how to install an air conditioner

This UWS building is ready for summer. (Getty Images)

As the city heats up, popsicles, cold showers, and open windows will only help you cool down so much. Since many New York City apartments don’t come with air conditioning, adding a unit or system is usually up to you. Of course, plenty of residents stick it out with a fan and live to tell the tale. But if your I’ll-be-fine-without-AC attitude starts to wilt — just like your overheated houseplants — there’s no shame in purchasing an air conditioner for your home. And with the COVID-19 crisis changing the way we interact this summer, there will undoubtedly be fewer communal places to cool down, making it even more important for New Yorkers to make their apartments chilled and comfortable. As you embark on your journey towards a cooler, less sweaty summer, you’ll need some information. Here you’ll find answers to your apartment air conditioner questions, including tips for window unit installation.

What Type of Apartment Air Conditioner Should You Get?

how to install a window ac

Window AC units work best in small spaces like this one. (From a listing at 436 Willoughby Ave. #PH3)

Unless you hit the apartment jackpot and already have AC upon move-in (crazy, we know), you’ll have to figure out what type of unit is best to cool your space. There are a few options.

Affordable and Popular: Window Air Conditioner

It’s the most common type in NYC — and chances are, you dodge their dripping exhaust on the streets down below each summer. A single AC unit is ideal for cooling down a single room or an entire small apartment. As the name implies, all you need is a spare window to install. More shortly on how to get the job done.

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Through-the-Wall Air Conditioner

Through the wall ac unit

Through-the-wall AC units are typically placed below windows in many NYC buildings. (From a listing at 1270 Fifth Ave. #4G)

Through-the-wall ACs, also known as wall-mounted ACs or built-in ACs, are considered more permanent than their window unit counterparts, because installing these in many (but not all instances) takes some minor construction — don’t try this yourself, folks. That said, some buildings have pre-existing wall sleeves with a lid that makes it a cinch to pop in and later pop out this type of unit without leaving a permanent hole in the wall. Keep in mind that while many through-the-wall-air-conditioners resemble window air conditioners, they are not interchangeable because they vent differently.

What’s the Deal With Portable Air Conditioners?

These ACs are exactly how they sound — freestanding units that you can roll from room to room. Although they might seem like a dream for renters, portable air conditioners are generally more expensive, less effective, and noisy — not to mention big and bulky. However, if your building doesn’t allow window ACs, or if you have bars on your windows, these units may be your only option. It’s also important to note that you’ll need to direct an exhaust hose out a window for these things to work. 

Can You Install Central Air Conditioning?

Chances are, this one’s off the table if you’re in NYC. Although central AC is widespread throughout much of the country, New York isn’t one of those places, because so many of our buildings were built during the classic “open window, pray for a breeze” era, e.g., before air conditioning. If you decide to install central air conditioning in an older apartment, you’ll need first to install air distribution ducts, a fan-and-coil system, and a condenser outside of your home. Of course, before getting started, you’ll need your building’s permission.

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Ductless air conditioner

A ductless AC placed between two windows near the ceiling. (From a listing at 117 Bloomfield St. #2B)

Keep Cool, Stay Warm: Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioner

While its name might sound like a futuristic aircraft ready for takeoff, a ductless mini-split air conditioner is an efficient option to chill (or heat — dual purpose!) your apartment. You’ll need to get this one pro installed, as it connects to an outdoor compressor, and of course, check with your building before jumping in. Did we mention, they’re silent and offer great air circulation?

How to Select a Window Air Conditioner

Window ACs come in various sizes and strengths, and it’s essential to get the best fit. First, you’ll need to figure out the physical size of your window and the corresponding unit. Do this by opening your window and measuring the inside dimensions (width and height). Your AC has to be small enough to fit inside the window, but big enough that the unit’s side panels will stretch to cover all of the extra space. 

The next question you need to address is how much energy is required to cool your space. There are plenty of handy charts that help you figure out the correct energy output. In general, your square footage determines how many BTUs’ are required to cool down a room. For example, a 200-square foot room requires a 6,000-BTU unit. For more details, check out this handy guide from Energy Star.

How to Install a Window Air Conditioner in Your Apartment

In general, you should follow the instructions that come with your specific AC unit, to ensure that you’re installing it properly. But here’s an installation cheat sheet, paired with guidance — always to be used in conjunction with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

What To Check and Do Before Installing an Air Conditioner in Your Apartment

First things first: before you actually install your air conditioning, remember the following:

  • Verify that there’s a three-prong electrical outlet near the window. It’s a must. If you need an extension cord, it’s best to consult an electrician and always make sure that the cord you use is made specifically for air conditioners. 
  • Make sure your preferred window is not an emergency exit window that leads to a fire escape. It’s against fire code to block windows like these.
  • Install an exterior support bracket first designed to support the weight of your AC.

Tools for Installing a Window Air Conditioner

Now that you’ve done your pre-installation due diligence, you’ll need a drill and screwdriver. Another good thing to have is insulating foam, which sometimes comes with your unit. It acts as a barrier between your room and the outside world. 

How to Install a Window AC Unit, Step by Step 

Again, your AC’s specific instruction pamphlet is the most critical document to follow, as it’s customized to whatever unit you’ve purchased. If you’d prefer some visual guidance, watch this video how-to on installing a window AC unit.

What Companies Install Window AC Units in NYC?

For some people, it’s best to leave the installation to the experts. 

You can turn to a company like Air Conditioner NY, which does a range of AC installations in the area. “If people have no experience, hire someone, and see how professionals do it,” owner Vladimir Galashev suggests. He explains that often first-timers try to install their own ACs and end up with problems like unstable units and leaks, which they need a professional to fix. Due to COVID-19, Air Conditioner AC employers are taking extra precautions like wearing masks and gloves to keep everyone safe. 

Other local options include Super Cool NYC, which specializes in window AC installation and Keep Cool NYC, which does both window and wall installation. You can also hire someone to install your window AC on websites such as TaskRabbitHandy, or Fixr

Whether you’re looking to rent or to buyfind your next NYC apartment on StreetEasy.