Whether you’re searching for a rental apartment or looking to buy the perfect home in Manhattan, you may have noticed a surprising trend (especially if you’re not a native or long-time NYC resident). Most New York City apartments don’t have central air!
Why is it so hard to find an apartment in New York with central air conditioning?
The lack of central air in most buildings in New York City comes down to when they were built. The NYC Department of Buildings reports roughly 75% of the residential buildings throughout the five boroughs were built before 1960. Central air didn’t become standard until the late 60s/early 70s.
So, that charming pre-war you’ve got your heart set on may not have central air conditioning. If you’re renting, is it your landlord’s duty to provide a cooling solution? What did New Yorkers do to cool off before central air? What can you do now to keep your new apartment as comfortable as possible?
Beat the Heat This Summer Without Central Air
Coping With Heat Waves in the City
Most of the apartment buildings in New York City were built before central air conditioning became a standard amenity. But central air has been popular in the rest of the country for years now…so why are most apartments still reliant on other AC solutions?
The short answer: time and money.
Retrofitting older buildings with central air is expensive and extremely labor-intensive. Walls or floors must be broken down, ductwork installed, walls or floors must be refinished and repainted, and the air conditioners must be wired in and installed on the exterior or roof of the building.
Adam Dahill, the owner of boutique design and development company Dahill & Bunce, shared the costs of installing air conditioning in a CNBC article:
“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.”
In the same article, CNBC reporter Sophie Bearman gives the Plaza Hotel as an example. The iconic hotel underwent a massive renovation from 2005-2007, with the total cost of remodeling the building sitting at $450 million.
The installation of central air at the Plaza in 2005-2007 dollars? $25 million.
And that expense and time are what it costs IF you are even allowed to install central air conditioning in the first place. New York City buildings are notorious for their strict landmark and historic building regulations, so you may not even have the option to put in central air.
If you are dead-set on your apartment having traditional ducted AC, you’re probably going to want to look at new construction – it’s the only type of building in Manhattan that is more likely to have ducted AC than not.
But if you’re wanting to enjoy a beautiful pre-war or even mid-century apartment, what should you do every summer when outdoor temperatures rise?
AC Solutions for NYC Apartments That Aren’t Central Air
Though NYC landlords are legally required to provide heat for their tenants in the colder months, there are no similar requirements for AC in the warmer months. If you own your apartment instead of renting, you’re on your own as well.
Thankfully there are a number of less expensive and less complex air conditioning options available for New Yorkers to use in their homes, whether they’re renting or buying.
- Portable Unit
- Ductless Mini-Split
- Through-wall Unit
- Window Unit
1. All About Portable AC
Portable AC units are standalone air conditioners, usually on wheels. They are commonly about the height of a mini-fridge with a freezer on top, and can usually be found at any big box home improvement store.
Typically, portable ACs use a window venting kit to expel any exhaust. The window venting kit resembles the exhaust of a clothing dryer, with accordion tubing. There may also be a drainage hose to run outside.
Many of these types of air conditioners have water reservoirs that are intended to help dehumidify the room they’re in. You do have to empty them occasionally unless they are one of the rare models which come with a drainage hose.
Portable ACs can be relatively inexpensive (compared to renovating) and easy to set up, which are two big perks. A significant drawback is that they can really only cool one room at a time. If you’re in a studio apartment with at least one window for exhaust ventilation, that won’t matter as much! But if you’ve got multiple rooms to cool it might be too much.
Portable AC units are also quite loud – depending on the model, of course.
2. Everything You Need to Know About Ductless Mini-Split AC Units
Ductless mini-split air conditioners have to be installed on or near exterior walls because there are indoor and outdoor components. The outdoor part houses a compressor or condenser, while the indoor part handles the air.
Between the two halves of the unit runs the conduit, which includes the power cable, refrigerant tubing, suction tubing, and a drain.
These air conditioners are usually wall-mounted, at or above head level.
Some models/systems can accommodate multiple indoor units attached to one outdoor unit. Each indoor unit has its own thermostat so those rooms can be cooled independently as needed. This and the lack of energy losses that come with ductwork makes these an extremely energy-efficient option.
Ductless mini-splits fall behind other options when it comes to the cost, unfortunately. The flexibility and energy efficiency come at a high price. If you’ve got the budget it may be worth the expense, but there are definitely more affordable options out there.
3. Through-wall Units Explained
If you’ve ever stayed at a hotel or motel with an air conditioning unit below the window on an exterior wall, you’ll be familiar with through-wall AC units.
While some through-wall ACs resemble window units to the layman’s eye, there are a few key differences.
Through-wall ACs only vent exhaust through the back of the unit, not the sides. They are usually permanent fixtures as well, not something you put away in the wintertime. They can be much quieter than window units, as the wall absorbs some of the noise the air conditioner makes.
These are more expensive than window units, considering the additional construction costs. Cutting through a wall to put in an AC is labor-intensive, and if you’re working with a historic building, you may not be able to install one at all. Through-walls are still much more affordable than ductless mini-splits.
4. Window Unit Air Conditioners
If you’ve ever walked through the streets of NYC in the summertime you’ve likely spotted the favorite AC of many New Yorkers: the window unit. But why are they so popular?
Window units are seasonal appliances. You can easily install it when it gets warm in the spring and then take it down in the fall when the days begin to cool so your home isn’t drafty. And you get your view of the city back when you do so.
The modern window air conditioner is a powerful and energy-efficient workhorse. Most come with a frame that helps sit the unit squarely in your window. Add a support bracket on the exterior of your building to prevent any accidents, and you’re good to go.
They typically vent exhaust out of the sides and back of the unit, unlike the through-wall which only vents out the back. They can usually dehumidify your apartment while they cool it too, which is great for the muggy, humid summer months New York experiences.
Most window ACs manufactured today also operate on standard 120-volt outlets, which isn’t always the case for older models. Unfortunately, you’ll likely have to get one per room, and they are quite noisy.
Installing a Window AC to Code and Safety Regulations
In New York City, you do not need a permit to install a window AC, but the city has installation guidelines on their 311 website. We recommend that you follow them, in order to ensure that your unit is installed securely and isn’t at risk of falling onto a pedestrian or car below. You could be held liable for damages or medical bills if that were to occur.
Before you get started on the installation, there are three things you should check out. Make sure there is a three-prong 120-volt outlet (a normal outlet) near the window. If you don’t have one near any of your windows and have to use an extension cord, purchase one that is rated for air conditioner use.
The next thing to be aware of is that your air conditioner cannot block an emergency exit window that accesses a fire escape. This is a violation of fire code and could result in you being fined, or worse. Make sure that the window you choose isn’t an exit.
The third action item is to install a bracket that can hold the weight of the air conditioner on the outside of your window. This is crucial to ensure the stability of your unit and prevent any falls from occurring.
While you can install central air conditioning if you have an excess of time and money, most New Yorkers opt to cool their apartments with less permanent solutions like window AC units.
Whether you choose a portable AC, ductless mini-split AC, a through-wall unit, or a window unit, follow the installation guidelines issued by the manufacturer. Don’t forget to check for safety guidelines with NYC 311 as well.
And if you’re looking for an apartment with a particular cooling solution, feel free to reach out. Our team would love to help you find an apartment that helps you balance staying comfortable in the summertime with all of your other wishes and needs.