Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Air conditioners

Cool for the summer: how to buy an air conditioner

For many, surviving the summer is easier when they’re sitting by the AC and cooling down. But if you don’t have one, working out how to get the right one isn’t easy.

It’s getting crazy warm outside, but if you have an air conditioner, you probably can’t feel it. If you’re sitting inside, the doors closed, the AC on full blast, chilling with the TV on and a drink in your hands, the outside is just a menagerie you need not deal with.

Spare a thought for everyone else without air conditioning, suffering through what may feel like an intolerable burst of heat that seemingly never sends.

It’s not even properly summer yet, and the heat in Sydney this journalist is writing in is already taking on properties like a furnace: venture outside, and any hope for a cool breeze to settle the soul is dashed by a blast of hot air not far from the force of a furnace. You clearly have to go places and face the outdoors, but the times you don’t shouldn’t have to be a struggle for sanity amidst searing and stark settings.

Fans can help, but typically fans will chop the air, releasing a small burst likened more to a breeze. Fans don’t typically lower the temperature by much, and even Dyson’s air multiplier fan which speeds up the air through a small motor in the bottom can really only move the mercury by a couple of degrees, so if you need a big jump — if you’re looking to move that ugly 35 or higher down to a comfy 22 — you’re going to need to move to bigger guns, and bring out the air conditioner.

Unfortunately, working out which you’re buying isn’t easy, and may be more difficult than you expect. So what are the steps, what do the numbers mean, and how do you get to the point where an air conditioner can keep you cool for the summer?

How do you work out your AC needs?

Air conditioners can be complex, and almost unnecessarily so. They’re almost impossible to work out by yourself, unlike a fan, which is typically just something you buy and place in front of you, hoping for the best. That doesn’t work tremendously well, though, so it wouldn’t surprise us if you made your way to buying an AC unit pretty quickly, with the questions following shortly: “which unit”, “how big”, and “how much”, among others.

But you know your home best, and you know your needs better than anyone coming in, so when it comes time to consider an air conditioner, think about your comfort in the rooms of your home. Will you need cool air where you spend much of your time, such as in the living room where the TV is? What about the bedroom, and the bedroom of your kids? Sleeping is important, while the night air will drop those high temperatures, it still may be unbelievably sticky and hot, making sleep just that much more difficult.

Knowing where you want to place the unit and how big the space is are just two of the questions you’re going to need to answer, and it will likely be made with your home and your wallet in mind, because air conditioners are a surprisingly complex beast, covering not just size and cost, but long-term flexibility, starting with the type of AC unit you want.

Which kind of air conditioner makes sense for your home?

There are four types of air conditioners out in the world, but three of them require some work to install them, and likely an electrician, particularly one that specialises in AC unit installation.

The obvious one that doesn’t is the portable air conditioner, which provides some solace for small rooms and renters, and could be the ideal solution for folks who don’t have permission to install something big (and who don’t want to leave it behind anyway). These typically sit against a window or a door, a small hose trailing outside, and while they can cool a room, they can also be loud, and aren’t likely to be as effective as a bigger AC unit, which can blend into the surroundings a little more than the portable can, and make more of a dent on the air in your home faster and easier.

For that, you need to turn to one of three solutions: window, split, or ducted. Each is different, and has reasons why you’d choose one over the other.

“Wall mounted air conditioning systems are the most popular type of system, particularly when only one or two rooms need to be cooled or heated, for example a living room or bedroom. Split systems are available in a range of sizes, and an air conditioning specialist can help consumers select the right size for their requirements,” said Kyle Rafter, National Product Manager for Fujitsu General Australia, telling Pickr the differences in the technology can cover how your home has its air treated. Specifically, he pointed out how zone controlling works, with this able to be used in ducted systems to heat or cool areas, rather than specific rooms. It can mean cooling a room directly is possible with wall, window, and ducted systems, while ducted can aim to cool parts of a house collectively, which can help handle costs.

“Ducted reverse cycle air conditioning is a whole home comfort solution,” he said. “Using a single system that is concealed in the ceiling or floor cavity, it’s quiet, easy to operate, and is an energy efficient solution to heat or cool multiple rooms, or the entire home, using the selected zone controller,” he said.

Because ducted is a house-wide solution, it may actually be more expensive to set up and install, since every room features a vent to distribute the air, both cooling and heating, as well as the system to control the air in, which typically goes in the roof. Wall-mounted options are a little more direct, mounting an air conditioner to either a wall and splitting the system so it’s both inside and outside, while a window-mounted is similar in that it joins the unit pieces together and mounts them to a window.

For many, ducted air conditioners are seen as a bit of the holy grail for air conditioning, because they require more thought and planning, and can deal with controlling the entire home’s air treatment needs. In winter, the home can be warm, while summer can be cool, and you can handle rooms specifically. But they’re not ideal for every circumstance.

“Even if there is an accessible ceiling, a ducted system might not be the most appropriate in some instances,” said Joe De Bella, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Panasonic Australia’s Air Conditioning Group.

“For residences in the far north of Australia (where roof space temperatures are so hot that ducted systems will lose efficiency), the typical installation would have an individual split or window/wall for each room,” he said.

“When it comes to comparing window/wall and split systems, window/wall units are the cheapest option but are generally much louder than split systems, as all the equipment is built into one box which either pokes through a wall or window. However, split systems are much quieter and are a better aesthetic fit for the modern Australian home. These units also boast better ‘ease of use’ and air filtration features in comparison to window/wall products which tend to be more basic in their offering.”

Picking which one you want can help determine how it looks in your home, how much you’re spending, and the sort of air treatment your home will receive. How to pick that air conditioner style comes with having an idea of what type of unit you want in the first place, and whether you want to make a dent to specific rooms or the entire home. But then that’s not even the extent of the air conditioner selection dilemma, because there are other factors.

While a ducted system will almost alway be handled by a specialist, you may be all about buying an AC unit and then getting it installed, and that will lead you down the path of needing to understand how air conditioners cool rooms, and how big of a system you need, so how do you choose the right size?

How do you choose the right size air conditioner for your home?

Glance at the online listings for air conditioners, and you’ll find a bunch of numbers and no real explanation: 2.5kW, 5kW, 7kW, 8kW? What do they mean, and is a bigger number right for you? Does it make a difference?

These are kilowatt numbers, and tell you just how powerful an air conditioner unit will be to deliver air to your home. Kilowatts can directly relate to energy usage, because the lower the number, the less energy and power it has to work with, while the higher is the opposite. That’s pretty basic logic, and much like how a car with a bigger and more capable engine is typically capable of more speed, there are also other factors.

You see, picking the right sized air conditioner for your home is where the process can get a little complex. If you’re trying to cool your home down on the cheap, your first inclination might be to get the lowest power AC unit you can find because they’re also the least expensive, but doing so may not deliver the cool air you yearn for. Rather, an air conditioner with a lower kilowatt rating set to cool a small room may be fine, but stick it into a big room and it may not even achieve the temperature you aim to hit.

Those kilowatt ratings are often tied directly to how much surface area they can cover, and also how quickly they can achieve the temperature you need. While a bigger kilowatt number on an air conditioner can also cover more space, it may handle the smaller spaces more effectively than a smaller model, able to run for less time because it has the ability to use more power to get to a lower temperature more efficiently. It could be the difference between running a lower kilowatt AC system all day to keep your home cool, and a higher kilowatt model to get it cool in minutes.

In the car analogy, a bigger engine may also be able to hit the same speed as the smaller engine in a shorter time frame, giving you an idea of how more power can be used for smaller metrics in a faster way. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bigger AC unit for your home, but does mean that if you buy an air conditioner that hasn’t been sized properly for the space you intend to cool, the AC unit may not reach its full potential, and could keep running non stop, still unable to hit the temperature you desire.

“It’s important to get the right sized system as a unit too small for the space may work harder to run, and a unit too large for a space may use unnecessary energy,” said Linda Louskos, Air Conditioning Marketing Manager for LG Electronics in Australia.

“We recommend consumers contact an air conditioning specialist to come to your home and provide an obligation free measure and quote to suit the home.”

Do I need an air conditioner specialist to come to my home?

No matter how many questions we asked, air conditioning specialists from across the industry would invariably come back to something you’d likely want to do: bring someone in. Bring in someone to get an understanding of your needs, who would also very likely to be the person that would install the unit.

Even if you understand what your home needs, even if you know how big of an AC system you need to buy for your home, and even if you know where you’re going to place it — in the living room, in the bed room, etc — there’s a good chance that you won’t be buying an air conditioner system without a bit of help. Specifically, you may need a specialist to come through and work out what your needs are, as that’s how air conditioners are matched for a home.

It was a fairly consistent answer, though not seemingly just because air conditioner installers will want you to go through them, but because it might make the different between an air conditioner cooling a room, and an air conditioner cooling a room well. While you may well be able to judge what’s needed because you understand your room, there may actually be more to it, and that’s where a specialist comes in.

Panasonic’s Joe De Bella told Pickr that air conditioner specialists and sellers typically have a way of determining the factors needed for a home’s new air conditioning, and that building construction, size, layout, and windows in the home can help them work out where to place a unit for maximum efficiency, complete with specialise software helping them to work it out.

“Most sellers of air conditioning units will have a method of calculating these determinants for the consumer,” he said. “This might be a heat load calculation software – Panasonic offers an App which gives an indication of the correct unit required based on a series of questions answered by a consumer – or as simple as a mathematic equation which multiplies the square meters of the room.

“Many industry experts are also capable of judging the needs of a room based on their experience. These factors will give an accurate indication as to which unit is most suitable for that building or space,” said Bella.

“It is important to note that these methods of calculation are most true for single room units. When it comes to ducted systems, it can be a more complex exercise.”

Will a bigger AC system use more power? Will it cost more to run?

Then there’s the next problem of your energy bills, because owning an air conditioner system can lead to increased electricity usage. That should come as no surprise, since air conditioners can use a lot of energy to keep things cool, and it even goes right back to those kilowatt numbers we mentioned earlier.

A lower number of kilowatts might mean an immediate savings on the cost of buying the AC unit, but it also might lead to increased energy costs because you’ve had to leave the air conditioner on to keep the house cool. Meanwhile, a larger kW number will use more energy to get the home to the desired temperature, but even that’s not the be-all, end-all for working out the numbers.

“Larger kW air conditioning units will cost more to run than smaller units. However, choosing the correct size unit is critical to ensure the unit runs at its peak performance,” said Atesh Mani, National Product Manager for Mitsubishi Electric Australia.

“A unit that is too small will be forced to run at maximum capacity all of the time, potentially using more energy than what’s required, [whereas] a unit that is too big will reach the set temperature and turn off more frequently which is not good for the health of the unit,” he said. “A system that is the correct capacity and is an inverter type will only use the required energy and ramp up and down as required.”

Inverter technology may end up being how people deal with this problem, as it essentially acts like a throttling system for air treatment systems. The systems go to the full energy capacity to hit the desired temperature, and then pull back, throttling the load. When a temperature it reached, the system adjusts and lowers the energy output to ensure the temperature stays the same.

If all your doors and windows are closed, it’s entirely possible you could keep the system running without doing much of anything in the background the moment the inverter has finished that first run at needing energy, and it’s something Fujistu’s Kyle Rafter told Pickr can be more useful for homes, particularly when it comes to costing less on energy usage.

“DC inverter technology makes an air conditioning system far more efficient than those using conventional technology,” he said.

“Consumers should request a heat load assessment when they visit a specialist. This is to ensure the correct size and type of air conditioning system is selected and installed to ensure the most efficient unit for the consumer’s needs is selected.”

In essence, finding the right sized air conditioner for your home can be about finding the right balance for the area the air conditioner intends to cool, or even warm. Units able to handle both heating and cooling will typically have different energy capabilities between both, with the cooling technology running at a lower maximum compared to the heating. Both are taxing to energy, but as an example, a 3.5kW air conditioner that can both cool and heat may end up supporting at much as 4.3kW for heating alone, and can mean costs will be more significant over the winter months.

Working out how much energy an air conditioner will cost you over the long term is definitely something you should factor in, though it’s also something the Australian government has helped out in.

You’ve probably seen the star ratings and numbers on appliances giving you an energy rating, and this can help be used as a guide for how your energy usage will work with any appliance, not just an air conditioner. However the government also offers an energy usage calculator to help Australians work out how much energy will be used, and how much an air conditioner will make a dent on their energy costs a over a ten year period.

Have air conditioners evolved to join the modern smart home?

Then there’s the matter of extra features, something air conditioners haven’t always had. Keep in mind that the main focus on an air conditioners is to cool and heat your home, but you can specifically pick units that only focus on cooling, and then other models that handle cooling and heating.

For most of Australia, the two-in-one device makes the most sense, but if you’re living in a part of the country where the mercury never really drops, you might be able to skip the heating component and save some money in the process. Alternatively, if you live in a place that gets cold, but doesn’t need to be something your rooms have to be always warm with — such as in a bedroom, where you can use a small automatically timed heater or a are happy to bundle up using quilts and a big bed cover — you may opt for the cooling-only unit.

But there are also other features these days worth considering, such as supporting smart home features. Typically this will mean a way of connecting to a home assistant technology, such as Google Home, Amazon Alexa, or Apple HomeKit, and means you can control your home’s air conditioning using your phone or voice. Think of it less as a set and forget mentality, but rather able to switch on the AC as you leave work or picking up your kids from school, knowing the house will have started cooling before you get home, rather than running all day. All from your phone.

It can go beyond needing the smarts built into your air conditioner. Newer thermostats can add that technology to an air conditioner, since not every manufacturer supports it in every unit, while some venture beyond merely standard AC design, opting to change the way an air conditioner blows air out into your room, and onto your skin.

How do you buy an air conditioner system for your home?

This can all make for a dizzying amount of things to consider when it comes time to actually make the decision and buy an air conditioner, which is ultimately where it all gets to.

But it does come back to four key questions you need to answer for solving an air conditioner conundrum:

  • What rooms do you intend to cool (or heat)?
  • How big are those rooms?
  • How much do you want to spend on the unit?
  • How much do you want to spend on long-term energy costs?

Answer those four questions as a bit of an air conditioner checklist, and you’ll have a firm idea of which system makes the most sense for your home. Think of them as the important factors that can help an AC unit do its job more effectively, and think about where in your rooms the unit would be placed to do a better job. A hallway may distribute air to every room if the kilowatt number is high enough, but you’ll want to keep those doors open, at least when it’s beginning, before locking it in. Walls can understandably impact and shape air flow, and so there’s clearly a lot to consider.

Alternatively, consider contacting an air conditioner specialist if you’re not sure you’ll have the best understanding of requirements for your home, and if you want them to run their fancy formulas and numbers over your home to get the optimum air conditioner approach.

You might glance at your home and figure you’ve got this, buying the model that works best in your mind, because, as we’ve noted earlier, you know your home. In practical use, you knowledge of your home combined with an inexperience of air conditioners could lead to anything but, and deliver some of the desired outcome — cool air for parts of your home — but not the best whole-home air conditioning experience.

While we’re hesitant to recommend a specialist above all, the reality is you need to go with what you feel comfortable with, whether that means buying an AC unit and hiring a sparky to make your home as cool as can be in the quickest of time frames, or booking in for a specialist to make it happen, and having them guide you to the outcome that works best for your situation.

After all, there are only so many things you can do to cool yourself down on a summer day, and as the mercury rises, knowing there was something you could have done to add an AC system to your home can only satisfy you until you make it happen.

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