If you live in California, then air conditioning is an absolute necessity. There’s no surviving the hot summer months without it, no matter how many layers you take off or popsicles you eat. Whether you’ve just moved into a new home or you’re just ready to upgrade the system you already have, a new air conditioner is always something to celebrate. Once you’ve settled on the type and model of air conditioner installation that you want, all that’s left to do is hire someone to set it up for you. At the end of the installation process, you’ll be able to stay perfectly cool and comfortable for the summers to come.
Even though it’s the last step, air conditioning installation still requires plenty of thought. Though you’ll have a trusted HVAC contractor to help you out along the way, you’ll have to make a few decisions before you’re through, including where to put the units and what kind of maintenance contract you should pick up. It can seem like a lot, especially if you’ve already spent a while researching and deciding on the type of AC unit you want.
In this article, we’ll go through a few things you should know to make sure the installation process goes as smoothly as possible. Even though it can be a bit of a pain, at the end of it all you’ll be able to enjoy total comfort for the next 10, 15, or even 20 summers without any issues.
Placing the Outdoor Unit
If you’re installing a central air conditioning system in your home, chances are you’ve decided to go with a split-system AC. These are by far the most common type of air conditioner for residential use, and for good reason. However, since the parts are split into two different units, they do require a little more space and some extra care when deciding where to place them.
The outdoor unit of a split-system air conditioner holds a couple of the most vital parts: the compressor, and the condenser coil. The compressor is the beating heart of any AC system, and its motor controls the flow of refrigerant back and forth between the two units. The purpose of the condenser coil is to release the heat that’s been drawn out of the air inside your house, which is vented out as exhaust. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when placing the outdoor unit of your split-system air conditioner:
- Try to avoid placing the unit in a place with a lot of direct sunlight. Not only can the radiation from the sun’s rays accelerate wear and tear on the parts inside, but it’ll also raise the temperature inside the unit itself. The heat from the sun can be transferred into the refrigerant as it flows through the outdoor unit, forcing the system to work extra hard to cool it back down. Some homeowners choose to plant bushes or shrubs surrounding the unit for aesthetic purposes and to block out the direct sunlight.
- On the flip side, try not to surround the unit too closely with trees or bushes. Leaves, sticks, and other bits of yard debris can get caught in the vents and cut down on airflow. If any sticks make their way inside the actual unit, they can get trapped in the exhaust blower fan and damage the motor. It’s usually a good idea to clean the outside unit every once in a while, even if it’s not near any trees or shrubs. You should also try to avoid blowing any grass trimmings on it when you’re mowing the lawn.
- Many homeowners choose to surround the outdoor unit with a small fence, which we highly recommend. Not only will this protect it from leaves and other debris, but it’ll also keep the unit safe from wild animals, kids, and anything else that might cause damage to it accidentally. Just make sure you leave enough room to access the unit so an HVAC technician can perform regular maintenance on it or fix it if anything goes wrong.
- It’s best to avoid placing the unit on a wall shared with a bedroom or anywhere else where the sound might be extra distracting. Even the most advanced air conditioners make plenty of noise, and it can be difficult to sleep with the blower fan and the compressor turning on and off all night. It’s also a good idea to avoid placing the unit directly underneath a window for the same reason.
Placing the Indoor Unit
The indoor unit of a split-system air conditioner holds the evaporator coil and the main blower fan. The evaporator is the part that actually cools down the air, while the blower fan pushes the cold air out from the unit and into the ducts. Because the indoor unit has to be connected to the ductwork, you might be a little more limited in where you can place it if you already have existing ducts in your house. If you already have an air conditioner and you’re just replacing it with a new one, it’s probably best to put the new unit in the same place you kept the old one. However, if you’re starting from scratch, you should put some thought into where you’d like to keep the air conditioner moving forward. Here are a few tips you can use to make sure you’re installing the indoor unit in the right place:
- Much like the outdoor unit, the indoor unit will need to be serviced periodically by an HVAC technician, and should therefore be placed somewhere accessible. Not only do the technicians have to be able to reach the unit, but they should also be able to comfortably work and move around while they’re servicing the system. Many homeowners choose to install the air conditioner in the basement for this reason, or in a closet if they don’t have a basement.
- Because the compressor motor is in the outside unit, the indoor unit shouldn’t be especially loud as long as everything is running smoothly. However, the blower fan in the indoor unit will still make some noise, so if you’re an especially light sleeper, you might want to make sure it’s in a place far enough from your bedroom that it won’t bother you during the night. A side note – if you do notice loud noises coming from the indoor unit, you should call your HVAC service company to come take a look. Strange noises are often an indication that something is wrong inside.
- Try to keep the indoor unit away from any sensitive electronic equipment if possible. While all air conditioners have drain trays to make sure excess moisture is diverted outside, it’s not uncommon for the drain lines to become clogged, causing water to drip out onto the floor under the unit. It’s a good idea to have tile or concrete underneath the unit so there’s no water damage if it starts leaking. If you do notice water leaking out of the indoor unit, you should contact your HVAC technician and have it checked out.
- Keep in mind that, if you do need to call a technician to service the unit, it’ll most likely be during the summer months. Try to avoid placing the indoor unit in a space that gets very hot during the summer, for the comfort of the technician while they work on the air conditioner. Not only will that make them a little more comfortable, it will also allow them to work faster and reduce the billable hours you have to pay for at the end of the appointment.
- Split-system air conditioners are typically hooked up to a thermostat that lets them know when they should turn on and off. Placing the thermostat is just as important as placing the air conditioner itself. Make sure you don’t put the thermostat somewhere that might experience more extreme temperatures than the rest of your house. Avoid direct sunlight if possible, and make sure the thermostat isn’t directly underneath a vent leading to the ducts.
Air Conditioner Sizing
One of the most important things to do when installing a new HVAC system is to make sure it’s the right size. When we talk about the size of an air conditioner, we’re talking about the output of the unit, not the physical dimensions. If you install an air conditioner that’s too small for your home, it’s going to struggle to keep you cool all summer, causing your power bill to spike and creating plenty of wear and tear on the parts inside the unit. On the other hand, an air conditioner with too much power will also cause you some problems. An AC system that’s too large and powerful will just end up short-cycling, or turning on and off rapidly. It’ll keep you relatively cool, sometimes a little too cold, but it’ll wear down the parts inside pretty quickly and leave you with some hefty repair bills at the end of the summer.
Air conditioner output is measured by the amount of heat it can pull from the air in one hour. The unit of measurement used is a “ton,” which represents 12,000 BTUs of heat removed from the air per hour. The name dates back to the 19th century, when it was used to measure how much heat was required to melt one ton of ice in one hour, but today the formula is a little more abstract. All you really need to remember is that more tons equals more cooling power, and higher-tonnage air conditioners are best suited for larger buildings.
Ideally, your HVAC technician will do all the sizing for you when they visit your house. There are a lot of factors that go into a professional air conditioner sizing, including the square footage of your home, the climate in your area, the number of inhabitants, the dimensions of each room, including ceiling height, the size of your kitchen, and the number of windows your home has. It’s all very complicated, and the exact sizing is best left to the professionals. However, you can get a head start by doing some rudimentary calculations by yourself, to get a sense of how powerful an air conditioner you need.
The first thing you should do is take a look at a climate zone map. These maps split the United States up into 7 different climates, and each one has slightly different air conditioner requirements. If you live in climate zones 1 or 2, you’ll need about 30-35 BTUs per square foot. Climate zone 3 requires 35-40 BTUs per square foot, zone 4 requires 40-45, zone 5 requires 45-50, and zones 6 and 7 need 50-60 BTUs per square foot.
For an example, let’s use a 1,500 square-foot house here in the Bay Area – that’s climate zone 3. 35 BTUs x 1,500 square feet = 52,500 BTUs. Since each ton represents 12,000 BTUs, that comes out to about a 4.5-ton air conditioner. The exact dimensions of the house in question will of course affect the tonnage requirements, but the end result will most likely end up between 4 and 5 tons. Knowing that number beforehand will help you figure out a budget and allow you to get started on some shopping before you confer with your HVAC contractor, giving you a head start on some of the hard work ahead.
Finding the Right Contractor for You
If you really want to, you can do all the shopping and purchasing yourself, although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. However, you’ll always need an HVAC contractor to install the system for you. Finding a good contractor can be tricky, just like any other trade, but if you know what to look for it can be a lot easier. When looking for an HVAC contractor to install your new air conditioner, you should look for someone who fulfills three requirements for you – competency, price, and trust.
Finding a competent HVAC contractor isn’t especially difficult since the incompetent ones tend to go out of business pretty quickly. However, you still want to make sure you’re going to end up with good work at the end of the installation process, so it’s worth doing a little investigation. The best way to judge the competency of any contractor is to look at their reputation. Online reviews are a good place to start, especially Facebook and Google reviews or by checking Angi. Skip past the one-star and five-star reviews, since the ratings in the middle are usually the most thoughtful and evenhanded. You should also make sure to only hire contractors who are fully licensed and bonded by the state. A license is an indication of skill, and the bond is a security measure you can take advantage of if the contractor makes an expensive mistake in your home. If you work with uninsured contractors, you could end up holding the bag if they damage your house.
Price is the easiest thing to get a sense for since you can just ask for it up front. Any HVAC contractor on the up-and-up will be more than willing to discuss the price with you. In most cases, a home visit will be a requirement before you can get an estimate, since the specifics of your situation can affect the price pretty significantly. Make sure you’re getting an estimate in writing instead of just a verbal agreement. If a contractor is unwilling to offer a genuine paper copy of an estimate or quote, that should be considered a red flag. A written estimate isn’t a contract, since the work can go in unexpected directions once it actually starts, but it is a promise that the price of specific services and items won’t change later on. You can always point to the estimate if somebody tries to upcharge you after the work is completed, which is why untrustworthy contractors are sometimes reluctant to offer them.
Trustworthiness can be difficult to judge, especially when you’re meeting a contractor for the first time. However, there are a few red flags you can look for when you’re taking those initial meetings with an HVAC contractor, besides the ones we’ve already mentioned above. One common red flag is an unwillingness to be specific on the details of your job. Sketchy contractors will sometimes try to sneak hidden costs in the details that most homeowners don’t know to ask for. If you’re working with someone trustworthy, they’ll generally be upfront and honest about all the little details that could end up costing you money. You should also ask for a list of former clients to talk to. Reputable contractors tend to have a ton of happy customers who are more than willing to talk them up. Finally, at the end of the day, you have to trust your gut. If you’re getting a bad feeling from a contractor, you should follow that instinct and make a call somewhere else – you know more than you might think!
Once your air conditioner has been installed, you’ll have to keep up with regular maintenance to make sure it keeps running smoothly. One service appointment per year could mean the difference between a ten-year lifespan and a twenty-year lifespan for your new HVAC system. It’s significantly more cost-effective to spend a little money here and there instead of waiting too long and having to spend a ton on a brand new system after only a few years. Besides the yearly service appointments, make sure you’re staying on top of swapping out or cleaning the air filters as directed by the manufacturer, as well as cleaning the vents and anywhere else that might gather dust.
Most HVAC contractors, once the job is completed, will offer an optional service contract. These contracts typically last for a year at a time and entitle you to a certain number of free service appointments, usually two, as well as discounts on any replacement parts you might need during the year. They’ll typically also give you free labor on any repairs or replacements. In return, you’ll pay a one-time fee at the start of the year.
It can sometimes be difficult for homeowners to decide if service contracts are worth it or not. As a general rule, a service contract will save you money if you need any repairs during the year, but won’t really save you anything if you only need the regular service appointments. The greatest asset of a service contract is really the peace of mind that they can offer you. You might not need to take advantage of the repair services throughout the year, but if you do, it won’t be a sudden financial burden on your family. Having a service contract also usually means the contractor will schedule the standard maintenance appointments for you, which can be nice for those of us who are a little more scattered sometimes.
Get Started on Your Installation Today
It can be a little daunting to install a new air conditioner in your house, especially if you’re starting from scratch. However, a good HVAC contractor can help you out every step of the way, including the sizing, placement, and maintenance after the installation is over. Having a trusted expert you can go to for advice is invaluable, especially since you know you can keep going back for repairs and maintenance throughout the entire lifespan of your new air conditioner.
If you live in Napa, Marin, or Sonoma Counties and you’re interested in having an air conditioner installed in your home, or you just have some more detailed questions you’d like someone to answer for you, feel free to give Valley Comfort Heating & Air a call today at (707) 329-4120 or get in touch with us through our online form here. We have more than enough experience and knowhow to help out with any HVAC-related problem you might have, including installation, repairs, maintenance, or upgrading your current system with something newer and more technologically advanced.
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