Why about a quarter of US households are stuck with ugly and loud window AC units

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Why about a quarter of US households are stuck with ugly and loud window AC units

For people who don't have central air, few annual chores evoke a sense of dread quite like the task of installing their 40-pound window unit come summer.

It’s a precarious balancing act: a delicate teeter-totter of securing the metal device between the windowsill and the windowpane while preventing it from plummeting straight down to the sidewalk below.

Across the world, the air conditioning market is big business. In North America, it’s expected to reach nearly $53 billion by 2020. Yet in the U.S., window air conditioners aren’t that common except in major cities with older buildings that aren't equipped with central air like the rest of the country. About 65 percent of U.S. households have central air.

New York City is a major exception

Around 75 percent of the buildings throughout the five boroughs were constructed before 1960, according to the NYC Department of Buildings. Central air became mainstream later in the 1960s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Retrofitting an old building with central air is expensive and complicated, so most New York buildings don’t go to the trouble of making that renovation.

Window air conditioners on a building in Brooklyn, New York.
Window air conditioners on a building in Brooklyn, New York.

“New York City’s buildings are historic, many are prewar, and they just don’t have the space for air to pass through the walls,” said Adam Dahill, owner of Dahill & Bunce, a boutique design and development company. “Installing central air conditioning is one of the biggest dilemmas I face in restoration."

There are "immense hidden costs" to install central air, he said, "from breaking down the walls, to installing the ducts, to repainting.”

Dahill is currently restoring a 3,900-square-foot Brooklyn brownstone. The total renovation cost is around $900,000. Of that, the air conditioning, a ducted split system, costs $65,000.

Dahill's project is small potatoes compared with The Plaza Hotel's rehab. At approximately 1 million square feet, the New York hotel underwent a $450 million renovation from 2005 to 2007. When it was sold in 2004, each room in the hotel had its own stand-alone AC unit.

Upgrading the property to luxury standards meant installing central air at $25 million, according to Miki Naftali, a former partner and president and CEO of Elad Properties, the real estate development company that oversaw The Plaza Hotel renovation. Naftali, now founder, chairman and CEO of Naftali Group, said installing central air was essential to upgrading the hotel and attracting high-paying clients.

On the whole, high installation costs and strict landmark regulations mean it’s unlikely window air conditioning units will be disappearing anytime soon.

The evolution of the window AC

Window air conditioners also haven't changed appearances much over the years.

“AC units have operated the same way for decades and decades and decades,” said James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. “There’s only so much you can do to shrink each of the components and maintain energy efficiency.”

But one company is trying to revolutionize the window air conditioner. Noria launched on Kickstarter in April 2016, advertising a window unit that would be modern, sleek and light. It would be just 6 inches high — small enough to store under a bed during the winter.

The Noria was designed to address the pain points of traditional window air conditioners
The Noria was designed to address the pain points of traditional window air conditioners

The concept was an instant success. Crowdfunding raised almost $1.5 million on Kickstarter and another $844,000 on Indiegogo. But manufacturing didn’t go smoothly.

The ship date, originally promised for April 2017, got pushed back to the first quarter of 2018. Then it got pushed back again, to April 2019, three full years after it originally posted on Kickstarter. Noria also changed its name to Kapsul after a trademark holder made a complaint.

“This is like the most extreme example of a well-meaning project and design, and them just not having the experience to execute it,” said Cathi Odtohan, a 46-year-old Chicago resident and Noria backer. Odtohan paid $334 for a single Noria device in April 2016. At that time, estimated delivery was for the spring of 2017.

Kapsul’s founder, Kurt Swanson, says the major cause of the delay was meeting energy standards.

“It turns out, you know, it is hard to reinvent this category,” said Swanson. “It took a number of major redesigns, many more than we anticipated, to achieve (U.S.) energy efficiency standards."

Kapsul is now set for delivery in April 2019. It will be about an inch taller and heavier than originally promised. In an attempt to make amends for delays and poor communication, Kapsul is offering original backers the opportunity to claim 10 shares of equity plus a three-year warranty (one for each year they waited).

Sara Arpino, 50, spent $1,219 for four Noria devices in October 2016 to cool her two-story home in Vermont, where she says summers are getting warmer.

"The air conditioners we do have are very big, very bulky, very heavy, and not exactly technologically advanced in any way," Arpino said. "I can't wait until they physically do come but it's just been really frustrating to have all these delays all these years."

But with a retail price of $599 for a Kapsul unit, consumers may still opt for an old-fashioned window air conditioner. You can purchase a 5,000 BTU air conditioner online for under $200. The NYC Department of Buildings lists a number of guidelines for installing an air conditioning unit properly including supporting the unit from underneath. Following these guidelines helps prevent drops or falls that could potentially injure pedestrians.

A window air conditioner on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
A window air conditioner on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

“The majority of locations that use window and wall AC units don’t use them 12 months out of the year, they only use them during the peak hours in the summertime,” said Dickerson. “So the marketplace hasn’t placed pressure for the innovation of window and wall-based AC units.”

One thing's for sure: New York's summer cityscape will continue to be dotted with window air conditioners for years to come.