Ask the Architect

The switch to central air, Part 2


Q. We’ve always had window air conditioners, and want to get central air. It’s quieter, and we'd get our windows back. We just want your opinion as to whether it’s worth it. We realize we’ll have less room in our attic, and we think we’ll lose some space in closets where the ducts go from the attic through the second floor to the first floor. We got an estimate that was pretty expensive, $15,000. Do you think it’s worth it?

A. To recap, you are required to obtain a building permit, which includes multiple steps, from filing a site plan showing the location of the outside condenser unit; to an attic plan, showing how the fan unit is mounted, with a location for the condensation drain pan; to information on whether the home is in a flood zone, and how the outside unit will be mounted above the base flood level. You will also need an electrical certificate and final inspection for an electrically powered system, as well as a plumbing permit if the system is gas-fired.
Your taxes will increase, along with your energy bills. Window units are the least costly system, but are generally unsightly — but you avoid the tax increase, the building permit process and expenses and the disruption to the home, including loss of valuable access and storage space in the attic and closets.
A split system, where you have a wall-mounted unit that can also deliver heat, is another alternative, but does require an outside condenser and a permit. A tax increase is likely, but much less than a central air system. If you’re handy, you may be able to install the split system unit yourself. I have friends and family who have purchased their own split system units online and installed them by themselves.
Most importantly, do not attempt to do new electrical work for the dedicated service and cutoff switch required for a split-system, wall-mounted unit if you have no training or knowledge of the electrical portion of this installation. Unless you are using the previously installed outlet and a cutoff switch that would be in place for a window unit you are replacing, contact a licensed electrician to do this work. Safety is extremely important. Follow all instructions and ask qualified people for help, where necessary.

Remember, there are issues that most people will tell you the wrong information about, like permits, zoning, plumbing and electrical. I’ve seen the results of illegal work many times, because I receive calls to inspect the damage and work to legalize after a fire or flood, or when someone receives a violation. It is most disheartening when I’m looking at work that caused a fire that displaced a family or, worse, caused a death.
Putting condensers in a side yard instead of the rear yard has led to expensive and time-consuming zoning variance hearings and permits. Avoiding the permit now can be much worse later. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper.  Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.