Living Smart: Can I retrofit my house for A/C?

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Just because your house doesnít have central air conditioning doesnít mean it canít be added.

Yes, itís hot. And for homeowners living without the comfort of central air conditioning, the summer months may be unbearable. Or for those living with fans in every room and window A/C units running noisily and inefficiently, perhaps itís time to pull the plug and consider retrofitting the house with central A/C, which ó surprisingly ó isnít as inconvenient or expensive as you might think.

What are the exceptions?

For the most part, every house can be retrofitted for A/C. "There are some restrictions on certain types of homes, but it just depends on the house," says Frank Garneski, owner of Garneskiís Air Conditioning & Heating in Sterling, Va. "Some jobs can be very difficult, and some jobs can be very easy."

If the house already has an electric or gas forced-air heating system, adding A/C isnít that hard and typically can be installed in one day. Our experts say the A/C installation cost averages between $2,800 and $3,800.

"Where you see trickier applications is if a home has baseboard heat or a boiler where thereís no ductwork," says Chad Peterman, operations manager for Peterman Heating, Cooling & Plumbing in Indianapolis. "The good news is, you still have options."

What if I donít have air ducts?

The first option would be to add them, which works best if you have open space in the attic and basement. "Finding the space is the trickiest part," Peterman says. "Itís labor intensive to run ductwork."

Adding traditional ductwork will increase the overall cost. Homeowners can expect to pay between $7,000 and $10,000, and should allow three days to complete installation. "Every home is different, so the design of each home really becomes the cost factor," says Bill Stuhr, sales and installation manager for Five Star Heating & Air in Palatine, Ill. "A two-story, a ranch, a split-level and raised ranch will all have different costs due to the difference in design."

A second option is to install a ductless A/C, which our experts agree is the most efficient ó albeit more expensive ó alternative. A ductless A/C consists of an outdoor compressor and wall units mounted in rooms that need cooling. Itís a good choice for structures whose walls are too thin to support ductwork or for individual rooms that need extra cooling, such as a man cave or recent addition. A ductless system averages $6,000 to $15,000 according to our experts, depending on the design and type of units selected, and would take one to two days to install.

A third option is a high-velocity system, which uses smaller, more flexible tubing than the standard ductwork required for low-velocity systems. The main hurdle for most homeowners, however, is cost. Prices can start at $15,000 and quickly increase depending on the size of the house. Expect a two- to three-day installation period for a high-velocity system.

You can also consider installing a rooftop A/C, which costs as much as $1,000 more for the unit but will include nearly double the installation cost because of the difficulty of the roof work.

"The biggest thing is understanding your options," Peterman says. "Understand that it is an investment. We have a lot of people presented with the ductless option, and it might be the best option, but they shut it down because of the cost. The ability to turn units on and off, depending on if youíre using the room, will save you money in the long run."

Who do I hire to retrofit the A/C?

If youíre adding A/C to your house, our experts advise hiring a reliable HVAC company that has experience doing so with homes similar to yours. "Thereís more work and knowledge involved," Peterman says. "Making sure the ductwork is properly installed and is the right size for the system; making sure all the equipment is the proper size."

In addition to verifying proper licensing, insurance and bonding, homeowners need to make sure the contractor pulls the proper permits. "The No. 1 red flag is a contractor who avoids or refuses to pull mechanical permits," says Gregory W. Gill, president of Action Air Conditioning, Heating & Solar in San Marcos, Calif.. "Third-party verification is vital. It guarantees your system is installed to industry safety standards and building codes. Additionally, lack of permits can void your homeowners insurance in the event of fire or water damage caused by an illegal installation."

Other red flags to watch out for include contractors who only present one option and those who donít perform a Manual J heat load calculation, which determines the proper size of A/C equipment needed to adequately cool the house. "Square footage means nothing," Stuhr says. "If I have a home that is 2,000 square feet with all windows or a home half built into the ground with minimum windows, these will require totally different A/C sizes to cool the home."

A final point of advice our experts offer is to try not to fixate on the price. "Consumers pay for two things when purchasing a new A/C unit ó the product and the company performing the installation," Stuhr says. "If you have the best product with a bad installation, then the product will not last or will not perform correctly. You need both to get your moneyís value."