Top 10 Best Central Air Conditioners: Costs by AC Unit

Average Cost To Install Central AC Typical Range: $3,870 - $5,430
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There are plenty of cheap central air conditioners, but there is more to value than low price.

On the other end of the spectrum are high-priced, high-performance ACs with variable capacity cooling and communication technology. They’re not what anyone would call a value choice either.

The sweet spot in the middle is where quality and reasonable cost meet to provide good value for the money. You’ve got a good selection of central air conditioners that are considered an excellent value.

Climate must be considered, too, because a value air conditioner in Jackson, Mississippi is not the same as a value AC in Jackson, Minnesota. We’ll explain why.

via Hamilton Home Comfort

Covering all climates, below are the top 10 Central AC options:

1. Day & Night Performance 17 N4A7
2. Rheem Classic Series RA17
3. York YCG
4. Goodman GSXC18
5. Day & Night Performance 16 N4A6
6. Rheem Classic Series RA16
7. Goodman GSXC16
8. Rheem Classic Series RA14
9. Day & Night Performance 14 N4A5
10. Goodman GSX14

Average Cost To Install Central AC Typical Range: $3,870 - $5,430
See costs in your area

Brief reviews of each of the 10 best value ACs are found below along with the cost range for the unit only.

But first, we discuss installation expenses and then explain the four elements that make a central air conditioner a good value:

Central AC Installation (Labor Only) Cost

Average central AC installation cost hoovers between $3,500 and $4,500, not including the cost of the AC unit itself.

The cost for professional labor only cost can range between $2,500 and $5,500, based on many variables that can factor into the total cost of installation. Note that professional labor/installation costs includes the cost of any necessary building permits/inspections, supplies, removal and disposal of the old unit, refrigerant, and comprehensive warranty from the installer.

The table below breaks down AC installation costs and factors:

central AC average installation costs breakdown

However, if your home needs new air 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 air ducts carry the “spent” air, pulling it through an air filter and across the cooled refrigerant coil, which removes airborne particles such as dust and lint, as well as hear.

The cooled and filtered air is then routed to air supply ducts that carry it back to the rooms and living spaces.

Ducts cost between $10.00 and $15.50 per linear foot in new construction, before drywall has been installed. The cost depends on duct size, 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 cost. The average 2,500 square foot home has 200-225 feet of duct at a total cost of $2,000 to $3,375.

Electronically controlled dampers for a zoned system cost $175 to $325 per zone.

Central Air Conditioners: Value Defined

The four keys to a good value in a central AC are: good quality, reasonable cost, an efficiency rating that’s right for your climate, and expert installation.

  1. Good Quality

Junk air conditioners might be cheap, but they don’t last. Some brands, like Revolv and Payne, are budget units that can be expected to last 10-12 years.

Did you know? Even some top brands make an “entry-level” line of ACs using parts of questionable durability. Lennox Merit and York LX Economy Series are just three of many. They’re popular for homeowners that need to replace an AC, but plan to sell their home soon. The cheap lines are favorites of unscrupulous HVAC contractors looking to maximize their profits.

Many cheap central air conditioners have 5-year warranties. That’s a giveaway.

Pro Tip: We recommend you don’t consider any model that isn’t backed by at least a 10-year general parts warranty.

  1. Reasonable Cost

This one didn’t catch anyone by surprise. Overpaying for good quality isn’t much better than paying less for junk. 😉

Cost is tricky business in the HVAC business. Nobody – or just a few – contractors are willing to advertise anything about cost. Most won’t discuss pricing until they are in your home and putting on their best sales pitch.

Dealers have wide discretion in pricing, so some play with numbers to make you think you would be getting a bargain by upgrading to a pricier unit “for just a few $hundred more.”

Pro Tip: The only way to really know if you’re being quoted a fair price is to get written estimates on two or more models from at least three contractors.

For example, ask three different companies/brands to quote you a 14 SEER single-stage AC and a 17 SEER two-stage model. Then you can compare prices fairly. If the 17 SEER model is just a few hundred dollars more than the 14 SEER, they’ve overpriced the less efficient unit to try to sell you the higher-cost AC.

Oh, and definitely let each of the salespeople know that you are getting written air conditioner estimates from a few of their competitors. They’ll “sharpen their pencils” and give you their best price, if they want your business.

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  1. The Right Efficiency for Your Climate

The value of a central air conditioner must be considered from two perspectives, equipment cost and operating cost. The more efficient an AC is, the more it will cost, but the less it will cost to run. The question is, “How long will it take to make up the higher cost in lower energy bills?”

This table shows you. It is a comparison of three central air conditioners, their efficiency rating, installed cost and operating cost. Those costs are then compared to come up with the number of years it would take to recoup the higher price of the more-efficient ACs. This is called the “payback period.”

Central AC Payback Period based on the SEER Efficiency and climate
Central AC Payback Period based on the SEER Efficiency and climate

As you can see, the payback period increases in cool climates and decreases in hot climates.

Pro Tip: Think twice before buying a variable capacity central AC. They come with high upfront costs, and if they break down, higher repair costs than average. Plus, the variable capacity air conditioners from most brands were released in the last 3-7 years. That’s not long enough to know if they have a track record of reliability.

  1. Expert Installation

Experienced HVAC technicians that know what they’re doing get regular repair calls to fix someone else’s installation problems.

All Systems Mechanical (ASM) is a respected California HVAC company. ASM president Tim K. says, “It’s heartbreaking when we come across someone who just had a new air conditioner installed, and they are calling us out to see why it stopped working. Unfortunately, about 25-30% of our residential business [is] fixing botched installations.” That story repeats itself across the country.

Following these tips will best ensure you get good quality installation:

  1. Get recommendations from family and friends about who to hire and who to avoid.
  2. Check online reviews (Google, Yelp, the BBB).
  3. Request written estimates from at least 3 highly rated companies.
  4. Ask about the experience and certification (NATE-certified, for example) of the technician(s) that will install your AC.
  5. Choose a company with the right balance of proven experience and a fair price (and its rarely the lowest bid).

This process can be expedited by choosing the Free Estimates option on this page. The contractors are pre-screened for experience. We still recommend that you check online reviews before hiring a contractor.

Reviews of the 10 Best Value Central Air Conditioners

Now that value has been defined, it will be clear why these units are on the list of ACs that offer excellent bang for the buck.

We’ve divided the list by climate:

Hot: Zones 1-3

Moderate: Zones 4 and 5

Cool: Zones 6 and 7

Central AC Unit Costs
Central AC Unit Costs

Best Value Central ACs for a Hot Climate

As noted, to be a good value in hot and humid climates, an AC should have a higher efficiency rating than in other climates.

These units are two-stage models. We selected two-stage ACs for a hot climate for two reasons. Their higher efficiency speaks for itself.

Secondly, a two-stage air conditioner removes more humidity than a single-stage unit. The compressor has two capacities. For most two-stage models, the stages are 65% and 100% of capacity. The air conditioner will run at low capacity for as long as it can keep the thermostat satisfied.

This produces longer cycles. The benefit is that a higher volume of air passes over the indoor coil, which is very cold and condenses moisture out of the air.

OK, that’s all the preliminaries. Here are central air conditioners that provide quality, a fair price and efficiency options for where you live. And you’ll likely get quality installation when you follow the tips above.

Note: AC condensing units, the outside units, range in size/capacity from 1.5 to 5.0 tons, or 18,000 to 60,000 BTU/Hour.

Day & Night brand, and others identical to it, offer the best value in the central air conditioner market.

Cost: $2,500 – $3,500

Efficiency: 17 SEER

Performance: 2-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: Day & Night and Carrier are both owned by United Technologies Corporation (UTC). Both brands are among the very best in quality and reliability. This unit is nearly identical to a Carrier model but costs 25% to 35% less, making it a much better value.

Did you know? There are several brands identical to Day & Night – Comfortmaker, Keeprite, Tempstar, Arcoaire and Heil. Not all are national brands. If Day & Night isn’t available where you live, one of the other brands will be. They are owned by UTC subsidiary International Comfort Products (ICP).

Rheem Classic Series RA17

Several years ago, Consumer Reports rated Rheem and its identical sister-brand Ruud as below-average in quality. Maybe that was a wake-up call for Rheem and Ruud. Since that time, the brands have been overhauled and the quality has improved. They are no longer on Consumer Reports’ list of brands to avoid.

Cost: $2,100 – $3,200

Efficiency: 17 SEER

Performance: 2-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: The improved quality has made Rheem ACs more durable. Secondly, this unit uses the Copeland scroll compressor, considered the most reliable and efficient in the industry.

The Ruud UA17 with EcoNet for smart homes is in many ways similar in perfromance. If the Rheem dealer in your area doesn’t have a stellar reputation, the Ruud dealer might be a better option.

York YCG

York YCG is a very efficient (up to 18.5 SEER) single-stage air conditioner. It’s more affordable than the two-stage models above, but doesn’t dehumidify as well. That makes it an ideal choice for a warm, dry climate.

Cost: $2,000 – $3,000

Efficiency: 17 SEER

Performance: Single-stage

Warranty: 10 years plus a 1-year labor warranty

Why the unit is on the list: York offers that “sweet spot” of good quality and fair cost. The 1-year labor warranty is nice, but rarely comes into play. Most installers should offer a 1-year warranty on labor even if the brand you choose does not – and most do not.

Did you know? As a result of consolidation, there are now less than 10 manufacturers of central air conditioners, but 25+ brands.

York is a Johnson Controls brand, and Johnson Controls makes identical brands to York – Coleman, Luxaire and Champion. As you can see, consolidation has been rampant in the HVAC industry over the last few decades.

If York isn’t available or your research shows the local dealer isn’t reliable, then consider one of the identical brands.

Goodman GSXC18

Since 1975, the company Harold Goodman founded has been known as the low-cost leader with outstanding warranties. The company eventually got a reputation for being cheap, but that’s no longer true. Daikin bought Goodman and Amana in 2012. All three brands are identical and good quality. Amana and Daikin cost significantly more.

Goodman prices have risen a little and the warranties aren’t as strong, but the brand remains one of the best values in the residential HVAC industry, as we think you’ll see.

Cost: $2,000 – $3,000

Efficiency: 19 SEER

Performance: Two-stage

Warranty: A lifetime warranty on the compressor and 10 years on other parts

Why the unit is on the list: Several reasons; It’s the most efficient model on the list, is sold at a very competitive price and has the best warranty.

Did you know? Goodman is one of a few brands sold to the public by local and online retailers. That means that you could buy this unit and install it yourself, saving up to $2,500 or more on the installation.

That’s great value, right? It could be, but there are reasons to reconsider DIY:

  1. All brands, Goodman included, reject warranty claims on equipment installed by non-professionals.
  2. Special equipment (and skills) are required to properly install an AC, charge it with refrigerant, test and tune it.
  3. A license is required to purchase and handle refrigerant.

Best Value Central ACs for a Moderate Climate

These models are part of the same good-quality series above. Most are single-stage and less efficient too.

Day & Night Performance 16 N4A6

As noted above, models identical to this one are made by Heil, Tempstar and other brands. This gives you the chance to find the best installer among them.

Cost: $1,850 – $3,050

Efficiency: 17 SEER

Performance: Single-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: Excellent efficiency for a single-stage model. Day & Night’s good quality, reliability, and competitive cost.

Rheem Classic Series RA16

Also available as Ruud RA16 model.

Cost: $1,750 – $2,950

Efficiency: 16 SEER

Performance: Single-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: Good quality and the dependable Copeland scroll compressor.

Did you know? Most brands require that you register your air conditioner warranty within 30 or 60 days or its length will be reduced, usually to 5 years instead of 10. California is the only state that forbids manufacturers from doing that, so it is wise to register your AC immediately.

Goodman GSXC16

You’ll pay about the same or less for this model as the two above, but get better efficiency, performance and warranty.

Cost: $1,750 – $3,000

Efficiency: 17 SEER

Performance: 2-stage

Warranty: Lifetime compressor warranty and 10-year general parts warranty

Why the unit is on the list: Good quality at a very good price and backed by a best-in-class warranty.

Best Value Central ACs for a Cool Climate & Part-time Location

While it is tempting to buy a high-efficiency air conditioner because it will reduce your energy costs, you won’t recoup the extra expense in climate with a short AC season. These units are cost-effective models for Zones 6 and 7 and for part-time use such as a guest apartment or vacation home.

Rheem Classic Series RA14

This is a solid, dependable unit available as the Ruud RA14 too.

Cost: $1,450 – $2,550

Efficiency: 16 SEER

Performance: Single-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: Rheem has raised the bar in terms of quality and efficiency. It’s done this while maintaining competitive pricing.

Day & Night Performance 14 N4A5

This central AC is basic and dependable.

Cost: $1,250 – $2,450

Efficiency: 14 SEER

Performance: Single-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: Carrier quality at a much lower cost. Again, Day & Night air conditioners are identical to Heil, Tempstar and the other brands listed above.

Goodman GSX14

This is Goodman’s least efficient model. Most brands are still making 13 SEER models.

Cost: $1,150 – $2,250

Efficiency: 15 SEER

Performance: Single-stage

Warranty: 10 years

Why the unit is on the list: There are still Goodman critics. But the brand checks all the boxes for what you want in a good-value central AC that should last 15+ years with normal maintenance and minor repairs.

Where Are the Big Name Brands?

Lennox, Carrier and Trane didn’t make the list. The answers vary as to why.

Carrier and Trane offer excellent quality and reliability. Their identical brands Bryant (Carrier) and American Standard (Trane) do too. However, their prices are simply too high! 😉

With Carrier/Bryant models, you have Day & Night and other identical brands as more affordable alternatives with comparable quality. You don’t have an alternative to Trane and American Standard. The brands are comparably priced, and the prices are above average.

Pro Tip: There is one concern about buying a Day & Night, Heil, Tempstar (etc.) brand instead of a Carrier or Bryant. Any licensed HVAC contractor can install them.

Only Authorized/Factory-trained contractors can install Carrier and Bryant air conditioners. As a result, installation quality is more consistent among authorized dealers.

Likewise, any licensed pro can install Goodman, Rheem and York.

This just emphasizes the need to find a quality installer regardless of the brand you choose. Review our tips above for Expert Installation to ensure that the contractor you hire will do the job properly the first time.

Lennox: There is a good reason to like Lennox. At all performance levels, Lennox makes the most efficient central air conditioners in the industry. However, Lennox quality isn’t as good as it once was. Parts delays and high parts and repair costs are common. Finally, Lennox is one of the priciest brands!

Maintenance Protects Value!

Since we’re talking about value, it pays to keep your air conditioner clean and tuned. That way, you’ll get the best durability for your dollars spent too. We recommend having AC maintenance done every year.

Did you know? You must have your AC maintained by a certified technician on a regular basis to keep your warranty coverage. All air conditioner manufacturer warranties state in their Exclusions or Limitations that the warranty won’t apply if the unit isn’t serviced.

The UTC (Day & Night, Heil, Carrier, Bryant, etc.) air conditioner warranty contains wording representative of most. It states that for warranty claims to be paid, “Proof must be supplied that the equipment has been properly maintained over the life of the warranty, i.e., a minimum of once-a-year maintenance.

The Bottom Line

Keep the definition of value in mind. Good quality, a fair price and efficiency appropriate for your climate. Then do your due diligence on finding an expert installer.

When all these bases are covered, you won’t overspend on equipment and your operating costs should be reasonable. And you’ll enjoy long-term value too, a central air conditioner that runs durably for 15-20 years when you keep it maintained and make minor repairs along the way.

Average Cost To Install Central AC Typical Range: $3,870 - $5,430
See costs in your area
Average Cost To Install Central AC Typical Range: $3,870 - $5,430
See costs in your area

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