Sometimes HVAC just won't cut it to cool your house.
For many, soaring temperatures in the summer months make living in a climate-controlled home crucial. But cooling through a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, or HVAC, may not always be the best solution. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, three-quarters of all U.S. homes have air conditioners, adding up to about 6% of all electricity produced nationwide. Whether you're looking to reduce your energy use, cut those summer utility bills or if your house simply doesn't work with an HVAC system, you have many options to keep your space cool in the heat. Here are six alternatives to central air conditioning.
How air conditioning works
The traditional cooling part of HVAC that most people recognize as the boxy unit sitting outside a house transfers the hot air from inside a home to the outside, while simultaneously cooling air with refrigerant and releasing it through vents in each room. The energy efficiency of an HVAC depends on the system's age, whether it gets regular maintenance and if the air filter is changed. Air conditioners cost U.S. homeowners a total of about $29 billion per year, according to the Department of Energy. They also release about 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air on an annual basis.
Ductless or mini split air conditioner
Getting between walls isn't always an easy option to install ductwork, so a less invasive way to incorporate air conditioning is with a ductless system, also referred to as a mini split system. These systems include a condenser unit outside the home, which is similar to a refrigerated air conditioning unit but smaller. Connected to the condenser are small units for each room that are attached to a wall.
Advantage: The individual units of a mini split system allow you to adjust the temperature of each room.
Disadvantage: The more rooms you need to cool, the more it costs, as each space needs its own unit.
Cost: A ductless system typically starts at around $1,300 and can reach $13,000 for a five-zone system kit, according to HomeAdvisor, with installation adding on a couple hundred or couple thousand dollars.
Window unit or portable air conditioner
One of the most popular alternatives to central air is a window unit or portable air conditioner that cools a single room.
Advantage: A portable air conditioner or window unit is one of the fastest ways to effectively cool a room. Once you've purchased the air conditioner, all you need is an outlet and a window.
Disadvantage: Whether installed in a window or made to sit on the floor, these compact air conditioners need to be able to release exhaust outside, either by being propped in the window or with an exhaust hose positioned in an opening in the window, which isn't always easy or convenient. Otherwise, the hotter air stays in the room and the unit can't effectively cool the space.
Cost: Both window and portable air conditioners can run from just under $200 to $800 or more and can be purchased at stores such as Lowe's, Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Depot.
Evaporative cooler or swamp cooler
In dry climates, an evaporative or swamp cooler is a common option. With a fan and water-soaked sponge or pad, air is blown by the fan through the pad, allowing the water-cooled air to blow into the room or the rest of the house. To cool the house and manage the temperature from room to room, you crack windows to allow the hot air to escape, leaving the cooled air.
Advantage: With a fan and small amount of water use while running, a swamp cooler is much cheaper to operate than refrigerant air conditioning. You'll be pleased with lower utility bills.
Disadvantage: With water serving as a cooling factor, a swamp cooler, which is often installed on the roof, only works where humidity is low. For example, at 50% relative humidity, you're able to achieve around a 10-degree difference. The more humid the air is, the less effectively you're able to cool.
Cost: Home improvement network and information company Angi reports most swamp cooler installations cost between $1,402 and $3,454.
A slightly simplified version of a swamp cooler, an attic fan avoids humidity limitations and works best for areas or days when the weather outside isn't too hot. It works simply by circulating air, pushing stuffy, warmer air out of the house and providing a consistent breeze inside. With the right attic vents, the fan can be reversed to pull in cooler air through the house when the windows are open, expelling the hot, stuffy air out the attic vents.
Advantage: With just a fan running, this alternative is a major cost-saver.
Disadvantage: Without a cooling agent, an attic fan won't make the air much cooler if temperatures rise above 80 degrees, but it can serve as a far more cost-effective alternative to central air conditioning to keep the house cool on days when it's not too hot.
Cost: The cost to install an attic fan or whole-house fan typically ranges from $369 to $876, according to HomeAdvisor, while high-end materials and installation can reach $2,750.
Air cooling fan
The simplest cooling option -- a fan -- is an effective solution for many, as it cools by increasing the air circulation in a room.
Advantage: It's a cheap and easy solution. A fan that sits low to the ground and is tilted upward may feel most effective because the coldest air in the room will be at the floor.
Disadvantage: Unless it incorporates a mister, is a portable evaporative cooler or has an exhaust vent of some sort, a fan cannot take warmer air and make it cooler. In a humid environment, the mister or evaporative cooling fans will only make the room more humid.
Cost: Fans range in size and style -- a simple table fan can cost $15 or less, while the popular and quiet Dyson bladeless fans start at $400.
Geothermal heating and cooling
Geothermal heating and cooling takes advantage of the more stable temperatures underground. There's a variety of geothermal systems to choose from, but they all largely function with liquid flowing through a system of buried tubes, exchanging heat from the house to the ground, and vice versa when the weather is cold.
Advantage: A geothermal heat pump system is more energy-efficient than a traditional HVAC system, recouping the cost of installation in energy savings within five to 10 years, according to the Department of Energy.
Disadvantage: Installing one requires a lot of additional work due to the digging required to bury the pipes, which adds to the total cost of the project as well.
Cost: HomeAdvisor reports the typical range to install the system is between $3,652 and $16,985 and can reach up to $30,000, including the equipment and excavation.
Here are six alternatives to traditional air conditioning:
-- Ductless or mini split air conditioner.
-- Window unit or portable air conditioner.
-- Evaporative cooler or swamp cooler.
-- Attic fan.
-- Air cooling fan.
-- Geothermal heating and cooling.