Real estate


Cool ways to add AC to an old home

Andrey Popov/shutterstock
A ductless air conditioner is an efficient and cost-effective way to cool areas of your home.

Q. I own a small Dutch Colonial in Watertown built between 1918 and 1920, and I’ve lived there for 18 years. During this time, I’ve repaired, replaced, or renovated almost every room and/or system in the house. I think I’ve done most, if not all, of the major repairs needed for the foreseeable future. I’m several years away from retirement, so I’m hoping not to have too many more expensive and/or intrusive home-repair projects.

Like many houses in New England, my house had no air conditioning. I have window units for the three bedrooms on the second floor. Every spring a handyman carries them upstairs and installs them, and every fall, he takes them and carries them to the basement. Up until a few years ago, this was adequate even though there is no air conditioning on the first floor. For the past couple of summers, however, during the heat waves with 90-plus temperatures and high humidity, not having air conditioning on the first floor has been very uncomfortable.

What options do I have to add air conditioning to the house, and what do you recommend?


As far as I can tell, the options are central air, ductless air conditioning, and a through-the-wall air conditioner somewhere on the first floor (along with the window units in the bedrooms).

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The heating system is steam via radiators, and the boiler is fueled by natural gas. It’s my understanding that central air would involve installing ducts throughout the house (which would be quite intrusive) and replacing the furnace, which I had put in when I bought the house. The plumber who installed the furnace told me I have many years left with it, so I’d hate to replace it.

I don’t know much about ductless air conditioning.

I think a through-the-wall air conditioner somewhere on the first floor would probably be the least expensive option, but it would be noisy (like the window units in the bedrooms). I wonder whether this would be penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Any suggestions?


CAROL G., Watertown

A. I have hot-water heat in my house and put in air conditioning years later. I installed the air handler in the attic and cooled the second floor. I was able to get only two ducts to run down to the first floor. In hindsight, I should have installed a unit in the basement, too.

I’m also a fan of the mini split air-conditioner system, which does not require conventional ducts and consists of two main parts: the indoor and outdoor units. The outdoor unit is installed on or near the wall outside the room and contains a compressor and condenser and expansion coils. The indoor unit holds the cooling coil, a blower, and an air filter. A ductless air conditioner is an efficient and cost-effective way to cool areas of your home. The purchase cost is significantly higher than a window unit but will save you money in the long run.


Q. My back porch is settling away from the house. Being concrete (a friend of mine once told me it was a typical ’50s or ’60s Popular Mechanics DIY pattern), it’s not possible to shore it up or level it with jacks. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t worry, but as you can see, it’s pulling part of the door frame with it. I’m weighing whether to tear it down completely and replace it with a set of open wood steps and a landing, which I could later extend around the corner to a deck.

I gather from the tag that you’re based in Concord. If so, did you escape damage from the (Aug. 22) tornado?



A. Wow, that’s definitely pulling away. I’m guessing that it does not have a proper footing. I’d tear it off and replace it with something built properly.

The tornado passed a quarter mile away from my house. My home is OK, but it seriously damaged my neighbors’ and friends’ properties. Thank you for asking.

Rob Robillard is a general contractor, carpenter, editor of, and principal of a carpentry and renovation business. Send your questions to or tweet them to @globeaddress or @robertrobillard.