is contingent upon the level of job complexity. In addition, if you reside in a “historic” home, getting special permits can be stressful, if not impossible. What constitutes historic differs by locale, but a working definition is “a building or other property at least 50 years old, which must retain a high degree of integrity, and must have some level of historic significance,” according to the Landmark Society of Western New York.
Another option is the basic ductless (mini-split) system, which comes equipped with a standard outdoor compressor and an indoor unit mounted in each room that requires cooling. It’s relatively non-invasive in terms of construction but typically costs more to install than central air — although some owners justify the cost because the system is dual-purpose, delivering both heating and cooling. Mini-Split systems are best for additions or rooms not covered by existing central HVAC as they are cost prohibitive to install in every room.
High-velocity mini-duct systems utilize ceiling or floor ducts about the size of a DVD. Hoses that move air from the unit to the ducts is about 4-inches in diameter and can be easily snaked through spaces traditional ductwork can’t without sacrificing highly coveted square footage, making construction fast and relatively non-invasive. What’s more, this system operates independently of a heat source. This is also the costliest of your options, with an average price tag of $10,000 to $15,000.
To find out the precise cost of retrofitting your old house, consult with a local, reputable HVAC professional. Cost estimates are contingent upon the size and design of your home, your A/C choice, job complexity, and your chosen contractor. Don’t have a local, trusted HVAC pro? Find one here.
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