Ask the Architect

Where should the A.C. unit be?


Q. Our central air conditioning unit sits next to the rear corner of our house, and even though it’s 25 feet from our patio, where we entertain, it still makes a lot of noise when it runs. During a recent barbecue with friends, it became the topic of conversation, and my friend recommended either building a “sound wall” around it or moving it to the side of the house, just around the corner, which makes me wonder why they didn’t just put the unit there in the first place. It doesn’t make sense, and really would have solved the problem. What do you think?

A. I think you’re lucky to be inquisitive and not take the first advice you got, because your friend’s advice may have caused you a lot of needless aggravation. For a few decades, the rules in most local communities have not only restricted where a central air conditioning condenser unit can be placed, but also require a building permit and a zoning hearing process if the unit is intended to stay where someone who should have known better installed it.
In the process of starting a large design project with new residential clients, we architects are stuck with having to check for extraneous issues that will hinder a smooth permit process, and those units become a sticking point. Unless there will be 5 to 8 feet of clearance to a side property line, depending on the community, you may want to avoid the extra couple of thousand dollars and wasted time detouring through a zoning variance process just because a friend or uncaring air conditioning company recommended putting the unit where it has been clearly discouraged from being placed for the last 30 years. I see this problem nearly every day, and realize that the installers either know about the problem or must have recently emerged from living under a rock, because there’s almost no way not to know if you do this for a living.
The sound wall can work, but be sure to check with a manufacturer about air clearances, because the unit needs air flow to properly dissipate heat. Walls also require foundations, and can be expensive if the wall will be built to last. Also, the wall or fence requires a permit at the same time as the A.C. unit, no matter where you place both. Even fences around A.C. units require permits.
The reason for keeping side yards clear is the noise echo between houses. Neighbors must have once brought this to the attention of their local government, because this wasn’t always an issue. Units hinder emergency workers who need access to side yards with fire hoses to prevent flames from spreading. You could also research and replace old equipment with a new, quieter model for a lot less money than a wall or permit — or just turn up the music and talk louder to mask the sound, for no cost at all. Enjoy your barbecues!

© 2021 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.


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