The Chicago Renters’ Guide to Window Air Conditioners

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It's Friday, right? I got the publication date right this time? Great!

So it's May. Chicago residents may have noticed a marked change in the weather recently. The outside temperatures shot up by about 20F degrees this week with an accompanying increase in humidity. If you're one of the many renters living in buildings with central air conditioning, good for you. This is not your article. This one is for those renters who have moved into vintage apartments without central AC since the end of the summer last year. You guys probably spent the last 48 hours or so contemplating how to install a window air conditioner. Here's what you need to know.

Do You Really Need AC?

While in record years the high temperatures in Chicago have capped out at about 111F degrees, the average high even in midsummer is somewhere in the 80s. That's really not all that bad, and in other areas of the country it's downright chilly. The difference here is our high humidity, which in turn creates high heat indexes - that means it feels hotter than it really is.

Air conditioners are expensive, but window units don't make too much of an impact on your bill. I checked Comed's hourly rates and found that in July of last year the peak cost was 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Of course there are delivery surcharges and taxes on top of that, so double it for a more realistic cost. This means that running a single small window unit 24 hours a day would cost you about 80 cents per day. There is however also the cost of the air conditioner itself.

Some folks might think that they would like a dehumidifier instead. While air conditioners remove heat and humidity, they require a window for heat exhaust. Dehumdifiers only remove humidity, which can be great for renters living in garden units and in apartments without much access to fresh air. The electricity cost to run a small dehumidifier is roughly the same as the cost for a small air conditioner.

If you moved to Chicago from the south you may also be considering a swamp cooler (also known as an evaporative cooler) instead of a window AC. Swamp coolers are best in dry climates and aren't recommended for use in Chicago summers.

If you are not home for a lot of the day and your apartment is close to the ground, or facing the north, it may be possible for you to get away with window fans for most of the year, turning them on after sunset to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. However, if you work from home, your windows get direct sun, or you need to actually get stuff done around the house in relative comfort then you'll definitely want to get your hands on some window units.

Check Your Lease

Not every landlord allows tenants to have window air conditioners. Installation of these units often requires drilling into window frames, which means permanent damage to expensive parts of the building. Landlord's insurance policies may not cover damage caused by window units installed by tenants, not only to the building itself but to pedestrians on the sidewalk below who might get hurt when a poorly-installed unit takes a tumble to the street.

Therefore, if you have decided that you absolutely must have air conditioning then you need to check your lease and make sure that it's possible. If the lease is silent about air conditioners then it's a good idea to check with your landlord directly. Your lease may also limit the number and type of units you can use, and it may specify that you have to use the landlord's staff to install them rather than doing it yourself.

Check Your Power

Some window units use standard 110 volt power outlets, but larger units will require a dedicated 220 volt outlet. Most apartments do not have 220 volt outlets except in the laundry room, since some dryers use them. If you have a dedicated 220 volt outlet in your apartment for an air conditioner it will be very obvious. It will look different from a normal outlet and will probably be located directly under a window.

Beyond the question of outlets you must also think about the power situation in your apartment in general. Many old apartments may only have a handful of circuits for the entire apartment. You don't want to have a big power hog like an air conditioner sharing a circuit with sensitive electronics such as a PC or a home entertainment system. Locate the breaker box or fuse box for your apartment and count the circuits. If there's fewer than one per room, you'll probably want to skip the window AC or keep the number of them to an absolute minimum. Do not expect to run any other devices that heat or cool air, such as hair dryers or toaster ovens, on the same circuit as the air conditioner.

Choose Your Locations

The best windows for air conditioners are north facing so they do not get direct sun. The next best choice is an east-facing window as most air conditioner usage is in the afternoon and evening. You want to pick windows that are not overly wide or too skinny. You will also want to avoid windows that are covered in ivy. A check of window frames within your apartment may make it easy to spot where prior tenants have installed their air conditioners.

Speaking as someone who walks around the city quite a bit, it would be kind if you chose a window that doesn't overlook the sidewalk. Nobody likes condensation dripping on their head.

If you have steam radiators in your apartment you will want to avoid installing the air conditioner directly above it. The radiator can make installation and removal a real pain, and as landlords who provide heat for apartments must keep the radiators on until June 1 you may run into situations where the air conditioner is fighting with the radiator for the temperature of your room. You can certainly close the valve on the radiator to prevent it from heating up, but the sorry state of radiators in many apartments may mean that the valve cannot be moved.

Cold air does not flow well around corners, so L-shaped rooms do not work well with them.

You will probably want an AC unit in each room used for sleeping, and in any rooms used during the day that have doors that can be closed.

Figure Out Storage

You will use your window air conditioner for maybe four months out of the year. The rest of the time it needs somewhere to exist that isn't your window. Once you remove it from the window it will probably be dirty and slightly damp, so keep this in mind if you plan to put it on the floor of your apartment for the remaining 2/3 of the year. If you have a storage locker this is a great use for it. Otherwise you will need to come up with another option for storing it either within your apartment or off site.

Schedule the Installation

I'm putting this section before the part about buying the actual air conditioners. This is deliberate. If your landlord or property manager requires you to use their staff to install your air conditioner, you need to bear in mind that AC installation appointments will get lowest priority when it comes to scheduling. Any time-sensititve repairs for other tenants that could result in a big lawsuit will absolutely take precedence, and that includes tenants who lock themselves out at random times. Be prepared for a wait of 2-3 weeks or longer for the actual appointment.

Of course your landlord may be incredibly well organized and have extra staff on the ready for this particular task, but in my experience it's best to plan in advance. Book the installation appointment as early as possible.

When the day rolls around, make sure to kennel any pets that might get in the way. Clearly mark the windows that should get air conditioners, and clean the area around the window so that the installer can easily access it.

Obtain Your Appliances

It's important to get an air conditioner with enough power for the room it's meant to cool, but not too much power. For most bedrooms a 5000 BTU air conditioner will be fine. For even the largest rooms in a Chicago apartment a 6000 BTU unit would be fine. The only exception to this would be if the window is subject to direct sun for most of the day, in which case you might want to add 1000 BTU to those numbers to offset the additional heat.

We do of course recommend checking with friends, family and used appliance offerings on sites such as Craigslist before you purchase a new air conditioner. However, if you're looking at used appliances you want to make sure to get ones that were manufactured in 2010 or later, or ideally in 2015 or later. Air conditioners use chemicals within a sealed tube as part of their cooling process. One of those chemicals, called HCFC-22 or R22, is in the process of being phased out as it is harmful to the ozone layer and replaced with newer and less damaging substances. The first restrictions on use of R22 went into place in the US in 2010. Laws became even stricter in 2015. You can check the manufacturing date of any air conditioner by looking for the label that also contains the serial number.

You will also want to make sure that you obtain air conditioners that will work with your power situation. If you only have the normal 110 volt outlets in your apartment, don't buy an air conditioner that needs a 220 volt socket.

Air conditioners alone are great, but it's also good to install some blackout drapes to help keep the sun from heating up the room during the day. Curtains can be expensive and they may require drilling to install. If you're on a budget, opaque shower curtains run about half the price of blackout drapes. If your landlord won't let you install a curtain rod, consider those stick on hooks instead. It won't be pretty, but at least you'll stay cool.

Have you been through the whole window AC process before? Share your tips and tricks with our readers in the comments! Thanks for reading, and enjoy the spring weather!

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Published by

Kay Cleaves