Window Air Conditioning Has a Long History of Sucking

Last night I wondered aloud on Twitter why window-based air conditioning units are so poorly designed, and why the technology seems so primitive. The average window unit, circa 2013, more or less resembles its forbears from decades ago: it’s still noisy, inelegant, heavy, and it looks like it was designed as a set dressing for “Logan’s Run.”

It was sort of an idle tweet, but it garnered a surprisingly fervent response. There seems to be broad agreement not only that these machines seem hopelessly stranded in time, but also that that shouldn’t be the case. The fact that no James Dyson has reinvented the window unit is a surprise to nearly everyone. After all this is a market in the billions of dollars; if a crafty entrepreneur could create a product that successfully addresses even just a sliver of that, they’d be doing very well.

To me, this is one of the enduring mysteries of contemporary industrial design, which has over the past twenty years sought to reinvent, redesign or elevate out of commodity status almost every object in the home, from vacuum cleaners to thermostats to toaster ovens. The closest thing to innovation that the AC market seems to have produced is so-called ductless air conditioning, but those units don’t address the problem that most Westerners want to solve with window units: cool a room with a machine that costs less than US$1,000. Ductless AC units are significantly more expensive to buy and considerably more difficult to install. And perhaps as a result, they are nowhere near as prevalent as window units.

Anyway, when I wrote the tweet I felt like I’d been lamenting this situation for years. It also occurred to me that I might have blogged about it before. When I did a search on Subtraction.com I realized that was in fact the case — I first wrote about this back in 2003. Ten years later, nothing has changed. If you’d have told me back then that that would be the case, that even by 2013, no one would come along and solve this problem or grab this opportunity, I wouldn’t have believed you. I guess it just goes to show you how our supposedly torrid pace of change is sometimes not so speedy after all.

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6 Comments

  1. I’d say the window unit problem was elegantly solved with split units. Installed back-to-back above a window in a room they solve the same problem for similar money in an attractive and functional package.

  2. Maybe it’s because there just isn’t a large enough audience for it? Most Americans I know have central air.

    And from my time in several Asian countries, all the newer AC units being sold are those split-ductless ones (and you can definitely get units for cheaper than $1000 USD and that includes the professional installation cost.)

  3. Ah, so you call the split units ductless. Here in South Africa they are virtually the only type you see installed in houses (our climate is fairly moderate). Cheaper brands can be bought and installed for the equivalent of $400. The nicer models for bigger rooms (LG, Samsung, Panasonic) are as much as $900.

  4. You’d think at the very least that Window units would come with their own fold-down brackets, or other safety and snug-fit add-ons. The fact that we’re still using bits of scrap wood and spare bricks to level and secure the damn thing is to me more disturbing than their industrial styling.

    We did, however, get the remote control. This is an add-on which certainly didn’t exist during my youth. The machines I remember, minted in the late 70s and early 80s, were monstrous metal beasts. It was always a two person job, often requiring my father to draft in one of his beefy friends rather than my petite mother. But even with progress in size and weight, and the addition of a remote, it’s true that we need to rethink the window unit. (and more generally, how we heat, cool, and insulate buildings. But that’s another blog post)

  5. I actually emailed Dyson about this roughly 10 years ago. It seems like a perfect industrial design opportunity just waiting to happen. I can’t imagine people wouldn’t love to have more attractive (and efficient) window units).