Looking out from the high rise balcony of our tiny shore condo, we amused ourselves last fall by guessing why on earth the owners of the truly enormous 100-year-old house on the next block were adding yet another story. The mystery deepened when the fifth floor addition proved to be little more than two peaked dormers holding up a narrow flat roof. Then, just last week, all was made clear when we spotted an enormous air conditioning unit on the new roof.

Forget cooling summer breezes, homeowners are now increasingly unwilling to make it through New Jersey summers without central air conditioning.

“It’s the young people,” says Marvin Rule, who has been the manager of Lawrenceville Fuel for 30 years. “As they can afford it, they add central air conditioning. They can’t live without it.”

Michael Redding, fourth generation manager at Reddings, the Nassau Street heating and cooling company owned by his father, David, sees demand at the other end of the age scale, too. “A lot of 80-year-olds can’t take the heat anymore,” he says.

Whatever the age, few area homeowners have to resort to building a flat-roofed addition in their quest for cool indoor air. That shore family had few other choices. As is common in shore towns, their house fills its entire lot, every inch of it, leaving no room for a compressor in the yard. It’s easier to retrofit an older home for air conditioning in the Princeton area, where municipal set-back regulations ensure that there will be enough room outside for even the largest air conditioning unit. But still, it’s a bear of a job. And it’s pricey — anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000 for a two-story house that does not have ductwork.

“Ranches are easier,” says Rule. “Everything goes in the attic. In the older, two-story homes we try to find closets, one right on top of the other, but that rarely happens.” Installers, therefore, have to put the extensive ductwork that a central air conditioning system requires in the attic or the basement.

After scouting for enough space to accommodate up to 100 feet of duct work, installers must determine just how much cooling each house requires. “It’s more of a science than most people think,” says Rule. Everything from the size and lay-out of rooms to the shade from overhanging trees to the direction in which the home faces must be taken into consideration. “It’s a lot of prep work,” he says. “The whole house has to be measured.” It is essential to determine a proposed system’s, CFM, or how many cubic feet of air can pass through its blower in one minute. The other key measurement involves calculating the optimal BTU rating for the system.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) network’s website (www.diynet.com) explains that “a BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. Specifically, one BTU equals 1,055 joules. In heating and cooling terms, one ton equals 12,000 BTU. A typical window air conditioner might be rated at 10,000 BTU. For comparison, a typical 2,000-square-foot house might have a five-ton (60,000-BTU) air conditioning system, implying that you might need perhaps 30 BTU per square foot.”

All of this is complicated, and even the DIY network, dedicated as it is to helping homeowners tackle their own projects, warns that it is important to seek help from an air conditioning contractor. Someone like Rule, who says that, while the job of measuring a home for central air is complex, it is less time-consuming than it was in the past. “It used to take four hours to calculate,” says Rule, “but now, we put everything into the computer and it just takes 20 minutes.”

While each home’s cooling needs are different, there are only a few choices to make in deciding how to get the air flowing — and the house itself will often have the biggest voice in choosing.

Redding explains that it is possible to start from scratch, replacing an older home’s heating system and putting in a modern all-in-one heating and cooling plant. But he doesn’t like this solution. “A lot of times we recommend that if homeowners have hot water heat or steam heat with radiators that they stay with it, and put in air conditioning only,” he says. “It’s a wonderful heat, better than forced air.”

If the homeowner agrees, the next decision is whether to go with a standard air conditioning system or with the newer high velocity air conditioning system. At first blush, the high velocity option looks good. While the ductwork for a standard system consists of coils that are six inches in diameter, the high velocity coils are only about half that size. This means that the system is less intrusive and can be installed in smaller spaces. The downside is greater expense, noise, and the force with which the air enters rooms.

“The high velocity air runs three times faster,” says Redding. It is essential to determine just exactly where each family member spends time if this is the type of system to be installed. Put a vent directly over the head of a bed, and that bed’s occupant is not going to get much sleep. Put a vent over a favorite reading chair, and it’s going to be hard to hold onto the newspaper.

But, if a home has a finished attic that is in use, and it has no big closets in which to place ductwork, high velocity may be the only way to go.

In either case, it will be necessary to place vents in the ceilings, and if they are made of plaster, as is often the case in older homes, the job must be done carefully — or large chunks of century-old plaster could well come down. Installation is less perilous on the floors. Redding says that new vents come in a variety of wood finishes and blend in well with any home.

Both Redding and Rule say that installing a central air conditioning system in an older two-story house requires two men and takes about a week. Redding warns that both time and cost can vary considerably. If the ductwork is to go in an attic with 7-foot ceilings and a solid floor, that’s one thing, but, he says, “we often end up working in an attic with two-foot-high ceilings and no plywood.”

For those who value quiet, don’t need to have the entire house cool, and can live with a large wall-mounted box, there is one more alternative to window air conditioners. The ductless split-system, relatively new in this country, has been popular in Japan for about 15 years. Rule explains that this is a system that places the compressor — the noisy part of the air conditioner — outside. The fan/evaporator unit is inside, in the room to be cooled. It is generally a 14-inch wide by four-foot long wall unit. “It’s not a whole house system,” says Rule. “You would need three per floor.”

Not wildly popular in this area, Rule says that his company installs just a few ductless split-systems a year, mostly in the homes of elderly clients who are not longer able to put in and take out window units as the seasons change.

The central air conditioning systems for older houses, on the other hand, are extremely popular. “We do 50 to 100 a year, depending on the economy,” says Rule.

Redding says that the rush to be cool will begin in earnest in just about one week. “On April 15 it starts to go crazy, when people get that tax check,” he says. The demand only intensifies as the heat builds. Wait until the first big heat wave, he says, and it may be three weeks before an air conditioning professional can come to the rescue.

Once in place, central air conditioning quickly becomes addictive. When the systems break down, homeowners insist that they be repaired ASAP. In Redding’s experience, “Heat is a bigger emergency than cold.”

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