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6 Tips for Buying a Central Air Conditioning System

Updated Aug 25, 2016

Buying a new central air conditioning unit, or replacing an old one, is one of the most significant and expensive home improvement decisions a homeowner can make. Here are several things to keep in mind before you make that purchase:

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1. Slow Down -- Unfortunately, we often only realize we need a new air conditioning system after it stops working. But because buying a new central air conditioning system is such an expensive decision, it's important to take the time to find the right one for your needs and budget. To handle the heat while doing your research, try using fans, a window-mount AC or possibly a portable air conditioner to cool your home. A friend or neighbor may be able to lend you one, and rental centers usually rent them.

2. Talk to Several Contractors -- When a company is looking to hire a new employee, they usually interview several applicants in order to find the best one. In much the same way, the search for someone to install your air conditioning system should include talking to several contractors to find the one you feel is best. A good way to find contractors in your area is to ask friends and family who they use and if they are satisfied.

FurnaceCompare will help you find up to three heating contractors that will come to your home and provide you with free quotes for a new cooling system.

3. Choose the Right Contractor -- After talking and receiving bids from a few contractors, you'll want to narrow it down and choose the one that's perfect for you. One thing to look for is a contractor who gives a detailed, room-by-room analysis of your cooling needs by using an accepted technique like the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) method. You don't want one who will just give a vague estimate based on room size and amount of windows. You can ask the contractor for references, such as customers he or she has done work for in the past. And it's always a good idea to check with the Better Business Bureau for complaint records.

The most important step in choosing the right contractor is to check their references.

4. Check the Efficiency and Compatibility -- The efficiency of an air conditioning system describes how much cooling it delivers per watt of electricity and can be measured by a unit's Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER). The minimum SEER for a split-system central air conditioner is 13, and 14 in most of the hotter states. Look for a high SEER rating, as well as the Energy Star label. Energy Star is a government-backed symbol for energy efficiency.

If you are replacing an older unit, it is important for your contractor to evaluate whether the existing ductwork needs to be resized, replaced, or insulated. New systems are 20 to 40% more efficient than older systems and may require new ductwork in order to work properly. Likewise, a central air conditioner requires a blower motor, usually located in the furnace, to blow cool air through the ducts. A new, energy efficient air conditioner connected to an older furnace and blower motor will not work as efficiently as it would with a newer one. If your furnace is over 15 years old, you should consider replacing it in order to allow the air conditioner to perform efficiently.

5. Size Matters -- The size of a central air conditioning unit refers to its cooling capacity in British Thermal Units (Btu) per hour, or in tons. One ton of cooling equals 12,000 Btu. It's very important to be sure that the unit is properly sized for your home. Some people always think that bigger is better, but in this case, it isn't. An air conditioner that is too big will turn on and off more, won't dehumidify as well, and is noisier. It will also use more energy and increase your utility bill. A unit that is too small, on the other hand, will run constantly and work too hard, which can wear out parts and increase the utility bill. And, perhaps most importantly, it might not keep your home cool enough.

6. Choose the Right Payment Strategy -- This is always the hard part, right? Typical options are to take out a loan, finance through the company that installs the system, or borrow against your home's equity. Low-interest home improvement loans are available at the city, state, and federal level. There are grants available, such as the Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which can help low-income Americans find resources to pay for the cost of replacing a central air conditioner. And there are grants available on the state and federal level for the installation of energy efficient systems. You may also qualify for a tax rebate if you purchase a high efficiency system, and you'll enjoy lower utility bills, as well.

You may also like 12 Creative Ways to Pay for a New Central Air Conditioner.

Choosing the right central air conditioning system is an important decision, and you'll want to ask around and do some research to be certain you select the right system and contractor. And keep up on the maintenance of your new system -- have it serviced annually and replace the filters regularly. Doing so will ensure that you stay cool for years to come.

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