I have a love-hate relationship with my air conditioner; I hate living with it, and I can’t live without it. I, like many who dwell in old apartment buildings and houses, muddle through the summer heat and humidity with window units that not only obstruct views and restrict access to natural light but also give off a sound that makes you feel as though you are camping out on an airport tarmac. The noise is not surprising; the compressor sits right in your window with little more than some plastic and a few bits of metal encasing it. For these reasons, I hold off installing my units for as long as possible and remove them as quickly as possible. But over the years, I’ve figured out a few ways to make them work and look a bit better.
Wash your windows. Make sure you clean your windows before installing your air-conditioning units — once the unit is in, there’s no way to clean both sides of the glass (unless you live on the ground floor and can access the windows from outside, and even then you wouldn’t be able to clean the area where double-hung windows overlap).
Level it off. Install your unit so it is level. If the unit tips downward, it could keep the condensation from draining properly out of the back or bottom.
Go clear. Years ago, I replaced the accordion-style insulation panels that came with my air conditioners with clear plexiglass. This made a world of difference. I was able to reclaim about two feet of natural light in each window. You can buy plexiglass sheets at most hardware stores. Just measure the open gaps, score the dimensions on both sides of the plexiglass (leave the protective cover on while you do this) with a glass cutter or the dull side of a box cutter and then just snap the pieces off. Remove the protective cover and secure the plexiglass pieces with screws to the window sash and bottom rail.
Fill the gaps. No matter how efficient your air conditioner is, the cool air will leak out of your house if you don’t have it properly sealed, and you will end up with higher electricity bills. Make sure you fill the gaps between the frame of the lower sash and the window and the upper sash, as well as all the cracks around the side panels. Duck Brand makes a number of products — Air Conditioner Insulating Seal, All Weather Repair Tape and Heavy-Duty Weatherstrip Seals — that you can cut to size and use to seal gaps. Filling gaps can also cut down on noise; a gap between the air conditioner’s frame and the sash or between the glass and the frame can cause annoying vibrating or rattling sounds.
Clean the filters. Cleaning your unit’s filter is easy to do but easy to forget to do. I try to clean mine every Sunday. Most people say you can do it every other week, but I find pollen, dust and dirt buildup, and that can’t be good for anyone. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to open the front of your unit and remove the filter. I vacuum away as much of the grime as I can, then rinse the filter in warm, soapy water. Once the filter is dry, place it back in the unit. One tip: I put a small red Sharpie dot in the top corner of the filter, just so I always know which side of the filter should face out.
Clean the coils. Your unit’s coils are what move the hot air out and the cool air in, and they, too, attract dirt and dust. I use an old toothbrush to gently clear away as much dirt as possible. I then use an old cloth dipped in warm, soapy water to remove excess dirt. Make sure you let all parts dry completely before you turn the unit on.
Help keep it cool. It may seem obvious, but keep your curtains drawn, your shades down and your windows closed during hot summer days so that the cool air stays in and the hot air stays out.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”