Central Air Conditioning Cost in 2021 – Buyer’s Guide

Staying cool during the sweltering heat of summer takes power. A fan helps but doesn’t quite cut it. Portable air conditioners and window units are decent for a single room use.

For the whole house, you’ll want a central system that can maintain steady temperatures in multiple rooms. Central AC delivers on power, yet there are many units to select from in the current market. Our buyer’s guide will walk you through the primary considerations such as the appropriate models, installation costs, and other relevant factors to help you make the most informed decision.

Central Heating and Air Conditioning system outside the house
via Red Star Air

Cost

The national average cost to install a new split-system central AC is $5,500. This includes a new mid-range 17-21 SEER (2-stage) outdoor unit and evaporator coil (split system), professional (warrantied) installation, any required site assessments and building permits, and the workmanship warranty from the installer. It is assumed that most of the required ductwork is already in place, with only minor alterations or updates required to be made to the existing ductwork.

The numbers provided above translate to a licensed HVAC contractor installing the most feasible central unit with a minimum 17 SEER (2-stage) rating for your home. The installer’s expertise draws upon many factors, not the least of which is evaluating your current ductwork strengths and weaknesses, along with how well your home is insulated, and will therefore retain the cool energy in your home.

All else being equal, higher SEER efficiency AC units with 20-26 SEER (variable-capacity) ratings will cost more (between $5,500 and $6,500+ installed) than typical mid-range 17-21 SEER (2-stage) units (between $4,000 and $5,500 installed).

Average Cost To Install Central AC Typical Range: $3,870 - $5,430
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Wider Pricing Range (captures 80% of projects): Most homeowners spend between $4,000 and $8,500 for a full installation (replacement) of a split-system central air conditioner across the US. The total cost of a project depends on the brand and type of the AC unit (SEER and ERR ratings) being installed, project specifics (AC unit size in tons/BTUs, project complexity), and your home’s location (local real estate market dynamics).

Did you know? Central Air Conditioners come in two types; a split-system unit or a packaged unit. If your home already has a heating furnace, but no AC, then the split-system central AC unit is the most economical option to install.

Central AC Unit Costs
Typical “per Unit” price list, with models organized by Climate requirements

Did you know? Energy Star has a list of Most-Efficient Central Air Conditioners and Air Source Heat Pumps. To have an Energy Star rated unit appear on that list, a minimum rating of 18 SEER and ERR of 13 is the table-stakes.

Modern Central AC units are 20% to 40% more efficient than Central ACs from 10 years ago. So, if your home happens to have an older central AC unit, then getting a modern Energy Star rated central AC might prove to be a smart and economically-sound decision, especially if your current AC is not performing well and/or needs an expensive repair.

central AC average installation costs breakdown
Professional Installation Costs breakdown (not including the cost of the AC unit itself)

via US Veterans Home Services Inc.

Did you know? When added to an existing forced-air heating system with the already existing ductwork already in place, a new central air unit for a typical 2,000 sq. ft. home will cost between $4,000 and $6,500 to install.

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Geothermal Heating and Cooling Cost 2021: Pros & Cons, Comparisons

Growth in the geothermal heating and cooling market averages 12% annually, as demand continues to rise for highly efficient HVAC systems that leverage sustainable energy.

Today, Geo system pricing is more competitive than it was a decade ago because there are many more manufacturers selling ground-source heating and cooling systems and there are more experienced installers competing for projects.

Cost

The current national average cost ranges between $20,000 and $24,000 for the installation of a new mid-range Geo heat system. This is before the 26% federal tax credits for the geothermal home energy efficiency upgrades that were recently extended by congress through the end of 2022. The federal tax credit rebate amount will be reduced to 22% in 2023.

On a wider pricing range: Most homeowners can expect to pay between $18,000 and $30,000 for a complete mid-range geothermal heating and cooling system fully installed, before the 26% federal tax credits. This wider range captures 80% of all residential Geo installations.

High-end ground-source heat pump systems for larger homes can cost as much as $30,000 to $45,000.

The size of your home and its location, available land, the type of soil, local climate, condition and usability of current duct work, and the type of heat pump you choose will impact the overall cost.

Let’s itemize the cost of a geothermal heat pump system in the following table:

Equipment Equipment Cost Total Cost with
Horizontal Loop
Total Cost with
Vertical Loop
Packaged Water to Air Heat Pump* $3,300 to $7,500 $12,000 to $20,000 $15,750 to $24,000
Split Water to Air Heat Pump $3,850 to $7,500 $14,250 to $23,000 $17,500 to $27,000
Packaged Water to Water System** $4,000 to $8,000 $16,250 to $25,000 $19,500 to $30,000

* Water to air systems are forced air systems. In winter, heat is collected with water circulating through the pipes in the ground and transferred to air being forced by a blower fan through your home’s ductwork.

The opposite occurs in summer. Heat is collected from the air in your home, transferred to the water in the pipes, which are then cooled by stable ground temperatures.

** Water-to-water systems are hydronic systems. Heat is transferred between the water in the loop system and water in an indoor radiant heat floor system or baseboard heat system.

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Top 10 Ductless Mini Split Heat Pumps in 2021: Costs, Pros & Cons

The 10 best ductless mini split heat pumps in single zone and multi-zone categories are listed below to provide you with the information to make the right buying decision. We won’t steer you wrong with our expert picks – these are outstanding systems you can customize to perfectly fit your requirements.

What else is here?

This mini split buying guide includes costs, features, pros and cons, and the installation/use that will give you the best return on investment (ROI) for each model.

First, we’ll give you some information on mini split heat pump systems. If you’re good to go on the what’s and why’s, then jump down to our top 10 ductless mini split system list and reviews. On the other hand, if you’re thinking through ductless mini split vs. standard split system heat pumps, the upfront information will be of use.

What is a Ductless Mini Split Heat Pump System?

A ductless mini split HVAC system includes two main component types. The first is the outdoor unit called a condensing unit. It contains the compressor which cycles refrigerant through the system to move heat from one location to another – either into or out of your living space.

The second type of equipment is one or more indoor air handlers. The air handlers are connected to the outdoor condenser by refrigerant lines, a power cable and a condensation drain line.

Mini Split Sizes: Outdoor condensing units are available in 9k to 60k BTUs. The one you choose will depend primarily on the amount of space you need to heat and cool but also the layout of your home, how well your home is insulated and your climate.

Single vs Multi-zone Systems: A single zone system, meaning it has one air handler, can be used in a single room, apartment, small home with an open floor plan, or a converted attic or garage. They are ideal for cottages and cabins too.

A multi-zone system, a system supporting two to eight air handlers, can be used to heat and cool an entire home or other building with clearly defined rooms/zones.

Did you know? Air handlers, the indoor units, are available in 9k to 30k BTUs.

Each indoor air handler is installed in a specific area or room, referred to as zones, and all handlers are connected to the outdoor unit. Each air handler can be independently controlled with a thermostat or remote. Your HVAC contractor can help you decide where to place the air handlers to provide the most effective and energy-efficient layout.

Can the total capacity of the air handlers/indoor units exceed the capacity of the condensing unit? Yes, it can, but it should not exceed it by more than about 15%. For example, if you need a 36,000 BTU condensing unit for a three-zone installation, the easiest choice would be three 12,000 BTU air handlers for a total of 36,000 BTU.

But if one of the zones is larger, installing a 15,000 BTU air handler (9% over capacity) or 18,000 BTU (16% over capacity) air handler in that zone would be acceptable. Just keep in mind that you’ll still only get 36,000 BTU of heating and cooling across the multiple zones.

This is where the thermostats for each zone come in very handy. Reduce the heating/cooling in a zone not being used, so you have sufficiently warm or air-conditioned air in occupied areas.

How a Ductless Mini Split System Works

A mini split provides heat, air conditioning, dehumidification, and the flow of fresh, filtered air.

When the mini split is in air conditioning mode, the air handler pulls the warm air from inside your home over cold evaporator coils where heat is absorbed by the refrigerant. The heated refrigerant is pumped outside where it disperses the heat. The cooled air is sent back into the living space.

When the system is in heating mode, the refrigerant absorbs heat from outside and brings it inside where it is released in the coil in the air handler. It is then blown into the room. Due to the thermodynamic properties of refrigerant, heat can be absorbed from the air in outside temperatures as low as 20 F below zero.

However, as the outside temperature sinks, your mini split heat pump will lose efficiency and effectiveness. Still, the physics of refrigerants are very impressive!

Average Cost To Install Ductless AC (Mini-Split) Typical Range: $2,870 - $4,380
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