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How to landscape around a central A/C unit

Ground rules that keep the outdoor unit hidden but still humming

Published: June 01, 2015 08:00 AM

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Let’s face it: Despite the comfort they provide inside, outdoor air conditioners can be an eyesore. But with some strategically placed landscaping, you can keep the compressor out of sight and help it to run more ­efficiently. Here’s how:

Let it breathe. The compressor needs adequate airflow to work correctly, so make sure there’s at least 2 to 3 feet of space between the unit and any plants or structures. There should also be 5 feet of clearance between the top of the unit and any trees above. Keep in mind that the unit has to be accessible for servicing.

Put it in the shade. Placing the unit out of the hot sun will help it run more efficiently. Shade trees also keep your house from heating up as much.

Plan your plants. A hedge is a good way to conceal a unit as long as you trim it year round. To keep the unit free of falling leaves, select trees that retain their leaves during the winter. If you don’t have room for a hedge, a trellis for climbing vines will provide shade and hide the compressor.

Keep the machine clean. A dirty condenser coil can increase compressor energy consumption by 30 percent. To prevent grass from your mower or mud from a rainstorm from spraying into the unit, surround the pad on which it sits with a stone border filled with crushed rock. That way rainwater drains away and foliage is kept at bay.

Keep lawn gear clear. Your A/C unit can get damaged by rocks kicked up by the mower or by being bumped by a string trimmer or mower.

The most reliable central air conditioners

If you're installing centrail air conditioning for the first time, or replacing an older unit, you'll want the most reliable system possible. When Consumer Reports asked readers whether their models broke, American Standard was the least repair-prone and York was the most. For more information, including repair information on heat-pump models, read "The most reliable central air conditioning systems."

Must-haves in a central A/C contract

Surprises are the last thing you or your contractor wants once the installation of your central air conditioning starts. Short of X-ray vision to see through walls, a detailed contract is your best bet. Yours should include:

• The exact make and model number of the A/C condenser, its matching air handler, and new thermostat.

• How and where the compressor and air handler will be installed, including information on drainage of any condensation or leaks from the air handler.

• Duct construction and insulation information, including how seams will be sealed. (An acoustical liner inside the ductwork helps assure quietness when the system is running, and insulation on the outside of the ducts helps prevent condensation and improves efficiency.)

• Ductwork location (in attic, closets, etc.) and the number and locations of diffusers in each room. Places where the ductwork goes from unheated areas (such as the attic) to heated ones (bedrooms or closets) should be sealed with plaster, silicone, or expanding foam so that heated air doesn’t get sucked up into unheated spaces in the winter.

• Any electrical or plumbing work that needs to be done and who will do it.

• Warranty and service information on the system and the installation.

As for when to buy central air conditioning, your best bet is to do that when it’s cold outside—cooling contractors aren’t busy, so they’re more likely to return your calls and arrive on time for estimates. They’re also eager to schedule work and may offer better deals than they would in the summer when temperatures and prices rise. Room units also cost less in the off-season.

—Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

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