Air Conditioning the Shop

Article - June 3, 2010

In Arizona, our Summer days regularly reach 110 F and a closed garage can easily exceed 120F. When I was just making furniture for clients, I used to tough it out and deal with it. But as soon as I started making podcasts for a living, things changed. No one wants to see me sweating profusely and its difficult to smile and be jovial when you are literally working in Dante’s Inferno. So even though this is supposed to be a temporary shop situation, summer is already here and I need air conditioning! I decided I would share my experience with you just in case you were interested in installing A/C in your shop. Keep in mind, technology and pricing will certainly be dependent on your region.

Prior to contacting any installers, I did my research. In fact, I’ve been researching this for quite some time now knowing that this day just might come. I have also talked with many other woodworkers about efficient A/C for the shop. My buddy Vic in particular was very helpful in getting me the info I needed. My final decision was to install a ductless mini-split heat pump. Here are a few of my reasons: better efficiency, easy retro-fit, less intrusive installation, whisper quiet (important for filming), and remote control. Armed with this information, all I needed was someone to do the installation!

The first thing I did was call several A/C contractors (something we have no shortage of in Phoenix). I picked the top-rated one via a Google search, and three from the yellow pages. Only three responded. So here’s how it went down.

A/C Contractor #1:

I explained what my needs were and that I wanted the ductless heat pump. He gently began to push me in the direction of a more traditional system with an air handler and ductwork. He said that the only reason to go for the ductless system is if you really needed things to be quiet (judging by all the tools, it was obvious to him that noise wasn’t an issue for me). I then revealed that I make videos for a living, and noise was indeed a major issue. He then acted as if he never mentioned noise, and continued to lay out the strategy for the ductwork. And not that it is vital to this conversation, but he also made the mistake of insulting the quality of my dust collection ductwork. What an A-hole. Anyway, it became clear that no matter what I said, I wasn’t going to get an estimate on the unit I wanted. In fact, he completely ignored my request for two estimates: one traditional and one for the mini split.
Estimate Details: 13 SEER 2.5 Ton Heat Pump and Air Handler (York). Electrical work included in price. Plan includes ceiling-mounted air handler to minimize effect on shop space. Total price with tax: $5788

A/C Contractor #2:

This visit was much the same as the first. Although a much nicer guy, it was clear that he didn’t want to install the mini-split. He did, however, suggest a higher SEER unit so that we would be eligible for a federal and local rebate. This rebate would give us nearly $2000 in savings.
Estimate Details: 15 SEER 3 Ton Heat Pump (Amana). Electrical work NOT included in price. Plan includes floor-mounted air-handler which would require me making room for it. Total price with tax: $6100

Interesting so far. The second setup with the better A/C unit is only a few hundred dollars more. But I had to consider the extra cost of running the electric. Even then, with the rebates, it would still wind up significantly cheaper than the first quote and I would have a more efficient system. Major downside is the fact that its a floor-mounted air-handler. At this juncture, I was losing sight of the key point: neither one of these were the system I actually wanted!!

A/C Contractor #3:

I described my needs and expressed my desire for a ductless mini-split. The whole time he was nodding in agreement and said that he thinks its the perfect system for my situation. He immediately began developing a strategy for where the blower would be mounted and how we can run the lines with the least visibility on the outside of the house. We also had a conversation about my other two estimates and why they insisted on a traditional ducted system. This stuff may be obvious to some of you with experience, but it was very revealing to me. He said that most of the local A/C guys have so much time, money, and training invested in conventional sheet-metal ductwork installations, that its just not profitable for them to install a ductless system. In order for them to see any return at all, they need to do a full job and a full day’s worth of work.

Estimate Details: 16 SEER 2.5 Ton Ductless Mini-Split (LG). Electrical work NOT included. Total Price With Tax: $5134

So finally I feel good about this. I am getting the A/C unit I want and if we ever build a new stand-alone shop, its something that can be transferred to the new space. The unit will be super quiet and very efficient. Maybe I’ll feel a little less guilty running it during the hottest days of the summer! Here are a few pics of the installation.

Note: The intention of this post is not to give advice, but to simply share my experience. I am sure there are many different opinions on what is right for a situation like this. But if you are considering A/C for your shop, its nice to know what someone else’s experience was like so that you are prepared going into it.

Update (6/11/10) – Everything is completely hooked up and I did a test run. Its only 95 outside today, so the new AC cooled the shop down to the 70’s in no time. The real test will be when the 110-115 days come rolling around. I’ll keep you posted.


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