6 Alternatives to Traditional Air Conditioning to Consider

Air conditioning bills got you down? Check out your options for cheaper, more energy-efficient ways to stay cool.

By Devon Thorsby, Editor, Real Estate |Aug. 1, 2018, at 11:07 a.m.

6 Alternatives to Traditional Air Conditioning to Consider

Slideshow

Sometimes HVAC just won't cut it to cool your house.

Close up view on HVAC units (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). 3D rendered illustration.

(Getty Images)

For many, soaring temperatures in the summer months make living without a climate-controlled home impossible. But cooling through a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, or HVAC, may not always be the best answer. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, three-quarters of all U.S. homes have air conditioners, adding up to about 6 percent 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

How air conditioning works

An air conditioner unit outside a brick home in a residential neighborhood.  The air conditioner is in a back yard in the hot summer season. Service industry, working class.

(Getty Images)

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.

Ductless or mini split air conditioner

Ductless or mini split air conditioner

White home air conditioner mounted on apartment wall

(Getty Images)

Getting between walls isn’t always an 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, similar to a refrigerated air conditioning unit but smaller. Connected to the condenser are small units for each room, which are attached to a wall. One benefit of a mini split system is the individual units allow you to adjust the temperature of each room. Installation of a ductless system typically ranges from $1,700 to $7,000, based on the number of rooms and work required, according to home improvement cost comparison site Fixr.

Window unit or portable air conditioner

Window unit or portable air conditioner

An air conditioning unit sticking out a window.

(Getty Images)

One of the most popular alternatives to central air is a window unit or portable air conditioner that cools a single room. 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. Otherwise, the hotter air stays in the room and the unit can’t effectively cool the space. 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

Evaporative cooler or swamp cooler

Evaporative air cooler front running blown flick

(Getty Images)

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 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. But 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 percent 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.

Attic fan

Attic fan

THE ROOF VENTILATOR IN NATURE DAY LIGHT OF FACTORY.

(Getty Images)

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. Attic fans cool the air inside simply by circulating air, pushing stuffy, warmer air out of the house and providing a consistent breeze inside. Without a cooling agent, an attic fan won’t make the air much cooler if temperatures rise far beyond 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. The cost to install an attic fan or whole-house fan typically ranges from $345 to $779, according to HomeAdvisor.

Air cooling fan

Air cooling fan

Modern metal electric fan on gray background.

(Getty Images)

The simplest cooling option – a fan – is an effective solution for many, as it cools by increasing the air circulation in a room. But unless it incorporates a mister, is a portable evaporative cooler or has an exhaust vent of some sort, a fan cannot actively take warmer air and make it cooler. 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. Fans range in size and style – a simple table fan can cost $15 or less, while the popular and quiet Dyson bladeless fans can reach up to $400.

Geothermal heating and cooling

Geothermal heating and cooling

(Getty Images)

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 by liquid flowing through a system of buried tubes, exchanging heat from the house to the ground, and vice versa when the weather is cold. A geothermal heat pump system can be up to 65 percent more energy-efficient than a traditional HVAC system, according to the Department of Energy, but installing one requires a lot of additional work due to the digging required to bury the pipes. HomeAdvisor reports the typical range to install the system is between $3,473 and $12,864, including the equipment and excavation.

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Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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