Buying a Central Air Conditioner
Updated Apr 4, 2018
By Chris Brooks
Installing a new central air conditioner can cost between $3,000 to $10,000 (or more!) In addition to the initial purchase price, you will have ongoing costs in terms of your monthly electric bill and maintenance costs. Because of these hefty costs, you’ll want to carefully consider your options before purchasing a new central air conditioner.
This article presents the issues you should consider in purchasing central air, including;
- Which models do homeowners prefer?
- Are you paying a reasonable price for your air conditioner?
- What capacity of central air conditioner should you buy?
- Should you buy a high, middle, or low-efficiency air conditioner?
- Six Tips for Buying a Central Air Conditioner
Homeowners have submitted thousands of reviews of central air conditioners to this site. However, many of the reviews cover air conditioners that are no longer sold. We have combed the remaining reviews to find the models preferred by most homeowners.
There are essentially two things that you’re paying for when purchasing and installing a new central air conditioner: equipment costs and labor costs. Depending on your situation, you may be able to reduce your costs in one or both of these areas.
Probably the single-greatest cost-saving solution is to buy your air conditioner from a direct-to-consumer retailer, and then hire a licensed HVAC contractor to install it. Between the complexity of the project, the environmental concerns of handling refrigerant and the high-voltage electricity involved, this is not a project for the Do-It-Yourselfer.
Buying direct can reduce your upfront equipment costs, but before you buy it pays to consider how your unit of choice can lower your monthly utility bill. An air conditioner’s efficiency is typically provided as a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER). Although a unit with a 13 SEER rating -— the lowest available —- will be less expensive upfront, you will spend more each month on your fuel bill than if you had selected a more efficient system. If you purchase a high-efficiency central air conditioner, you may also qualify for rebates or other incentives provided by a local goverment or utility.
Consider, too, that the longer your unit runs in peak condition, the more bang you’re getting for your buck. Selecting a unit with a long-term warranty, and maintaining it on a regular basis, is another way to reduce your costs over the long haul.
Although selecting the best unit for your home is important, selecting a contractor is equally, if not more, important. You will want to work with a good HVAC contractor when you install a new central air conditioning system. Make sure that you get quotes from at least three contractors. This will ensure you a low, medium and high bid, and give you a good sense of what it is reasonable to pay. Also, make sure to screen your potential contractors to ensure that they have happy customers and no complaints. Checking references is the best way to learn if the contractor with the most reasonable bid will be likely to complete your job to your satisfaction—and still be in business for your future maintenance needs.
It is important to have an HVAC Contractor perform a load calculation before you decide which size air conditioning system to buy. If you install an air conditioner that is too large, it will cycle on and off too often, substantially reducing the efficiency of the system. Too small, and your air conditioner may not be able to meet the demands of a hot, humid day.
The industry standard load calculation is called the Manual J calculation. It takes into account the size of your house, the amount of insulation installed, the square footage, and a host of other factors.
As mentioned above, the most common measure of the efficiency of a consumer central air conditioning system is the SEER. Since 2006 the US government has required all new central air conditioners to have a SEER of at least 13. Higher efficiency models have a SEER between 14 and 25.5.
Another rating you might see is the EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio), although this method is more commonly used for rating commercial air conditioners. EER is a measure of the ratio of the amount of cooling (measured in BTUs) to the amount of electricity it consumes (measured in watt-hours).
The EER is a steady state measure -- that is, the efficiency is only measured once the unit has started up and is running at a steady capacity. SEER takes into account the startup and shutdown time as well, making it a more accurate measurement for determining the actual energy costs for the end user.
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:
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.