The Least Expensive HVAC Solution For A NYC Townhouse

One of the major items in our budget it the HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system. Every contractor seems to want to talk about it. After talking to quite a few of them it seems there’s a general consensus as to what system is best on a tight budget.

The Expensive Options

There are a lot of options. One of the more popular ones is forced air. With a forced air system you get heating and central air conditioning pumped through duct work. It seems forced air systems start at about $60K and can get much more expensive as you add things like zoning, air exchange handlers, humidifiers, air filters, etc. Plus they tend to blow dust around the house and NYC air is dirty enough as it is…

Another option is to have smaller zoned forced air systems throughout the house, typically in a dedicated closet. This basically takes the forced air idea and puts several smaller units throughout the house that handle only a floor or two. We went into some houses that had them and they’re quite noisy, and also pretty expensive.

One person suggested PTAC units which are hotel style thru-wall, combined heating and cooling units. But those generally use electricity for heating which is absurdly expensive in NYC or they require plumbing gas lines into every room (also expensive). And they’re noisy and not as energy efficient as other solutions.

Then there are decentralized heating and cooling units which are supplied with heated or cooled water and blow water over fins attached to the pipes to heat and cool the room. But their cost is pretty high.

The Consensus Solution For People On A Tight Budget

However, what everyone seems to agree is pretty effective and inexpensive (and what we’re going with) is having a boiler that powers radiant heating and combining that with a “mini split system” for cooling.

Radiant Heating

On the heating side, it turns out that hot water is more efficient than old style steam – but the concept is pretty much the same… You pump something hot through a radiator and it warms up the room – just as they’ve been doing in New York for over a hundred years. These days the plumbing is done with high quality plastic (“PEX”) tubing and it’s quite popular to make the floor the radiator and have “radiant floor” heating, but that costs substantially more than simple radiators. If we had the budget, we would do radiant floor heating since it’s the most pleasant form of heating to live with. But our budget is tight, so we’ll stick to normal rads.

Mini Split System For Cooling

On the cooling side we’ll have 2 or 3 condenser units on the roof that will pump refrigerant to small units in each room. That means every room is a zone which is great for keeping cooling costs down since we’ll only be cooling a few rooms in the house at any given time. Also, much of the noise is relegated to condensers on the roof and the units in the room are pretty quiet. The units can also act as heat pumps. However, since we’ll be positioning them near the ceiling they probably won’t be as effective at heating as the hot water rads will be. Still, if we want to take the chill out of a room we can do it without turning on the whole boiler.

The mini spit systems have three types of units for in the room. The standard is a wall or ceiling mounted unit that’s just under 3 feet long. It’s not the most attractive thing, but it can be very efficient. The the other highly efficient option is a “ceiling cassette” however, they don’t fit between 16″ joists, so you have to plan ahead for them. In our case they’re 10″ deep and our joists are only 8″, so we’re not going to use them since we’d have to create some sort of bump down in the ceiling. The last option is a ducted version which can be put in a nearby closet and then you run a short duct to one or two rooms. However, you lose some efficiency in the duct work. The most efficient mini split systems combine one condenser with one room unit and they can get up around 25 SEER, which is excellent. You can also have one condenser power multiple room units – up to 4 at a time. Though the more room units you power the lower the efficiency and SEER ratings. There are condensers that power two room units that get as high as 18 SEER, but typical SEER values are more like 15 or 16 for the multi-room systems.

A/C Sleeves In The Rental

Of course there are air conditioning solutions that are less expensive than mini split systems… In the rental unit we’ll go even simpler and put air conditioning sleeves in the sidewall. Unlike most townhouses we do have a sidewall that’s all ours (not a “party wall”). The A/C sleeves are less expensive than a mini split system and more than adequate for a rental.

4 thoughts on “The Least Expensive HVAC Solution For A NYC Townhouse

  1. Thanks,
    good info. I am looking to improve heating/cooling in SF area, CA, which is easier than NYC, and I totally forgot about radiators!

    Now need to find out if they do them here…

    • Tanya – Since SF has such mild temperatures your best bet may be heat pumps. Given the space constraints in Manhattan geothermal heat pumps are impossible and regular heat pumps switch over to resistance heat (which combined with crazy high prices for electricity here make heat pumps a bad idea for NYC) But if you can do geothermal, that would be a great solution for a mild climate like SF. Not sure if they have geothermal mini splits, but if they do, that would be the way to go (IMHO).

  2. How much did the mini-split system end up costing? This is a set up that seems to have become fairly standard in other parts of the world owing to it’s efficiency and ease of use yet in NYC at least, it is still prohibitively expensive to have installed.

    • Looks like our mini-split system cost around $26K. That’s for 11 room units (8 x 9000 BTU + 1 x 12000 BTU) and 3 condensers. That does not include the cost of dunnage on the roof and the concrete pad in the back yard. And of course, our walls were completely open when the units were installed – that helps greatly.

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