An illustration showing how to Landscape Around a Central Air Conditioning Unit

Having a central air conditioner is a beautiful thing. What's not so lovely is the eyesore of an outdoor compressor. But with some strategically placed landscaping, you can keep the outdoor unit out of sight and help your system run more ­efficiently while you're at it.

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“Landscaping for privacy or to screen views is also known as green fencing," says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs and a spokeswoman for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. "This functional approach to landscaping is often incorporated from the beginning of the landscape design process.”

Here are tips for green fencing from Henriksen and the Department of Energy.

5 Ways to Protect Your AC and Your Wallet

1. 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. “Check the owner’s manual to confirm the proper amount of space," says Henriksen. Keep in mind that you'll want to leave enough space for you or a technician to access and service the unit. And there should also be 5 feet of clearance between the top of the unit and any trees above.

2. Put it in the shade. Installing the unit where it will be out of the hot sun will help it run more efficiently. In fact, shading both your house and the compressor is the most cost-effective way to reduce solar heat gain in your house and reduce air-conditioning costs, according to the DOE.

3. Plan your plants. A hedge is a good way to conceal a unit as long as you keep it trimmed. To keep the unit free of falling leaves, which can impede the fan, select trees that retain their leaves during the winter, like evergreens or some oak and beech trees. (Check with a local nursery or arborist to make sure.)

If you don’t have room for a hedge, don't give up. "A lattice with greenery and colorful vines could also make for a beautiful screening option," says Henriksen.

4. Build a border. A dirty condenser coil can force your compressor to work harder than it needs to, increasing energy consumption by 30 percent. So you want to keep grass from your mower or mud from a rainstorm from spraying into the unit. The best way to do that is to 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.

5. Keep lawn gear clear. Your AC 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 AC Brands

If you're installing central 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 systems broke, no brand stood out as being the most reliable, but the data show that York and Rheem are among the less reliable.

About one in four of the systems from those brands is estimated to break by the fifth year of ownership—a breakage rate so high that Consumer Reports can't recommend them at this time. For more details on reliability, read about the most reliable central air conditioning systems.