Buying a Central Air Conditioner
Updated May 9, 2017
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?
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.
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