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.
via Red Star Air
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).
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.
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.
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.
However, if your home needs new ducts fabricated and put in place, then your total installation cost will range between $6,500 and $12,500, depending on the extent of the work required to lay out the appropriate ductwork for the new central air system.
The Cost of Air Ducts
Normally, the existing ductwork isn’t replaced when replacing a central AC system, except in rare instances where the original ductwork was improperly sized.
There are two types of ductwork; supply and return air ducts. The supply ducts carry air-conditioned or treated air from the central air handler to each room or zone within a room of your home.
The return ducts draw the warm or “spent” air from inside the house, pulling it through the air filter and across the cooled refrigerant coil. This process removes any airborne particles such as dust, lint, and various contaminants, while also removing heat from the air. Refrigerant lines then carry the heat outside.
The cooled and filtered air is then routed back to the air supply ducts that carry it back inside your home.
New air ducts cost between $9.50 and $14.00 per linear foot in new construction, before drywall is installed.
For a two-story house that is already built with no pre-existing ductwork in place, installing new air ducts could easily cost several thousands of dollars more due to the confines of the space — having to lay out and install the ductwork within the confines of a fully finished two-story/multi-story house where insulation and drywall are already in place.
The overall cost will depend on the overall size of the ductwork and whether any repairs to the existing ducts were needed, the amount and type of insulation used, and the number of dampers that are installed.
Manual dampers allow you to close off ducts to independent zones that aren’t being used. This allows you to reduce energy use and costs. The average new construction 2,500 square foot home will require between 200 and 225 feet of ductwork at a total cost of $1,900 to $3,100.
Electronically controlled dampers for a zoned system cost $175 to $325 per zone.
The cost of ducts should also be considered as you compare the total cost of ducted vs. ductless systems.
New Construction Ductwork: $9.50-14.00 per linear foot
Electronic zone dampers: $175-$325 per zone (optional)
The ROI Factor
Part of what you pay for with most HVAC contractors are warranties. Modern units will typically run well for 7 to 15 years before needing a replacement. Great units that are well maintained can operate for up to 18 years.
Generally, the return on investment, or ROI Factor, for central systems is a bit low. Contemporary home buyers have come to expect central air in their new home. At best, you’ll recoup 50% of the value you put into the central air system at the time you sell your home.
Compared with other home upgrades and improvements, such as updating insulation or installing a new roof, this is low.
With that said, the reliability of the system and how well it is maintained are arguably the most important factors for ensuring a return on the initial investment you make. That’s why the warranty info matters.
A contractor’s warranty will spell out how repairs are handled, in terms of cost, during the warranty period. Additionally, the manufacturer’s warranty covers the hardware and system parts that will be replaced should the need arise.
While extended warranties are tempting, they can add several thousands to the cost. Their value is debatable, as repairs may actually cost less outside of these extended versions.
Plus, if you realize 10+ years is actually a good value for your system, a full replacement probably makes more sense than say $2,500 spent on repairs at that time. Ideally, the manufacturer of the unit includes a lifetime warranty on the original product.
Selecting the System – AKA Familiarizing Yourself with The Technical Nuances
While there are many features in the modern central AC units, some of that is bells and whistles, while others are the basics. The basics include:
- BTU – this will determine size of the unit
- EER – standard value noting energy efficiency, more obscure notation for central systems, less obscure for those in hotter climates
- SEER – popular variable for noting energy efficiency in seasonal climates
- Single-stage vs. two-stage – single-stage is the historic norm, two-stage offers power saving and noise reduction benefits
Size and energy efficiency are generally the two main factors that govern most consumers when it comes to purchasing a new central AC system. With both BTU and SEER, the higher the number, the better the unit.
However, and this can’t be emphasized enough, bigger isn’t always the most appropriate for every home.
Square footage of the rooms to be cooled in a house, will relate to the BTU calculation. So, say there are 1,000 sq.ft. of space to be cooled inside the house, then the general rule is that it will require a unit that powers at roughly 20,000 BTUs per hour.
If it were instead 2,000 sq.ft. of space, the number of BTU’s required would be about 34,000 BTU’s per hour.
Did you know? If you were to take a central AC unit that has a capacity of 34,000 BTU’s, and install it for a smaller, 1,000 sq. ft. space, it would be detrimental and counter-productive to your overall energy efficiency.
In fact, the AC unit would cycle on and off frequently, which would ultimately require greater energy than continuous operation, as well as lead to an increased operational wear-and-tear of the central unit.
SEER is the variable that will drive decision between models as much as BTU’s. In fact, some model names among the top brands are based solely on the SEER factor, such as Goodman’s GSX13 (with up to a 13 SEER capacity).
In today’s world, the SEER range on the market is from 13 to 26 typically. A decade ago and earlier, finding models under SEER 13 was common, but U.S. standards in 2006 have lead the industry to adopt a minimum of 13 SEER for all manufactured products going forward.
Did you know? The greater the SEER number, the more cost savings you’ll likely see on your energy bills over the course of a year. 😉
Selecting A System Based on Other Factors
The other factors to consider have virtually nothing to do with the features of whatever device you may be considering.
While size of rooms relates to BTU’s, there’s also overall size of your home, its shape, how it is oriented in relation to the sun, shade, and prevailing winds. Additionally, the amount of insulation in the home’s envelope (ceiling/attic and walls), along with floors, and duct size and orientation in each room are all considerations that an experienced professional will use when determining which central system is the most suitable for your home.
Another technical term that will inevitably come up is the Manual J Load calculations. All the primary and secondary factors are analyzed and objectively quantified, to calculate which unit is the most energy efficient in lieu of all environmental factors that play a role in heating up your home.
Did you know? Insulation and ductwork are very important, as these can show up as weak points in retaining cool airflow within a house. Or put another way, if your home’s insulation is poor, or your home has areas where cool air is escaping via leaky ducts or through leaky ceilings, then both your home’s energy and comfort will be compromised. — These are all factors that must be accounted for during initial calculations.
Ideally, both the ductwork and insulation are repaired or upgraded at time of a new central system installation. But sometimes, that is not feasible, and often it isn’t expected to be at a level of perfection.
Selecting A System Based on the Established Brands and Model Reliability
One item that may surprise you is how there are only a handful of manufacturers of central air systems. Do enough research and you’ll see over 200 brands on the market today. Some are considered the most established, and almost based on name alone, the most reliable.
Yet, it may be helpful to know that the manufacturer of the Goodman brand also makes Amana. Or the manufacturer of Carrier (United Technology) also makes Bryant, Payne, Day & Night, and Tempstar. All the major manufacturers are making more than one brand.
The established and popular brands are Carrier, Lennox, Amana, Goodman, Rheem, Trane and York.
One thing you’ll realize is there’s no universal agreement on what makes for the best brands and models. That said, we’ll add to the diverging opinions, and provide a list of pros and cons of various brands and models for you to consider, along with their costs, and information on why we favor a particular option:
1 – Goodman offers 7 models for residential uses, with SEER ranging from 13 to 18. These are marketed under the Energi Air line and their biggest pros are the warranty, typically 10 years, and their affordability, with models ranging in price from $800 to $2,000.
Goodman central AC units are designed to make troubleshooting problems easy for contractors. The units emphasize lower noise levels in their designs.
One well-known disadvantage is that Goodman air conditioners don’t compete well with other brands that emphasize greater energy efficiency, with higher SEER models.
Note: Goodman manufacturing purchased Amana Heating & Cooling in 1997. Amana brand’s central AC units are often slightly higher in price than Goodman’s, but their biggest pro is the service life, which is typically 15 years or longer.
2 – Day & Night Comfort is a lesser-known brand, but it is made by the same company that makes Carrier.
Day & Night pros include great customer service and affordability. Units that are arguably identical to Carrier units sell for hundreds less. The SEER ranges from 13 to 19.
Their biggest con is less-established reputation which stems from lesser market share. For larger brands, an occasional bad review is easily overcome by hundreds of satisfied consumers, whereas the lesser-known brands are often greatly impacted by harsher reviews.
3 – Carrier offers models with up to 21 SEER capacity.
via Owen AC Services
Carrier’s biggest pro is their reputation and their AC units are routinely deemed as highly reliable. Carrier is known for offering high-end HVAC products that have the latest advances and bells and whistles to entice you.
Carrier’s disadvantage comes from the relatively high price of their products, especially when you realize that Day & Night units may very well be the same unit, but you’re paying say $300 more for brand name only. 😉
4 – York air conditioners range from 13 to 21 SEER and are middle of the road in terms of affordability. Their benefits would be found when looking into commercial products where they shine, but given that reputation, they are seen as producing decent quality products for residential uses.
One well-known disadvantage of York air conditioners is their relatively high noise factor at around 70+ dBAs for many models, although a model like the York YXV (approx. $2,800 for 2.5-ton capacity at SEER 20 rating) is designed to overcome any noise problems with the noise levels as low as 53 dBA.
5 – Lennox is a brand you’ll probably see topping the list ahead of others. Their reputation and market share are the primary reason for this.
A major advantage of Lennox AC units, is that they offer a SEER range from 13 to 26.
Did you know? Lennox central air conditioners are often considered the most efficient units on the market.
Lennox brand’s main disadvantages are the relatively high costs of their products. In fact, their units are more expensive than our top two choices! 😉
There might also be some issues in sourcing Lennox parts when the need for potential repairs arises. All internal parts of Lennox systems are proprietary, and at least some HVAC contractors report logistical problems with obtaining replacement parts for rather simple repairs.
While not the most comprehensive list, it gets you started on the homework you may wish to consider going forward with your own purchasing decision. Find the ideal local HVAC contractor and the rest ought to fall into place.
How To Go About Selecting The Right Central AC System For Your Home?
There are about a dozen factors that go into choosing the right central system for your home. What may sound great in a sales pitch may not be what is most suitable to your home. Doing your homework on all the possible options and brands, plus the models within each brand is time consuming.
The biggest tip you’ll ever find on finding the best central AC unit is to first find the ideal contractor. Sure, we’ve walked you through the important factors, but some of the technical terms can have you lose sight of the primary goal: to cool your home with a reliable, energy-efficient unit that provides the best cost-value at the time of purchase.
An established and upstanding HVAC contractor has the technical know-how to translate the many factors and calculations into a meaningful way for you the buyer. Many HVAC contractors are brand loyal, meaning they are manufacturer-certified sellers of the respective HVAC products.
If you choose to do homework on your own and have a brand in mind that you are certain you want, then finding these types of contractors may make for an ideal situation going forward. In general, though, the ideal contractor will install any brand and provide you with the unit that suits your home the best.
How do you find the ideal contractor? First, network with family, friends, and anyone in your trusted circle. You’re really looking for referrals from those you trust and who possibly already own a reliable and well-maintained central HVAC system.
Once your referral list gets going, start checking background information on the contractors. Make sure the contractor is licensed to work in your area. Check if they have any complaints against them, and what those entail. Make sure they are bonded and insured.
Next, when a more narrowed list of pros is at your disposal, start getting quotes from the HVAC contractors that appeal to you.
Did you know? Three quotes is a suggested minimum and seven would be the upper limit.
Finally, to help whittle it down to the ideal contractor, be sure to ask questions. Here’s where doing some homework will help, otherwise you’ll be hard pressed to discern a decent answer from a truly suitable response. Questions you may ask are:
- Is the unit you suggest sized appropriately?
- Is my home adequately insulated for the system?
- Please describe the airflow of your recommended product.
- Are there any smart options to allow me to program the thermostat remotely?
- What specifically is covered under the warranty?
What has your experience been like with getting a central AC unit installed at your home and how much were you quoted or paid for the job?