Central air conditioning systems cool the entire house using a simple thermostat control, which allows you to pick your desired temperature and keep the home at that level with zero effort. While this type of system may seem irresistible during the dog days of summer, it can come at a steep cost if you don't have ductwork installed in your home already.
Central cooling systems use a network of ducts to transport cool air to each room, and to carry unwanted warm air out of the home. If you currently have ducts as part of your central heating system, adding central air is a relatively simple process. Homeowners who don't have ductwork should understand the potential pitfalls and cost associated with adding ducts to determine whether this project is a good fit.
Cost Concerns: Homeowners without existing ducts should expect to pay $3,500 to $4,000 to add a duct network, according to This Old House. This figure doesn't include the cost to purchase and install your new air conditioning equipment.
Installation Issues: In addition to the cost, installing ductwork comes with some additional disturbances. Contractors will have to open ceilings and walls to install ducts, and some configurations may result in a lower ceiling height in certain areas of your home. Trained HVAC contractors can find clever ways to conceal ducts, but even the best HVAC professional doesn't know what he's going to find when he opens your ceiling or wall, especially if you have an older home. Be prepared for hidden extras depending on the existing conditions in your house.
Alternative Options: If you don't want to spring for ductwork, consider room-based cooling options, including window, wall and portable air conditioners. For greater efficiency, choose a mini-split heat pump, which carries refrigerant through a small conduit and cools one or more rooms without ductwork. You may also consider a whole-house fan, which can be combined with shading and other passive cooling strategies to keep your home cool and comfortable.
Ways to Save: If you have your heart set on central air, consider ways to save on your project. Contact contractors in the off-season, as they're likely looking for work and may offer you a price break compared to spring or summer rates. You can also search for financial incentives aimed at energy efficiency, which won't help much with duct installation costs, but may help offset the cost of the air conditioning equipment itself. Finally, ask a contractor like Arlington Heating & Air Conditioning about value engineering options, such as using flex duct in place of sheet metal ducts to save money.
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