AC Unit for Your Roof? Here's Why It's Worth Considering

Lauren Wellbank
Written by Lauren Wellbank
Updated January 10, 2022
home with flat top roof
Photo: Iriana Shiyan / Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • Rooftop AC units work best when the HVAC system is located in the attic

  • They're not a good fit for homes located in hot and sunny climates

  • Before installing, consider accessibility for maintenance and repair

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If you’re tired of seeing a clunky air conditioning unit in your yard or listening to the constant whir of the machine while you’re entertaining on the patio, it might be time to consider moving the AC unit to the roof. While outdoor air conditioning units are most commonly found on the ground level of your home’s exterior, homeowners have other options. For some people, relocating exterior AC units to higher elevations can spell major benefits in energy efficiency and cost.  

In certain situations, having the exterior AC unit—or a condenser unit, as it’s called when it’s part of a central air set up—installed on your home’s roof can benefit you and the longevity of the unit. Let’s take a look at when it’s beneficial to install an AC unit on a residential roof.

Things to Consider About Installing an AC Unit on Your Roof

Before you make plans to install an AC unit on your roof, consider the following factors to determine whether it’s the right move for your home.

Location of Your Interior HVAC System

Typically, AC units are installed outside of the home, purposefully close to the interior HVAC system. This location ensures that the wires, hoses, and housing that connects the two major system components are as close together as possible to maximize efficiency. 

So, if your interior HVAC system is located in your basement or on the first level of your home, your yard is likely the best place to install your condenser unit. However, if your interior HVAC unit is in your attic, your roof may be an ideal spot to keep the two pieces as close together as possible. 

Available Yard Space

To work properly, condenser units require a flat surface that leaves plenty of room around the unit for airflow. For most homes, these conditions are only possible at ground level. But some yards offer little to no areas for a condenser unit. 

In regions where homes are built on sloping mountains, on jagged cliff sides, or in significantly built-up areas where getting enough airflow around the unit would be an issue—like in major metropolitan cities or commercial areas—the roof may be the perfect choice, especially if the interior unit is already located in the attic.

Maintenance and Care

Additionally, keeping your unit where you can easily access it means you’ll have an easier time spotting small issues before they become major ones, like noticing if vents have been blocked by leaves and debris, finding leaks, or picking up on subtle sounds that may indicate an issue. With a rooftop unit, you may find that these issues become out of sight and out of mind, which could become a problem if they’re only addressed during your system's seasonal or annual maintenance check. 

Homeowners should regularly be checking their outside units for signs of rust, chips, cracks, or build up. You’ll also need to consider how difficult it will be for technicians to get on the roof and perform those services. While maintenance and access may be a concern, professional HVAC technicians are often very familiar with servicing rooftop systems.

Climate

Not every home is located in an area that has the conditions needed to make rooftop AC installations work. In regions and climates that experience intense heat or storms, AC units that are located at a higher elevation will require more maintenance and protection to keep them in working order. 

For example, if you live in Florida, where hurricanes and heat waves are common, your rooftop AC unit may need more TLC than it would if it was installed in a shady part of the yard. Of course, the pros may still outweigh the cons if your Florida side yard is an inhospitable location for your condenser.

Benefits of Installing an AC Unit on Your Roof

Not only will having your AC unit on your roof free up your yard space, but it can also improve the visual aesthetics of your home’s exteriors. You won’t have to deal with looking at the unattractive unit or worrying about the sounds of your AC unit drowning out conversations around the patio table. Plus, when the AC unit sits on your rooftop it’s safe from accidental damage by a wayward soccer ball or a lawnmower, as well as potential thieves in search of valuable copper pipe or whole units for second hand sale. 

Drawbacks of Installing an AC Unit on Your Roof

On the other hand, it’s harder to detect small issues before they become major problems when your AC unit is out of sight. You might miss visible and audible signs that your unit is in trouble—like the debris and noises mentioned above. 

Additionally, if you live in an area that experiences extreme weather, you could be risking additional issues by installing a rooftop unit. Not only can they draw lightning, but exterior AC units are heavy, and over time they can create a low spot on your roof. If that happens, storm water can pool in the low spot and weaken the integrity of your roof, making it more prone to leaks and damage. While these storm-related issues aren’t common, they aren’t problems you have to worry about if your AC unit is installed at the ground level.

How Much Does Installing an AC Unit on the Roof Cost?

You can expect to pay between $5,500 and $11,000 for a rooftop AC unit according to HomeAdvisor, whereas you can expect to pay between $3,300 to $4,000 for one at ground level. These figures can vary widely based on a number of different factors, such as the hourly rate for installers in your area and the amount of time it takes to get the unit onto your roof. Plus, those estimates only take into consideration the cost of replacing the exterior condenser unit, not the interior HVAC system, which can add thousands of dollars onto your final price tag.

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