Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Buying an Air Conditioner: A Pain

Wow, Memorial Day is almost upon us. Can a heatwave be far behind?

Last fall, in a fit of starry-eyed optimism, we put our two, 11-year-old air conditioners out for a special recycling pick-up. We were positive — dead certain — that, by the time summer rolled around, we'd be settled in a new place, preferably with central air, that wonder of wonders.

Oh, well.

Now we need new air conditioners, or summer will be a nightmare. I don't like the frosty feel of heavily air-conditioned spaces, but I need a certain amount of coolness or I'm wretched. When Boston gets into the high 80s, 90s or beyond, the cats have a hard time, too. My husband likes blowing, noisy fans but they annoy me. Fans don't dehumidify; air conditioners do.

Possum's hot-weather hangout.

Our elderly Panasonics were great, especially in their early years: they were quiet, very efficient, and had fans, remote controls, and removable casings to make the hellish task of installing them easier. But in recent years they were no longer cooling well, and were making more noise, keeping me awake. Panasonic no longer makes ACs.

The first step in choosing an air conditioner is to figure out what size you need, i.e., the correct amount of BTUs, primarily based on room size. If the AC is too big, your room will be freezing and clammy even on low speed, and if it's too small, it will be blasting all the time but may still not cool the room or cut the humidity. I measured our living room and bedroom, including the ceiling height; ours are 10 feet. I used various online calculators; they are all different, and many assume your ceiling is no more than 8 feet high, so those are useless. Ceiling height isn't the only factor: if there are many windows, big windows, sunny windows, skylights, kitchen appliances, crappy insulation, or more than two people occupying the room, you need more power.

By my calculations, we need two 8,000 BTU units, more or less. Maybe. I'm sticking with that because it's close enough and I'm through with all those contradictory calculators.

My next step is to find a good model with the features we want (quiet, efficient, easy to use, has a remote) at a decent price. This is impossible. Air conditioners are fraught with issues in addition to being heavy, big, and loud.

Steve Jobs revolutionized personal computer technology and design, and our lives were vastly changed and improved; if only he had turned his attention to the air conditioner and the vacuum cleaner, too. (And while we're at it: the shredder, the eyelash curler, and the situation comedy.) Just think what he could have achieved for humankind....

Friedrich makes outrageously expensive models, which cost two to four times more than other brands. But not everyone thinks they're worth it, and I don't want to spend that much. Someone used to offer "low-profile" models that took up much less window height; I see them around the neighborhood, but they aren't sold anymore. The rest of the brands and models are just a blur. Some are the exact-same item with a different brand name. And models change slightly every year, so reading a review of a 2011 model doesn't guarantee that it's what you'll get in 2012.

Oh, well.

For every good online review for an AC, there is a scathing one. People declare the same model to be both astonishingly quiet and unbearably loud. Asking around at hardware stores does no good; both Ace and True Value sell their own brand, which you've never heard of. It comes from China, as they all do. I broke down and bought a one-month subscription to Consumer Reports, just for their air-conditioner report, only to find that their top-rated models were often loathed by real-life consumers. It would be amusing if it weren't maddening.

The weirdest thing: according to user reviews and Consumer Reports, almost no air conditioner vent can direct air in either direction equally well, so if you don't want it just blowing straight ahead, you have to be careful. A unit will either blow strongly to the left, or the right, but almost none can manage both. I happen to need a left-blowing model in the living room and a right-blowing one in the bedroom, so I'll have to buy two different brands. This is just plain bad design. People also complain that they can see through some models, meaning hot air and bugs can come right in. How pathetic is that?

By now, I'm sick of the subject — and so, probably, are you. But we have the windows open, and it's warm and sticky out there. What to do? I have no idea; you tell me. It's going to be a long, hot summer.

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