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A Central Air System Buying Guide

Costs, Energy Efficiency, Maintenance and More

If you’ve suffered through sweltering summers without central air, you might be prepared to pay just about anything for a blast of cool air. Luckily, central air doesn’t have to break the bank. The smallest systems start at about $1,500, while larger and more robust systems cost about $3,000-$5,000.

About Central Air Installation

There are three basic types of central air systems: split systems, mini-split systems and package systems.

  • Split systems have an outdoor metal cabinet that contains the condenser and compressor, and an indoor cabinet that holds the evaporator. In many of these systems, the indoor cabinet also contains the home’s furnace or heat pump. This is the most economical option if your home already has a furnace but no central air. Split systems are also the most common.
  • Mini-split systems are just smaller and less powerful versions of regular split systems.
  • Packaged central air conditioners have a single cabinet that contains the evaporator, condenser and compressor. These units typically sit outside the home, usually on a concrete slab but sometimes on the roof. Sometimes these units serve as a combined heater and air conditioner, containing a natural gas furnace or electric coils.

Energy efficiency is one of the most important considerations when shopping for a central air conditioning system. The system will likely last decades, and buying an energy efficient unit greatly reduces the cost to operate the system, saving thousands over the long-term.

For central air conditioners, energy efficiency is expressed by a measure known as Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER). SEER ratings range from 13 to 23 - the higher the number, the lower your monthly energy bills will be. However, highly energy efficient units cost more upfront.

Central Air Installation

How Much Does Central Air Cost?

The cost of central air system depends on the brand, size of the unit and energy efficiency.

  • Mini-split systems cost $1,500-$3,000 installed.
  • Low- and mid-efficiency split and packaged systems cost about $3,000-$5,000 installed. At that price, you’ll get a 4-5 ton system.
  • If your home doesn’t have ductwork, add at least $3,000 to that price. (If your home is heated by a furnace, you have ductwork. If it is heated with hot water or steam via a boiler, you don’t.)
  • High-efficiency systems cost about 30 to 40 percent more, but you’ll recoup that money in the long term due to reduced energy costs.

Maintaining a Central Air System

All central air systems require regular maintenance to ensure they are running cleanly, safely and efficiently.

Get an annual inspection and tuneup in the spring (or the start of the cooling season). A technician will inspect all system components and clean the unit. A simple inspection can increase the system’s efficiency and prevent costly repairs. Also, keep in mind that failing to have the system inspected annually can void your warranty.

Between annual tuneups, inspect the system yourself every 30 days. Make sure the condensing unit is clear of leaves and debris so that air can flow freely. Inspect the filter and change it if necessary. In humid weather, check the condensate drain to make sure that excess moisture is being carried away from your house.

Central Air vs. Window Units

Window units are far less expensive than central air, running about $100 to $400 each on average, depending on the square footing they’re capable of cooling. And they’re portable, so you can take them with you if you move. If you live in a climate with short or very mild summers, window units will probably suffice.

On the downside, window units are not as effective at cooling, particularly in warm or humid climates. If you live in Florida, they’ll be of little use. Window units don’t filter the air inside your home as well as central air, and they have to be installed at the beginning of every cooling season and uninstalled and stored at the end of the season. Window units are also noisier, and many people consider them unattractive.

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