Classic Homes and Modern Air Conditioning Systems Can Co-Exist

As HVAC contractors, we’re lucky to step foot in many historic homes throughout Essex County. Charming Victorians and rustic Craftsmans add so much character to this area that we’re always honored to bring them up to date with the latest HVAC technologies.

We appreciate the lengths owners go to preserve the architectural integrity of these fine old houses. Some suffer summer after sweltering summer without proper air conditioning, getting by with a couple of inefficient window units and fans, fearing that the installation of an HVAC system would require significant alterations.

This is especially true of people living in homes without existing ductwork. They cringe at the thought of opening walls and dropping ceilings to accommodate heavy duty ductwork, which could compromise the character of their homes.In some cases, installing distribution ductwork just isn’t feasible.

Fortunately, there are two good options to bring modern comfort into old homes without major retrofitting.

High velocity mini-duct system

Discreet comfort: Smaller than a traditional HVAC system, but no weaker for it, the high velocity mini-duct system delivers conditioned air through flexible tubes measuring 2 to 4 inches in diameter. These unobtrusive ducts fit between studs and rafters for a discreet installation. Inconspicuous air vents, typically no larger than a CD, and can be installed on walls, ceilings and floors. Your HVAC contractor will determine where to place these vents for optimal air flow. As for the air handler itself, it’s about a third the size of a traditional unit and can be installed in the attic, basement or closet.

Small but mighty: As the name suggests, high velocity systems blow air with more force than a conventional system, cooling a home faster. That means more energy savings. The other advantage: More even air distribution. Traditional systems deliver large volumes of air, creating drafts and uneven temperatures. In contrast, high-velocity systems deliver concentrated streams of air. This creates a suction, drawing air toward the cool streams for more even temperatures throughout a room.

One drawback: Some say these systems are louder. Forcing air through small tubes can create vibrations and make walls sound, well, windy. Fortunately, manufacturers have addressed this with attenuators that muffle the noise.

Ductless mini-split

Zoned comfort: As the name implies, there are no ducts, which means minimal cutting through walls. Installation only requires the placement of an indoor air handling unit, which can be mounted on a drop ceiling or flush against a wall. A conduit housing a power cable, refrigerant tubing, suction tubing and a condensate drain connects the indoor unit to an outdoor compressor/condenser through a small hole in the wall. The compressor/condenser can typically serve up to four air handlers. This allows homeowners to customize comfort in different rooms. For example, you may have an air handler in the kitchen, living room and two bedrooms. Each room can be a different temperature; or if a room is unoccupied, you can turn the unit off without affecting the other rooms in the house because each unit operates individually.

Your HVAC contractor will help you determine what size system you need and the number of air handlers to provide optimal comfort.

Super efficient: Ductless mini-splits are about 30% more efficient than conventional HVAC systems. Central forced air systems lose a significant amount of energy through ductwork. Ductless systems are also whisper quiet.

One drawback: The air handlers are low profile, sleek and modern, so they might look out of place in your antique home. But they certainly have more aesthetic appeal than bulky window units, which block natural light.

Bottom line: Either the high-velocity system or ductless mini-split is an excellent option. We’ve installed these systems in many vintage houses and even had the honor of working with preservationists at This Old House on several projects. In every case, we added state-of-the-art comfort without spoiling the classic charm of these homes.