Sound blankets, fences, and other ways to reduce air conditioner noise

As temperatures heat up, many homeowners decide that it's time to put the air conditioner to work. Window-mounted units sprout up around the neighborhood, and central air systems come to life after a long dormancy.

Higher energy bills are one tradeoff any homeowner must accept in exchange for the comfort of the artificially chilled air. You may also just learn to live with the noise created by these systems, but there are options available to quiet the racket.

Certain components of an air conditioner are more likely to produce noise than others. Anita Alvarez, writing for Angie's List, says these include the compressor, mounts, and fan. Blanton's Air, Plumbing & Electric, a North Carolina company, says the metal cabinet that houses the air conditioner components also tends to amplify their noise.

The operation of the air conditioner will also contribute to noise levels. Alvarez says the unit will likely put out a lot of noise when it starts up, and will naturally be louder if any parts are vibrating or rattling. Standard air conditioners also run at full capacity, generating a sustained level of noise.

If you have an old, inefficient air conditioner, it may be time to upgrade. Newer units are not only designed to be more efficient, thereby saving you money on their operation, but have also been improved to reduce noise. For example, more efficient air conditioners with variable speed blowers won't run at high capacity as often, instead using a slower setting that dramatically cuts down on noise.

Other new technologies also target the loudest components of an air conditioner. Blanton's Air, Plumbing & Electric says these include quieter fans, vibration-dampening mounts, advanced vent designs, and insulated cabinets. Some air conditioner options locate the compressor outside the home, thus keeping the loudest part of the unit away from the room you need cooled.

When looking for a new air conditioner, check the decibel rating. The home sustainability resource  Modernize.com suggests getting one with a sound output of less than 60 decibels, which is about equal to the background conversation in a restaurant.

If you'll be keeping your existing air conditioner, some basic maintenance can help pinpoint any problems that are causing noise. Open the cabinet to remove any debris and tighten any loose parts. Blanton's Air, Plumbing & Electric says you should also address any dirty fan blades, which are blunt and have poor aerodynamics. These qualities not only cause the fan to run louder, but also put additional strain on the fan bearing.

Consider a sound-dampening blanket for the compressor. The magazine Family Handyman recommends getting a universal model or searching for a blanket that fits your specific unit. The sound blanket is less effective with older air conditioners, since they'll still have noisy fans.

Another solution is to build a fence around the outside components of an air conditioning system to help divert sound upward. Before you undertake this project, test how effective a fence will be by putting up some plywood around the unit.

The fence should allow room for air to circulate, and can also be a useful way to conceal the ugly machinery. Blanton's Air, Plumbing & Electric says there should be at least two feet of room on all sides of the unit, and that the fence should be free of gaps. Alvarez says dense shrubs can also be useful for deadening an air conditioner's noise.

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