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26 Resources Consumers Must Bookmark About Air Conditioners

Published Apr. 10, 2017

apartment complex with air conditioners

According to 2015 data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), about 65% of US homes have central air conditioning, and another 27% use window-mount air conditioners. About 13% of homes don't have any A/C at all.

(If you're scratching your head as to why 105% of all homes responded, it's because a small percentage of homes use central air conditioning and window mount units.)

There's a wealth of information online about air conditioning. Our goal is not to add to that, but to help you navigate to the best writing among all the articles currently available. We've divided our list of resources into two parts:

Resources for the Air Conditioner you Already Own

piggy bank

How to Save on your Cooling Bill

Let's start with a topic that almost everyone will find interesting: how can you save money on your cooling bill? Today's air conditioning units are very efficient, but you can still take action to keep your bills down.

How Air Conditioners Work

Air conditioners cool indoor air by passing it over refrigerant coils and cycling it back into the house. The liquid refrigerant absorbs heat and triggers a process that involves gas-to-liquid conversion, compression, and condensation which results in the hot air expulsion and water drainage you associate with a/c units.

How to Troubleshoot your A/C

Many problems, such as an air conditioner that won’t turn on or reduced air flow could have simple solutions you can handle yourself. Before you call the pros about inadequate cooling or a condenser malfunction, give yourself a chance to find out what’s wrong.

Average Lifespan of an Air Conditioner

Average lifespan varies depending on use, maintenance and environment. Energy.gov estimates that the average lifespan for a central air conditioner is 15-20 years. Of course, many households swap out their central a/c systems before they have reached end-of-life. Thus, only 22% of the respondents to the EIA's 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey indicated that their central air conditioner was more than 14 years old.

How do you Extend the Life of your Air Conditioner?

The EIA reports that only 42% of households with central air conditioners have them serviced annually. Bad idea. You can do much of the annual maintenance yourself, and hiring a professional to service the unit each spring typically runs from $75 - $100.

When is it Time for Replacement?

If your unit is more than fifteen years old, watch for signs of deterioration such as strange noises, spiking electric bills or odd smells. However, age alone should not convince you to replace your system. Contractors often generate higher profits from selling you a new system rather than repairing an existing system. Be skeptical about claims that you will quickly pay off a new unit through energy savings: it is extremely easy to overestimate your savings.

This article profiles contractors arguing both for and against early replacement.

Fun Facts About Air Conditioning

Enough serious information. How about some air conditioning trivia?

Willis Carrier, inventor of the modern air conditioner

Resources When You're Buying a New Central Air Conditioner

How to Prepare Your Home

Before you buy a new air conditioner you want to make sure that your home is relatively air-tight and well insulated. This can allow you to buy a smaller air conditioning system to cool your home, which will save both in up-front costs and ongoing electricity. The traditional way to determine whether your home needs more insulation or to be sealed is through a home energy audit. Energy.gov has a good article on how to prepare for an energy audit, and Resnet.us can help you find an auditor.

Ducted Split Systems vs Mini-Splits

Traditional split systems are central air conditioners with two components, an outdoor compressor/condenser housing, and an indoor air handler that distributes cool air through a series of ducts within your house. Mini-splits are a convenient alternative when you want extremely high efficiency and you don't want to -- or can't -- add ductwork to you home.

Common Mistakes HVAC Contractors Make

Contractors will occasionally be all-too-human. Some errors are one-time math problems, some errors are endemic problems in their business. Get familiar with the most common mistakes contractors make.

How Large Should my Air Conditioner Be?

Size matters: Too large and your air conditioner will neither dehumidify adequately or cool efficiently. Too small and it won't keep you cool.

What to Look for in a Heating Contractor

HVAC is a dizzyingly technical field, and if you get multiple quotes you may get wildly varying advice and prices. Here are a few tips:

  • Find out whether your state requires licensure for heating contractors. We cover regulations in every state here.
  • Does your contractor have liability and workers' compensation insurance?
  • Expect an in-home evaluation
  • We surveyed 2,000 homeowners to find out how they found a great heating contractor. The answer? Check references.
  • Don’t automatically go with the lowest bidder
  • Get it in writing
  • Look for Energy Star products, which meet strict efficiency standards

What is the Best Brand or Series?

We publish an annual list of the best central air conditioners, according to consumer reviews.

How Much Does a Central Air Conditioner Cost?

Unit price varies by SEER rating, capacity, brand and other factors. Contractor price depends on a host of variables: which unit you choose, whether your current ductwork is adequate, how much it costs to run their business, their profit margin, and more.

Currently reported installation costs range from $2,700 to $7,100 and average $5,250.

permit required

Do I Need a Permit from my Local Government?

Short answer: Probably -- a simple call to town hall will tell you for sure.

Among other benefits, permitting offers protection against poor installation and keeps away unlicensed contractors. However, there are cases where high-quality contractors avoid permits because of cost. (Note: we're not recommending this -- we're just keeping you informed).

How to Negotiate with Contractors

Don’t ask them to match the lowest bid. They hear it all the time, and it’s hard to make apples to apples comparisons. Instead, ask them why their bid might be higher than others. If they won't give a discount, ask a longer labor warranty.

What Tax or Other Incentives are Available?

All EnergyStar tax credits (except for solar) expired at the end 2016. The Department of Energy has an excellent resource for helping find which residential and commercial tax breaks or incentives might be available in your area.

What to Watch Out for in the Contract

A contract establishes your agreement with the contractor. Typically, if you even have a contract, it is provided by the contractor. Advantage, contractor! Your contract should specify:

  • The payment schedule (is a deposit required, how large is it, when is the balance due?)
  • The brand and model number of the air conditioner to be installed
  • Who is responsible to pull permits, the contractor or the homeowner?
  • Warranty details. This should include (at a minimum) all parts and labor for the first year, and parts for 5-10 years after purchase.

Considerations before you Complete Payment

If this was a larger job, and there were subcontractors involved, you may want to ask the contractor and subcontractors for a construction lien waiver or release. This confirms that all contractors were paid for their work, and protects you in case the primary contractor goes bankrupt without paying subcontractors.

Additional Sources

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