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Air Conditioner Buyers Guide 2017

Your central air conditioner options have never been better. Consider this 2017 central air conditioner buyers guide to be your research assistant as you consider the right AC for your purposes. We examine central air conditioner buying tips such as:

  • Consider a Heat Pump if Installing an Entire System
  • Choose an Air Conditioner that Meets your Efficiency Requirements
  • Consider Performance Options
  • Proper Air Conditioning Capacity for your Space is Important
  • Hire an Experienced Professional to Install your Central Air Conditioner

That’s where we’re going.

Consider a Heat Pump if Installing an Entire System

If you’re simply replacing an existing air conditioner as is part of a split system that also features an air handler (hot climates) or furnace (all other climates) that doesn’t need replacing, then this information probably won’t sway you.

Even so, and for those installing a system in new construction or replacing an entire existing system, it’s worth noting that a heat pump will heat your home more efficiently than a gas furnace while it supplies the cooling in the summer too.

Plus, a heat pump and air handler combination is competitive in cost with a central air conditioner and gas furnace depending on the efficiencies and performance features involved. Pay roughly the same for the equipment and heat more efficiently and affordably in the cold months. Only in climates where temperatures are often below freezing (32F) does it makes sense to heat with a gas furnace – though a dual fuel system with a heat pump and a furnace is the most efficient option.

We go into this in more detail in our Heat Pump Buyers Guide 2017 if you’re interested.

Choose an Air Conditioner that Meets your Efficiency Requirements

ACs range in efficiency from the minimum legal efficiency of 13 SEER to more than 25 SEER – and that top rating rises most years. SEER is seasonal energy efficiency rating, and it measures how many BTUs of cooling the unit provides divided by the energy spent. Think AC gas mileage.

Now, there are several methods for determining the level of efficiency you need:

  • Value-driven choices
  • Housing plans
  • Climate

Ecofriendly cooling: If a commitment to reducing your environmental footprint is a high priority for you, then purchasing the most efficient AC that is within your budget will give you peace of mind. There are several really fine choices, and these are among the most efficient:

  • Lennox XC25, up to 26 SEER, and when powered by Lennox SunSource solar equipment, your energy use from the grid and your cooling costs could be zero
  • Daikin DX20VC and Amana AVXC20 are essentially the same unit with efficiency up to 24.5 SEER

Moving or staying put: The longer you plan to stay in your home, the more it makes sense to buy a central AC on the efficient end of the spectrum for your region. If you’re moving soon, buying an affordable air conditioner is a cost-effective decision, but you’ll have to weigh that against what buyers might think of an inefficient unit. If summers are hot where you live, choose a unit that is at least in the 16-17 SEER range, even if you’re installing one just to have a working AC when you list your home this year.

Climate: Most homeowners make their air conditioning efficiency decision based on how long, hot and/or humid their summers are. This map assists in the process, and here is what our experts recommend with options for central air conditioner systems and heat pump systems:

IECCmap_Revised (1)

Zones 1 and 2 are HOT everywhere and humid too in the East:

  • AC Option: 20+ AC and inexpensive 80% furnace
  • HP Option: 20+ SEER heat pump and air handler

Zones 3 and 4 are WARM, and some regions can be quite humid too:

  • AC Option: 16-18 SEER AC and a quality 80% gas furnace
  • HP Option: 16-19 SEER heat pump, mainly for the cooling, and air handler
  • Note: The exceptions to these options are those few regions like coastal Southern California that require so little heating and AC that a 14-15 SEER heat pump and air handler will suffice

Zone 5 is COOL (East) and DRY (West) but can be quite warm too:

  • AC Option: 16-18 SEER AC and a 90% furnace
  • HP Option: 16-18 SEER heat pump and air handler

Zones 6 and 7 are COLD:

  • AC Option: 13-16 SEER AC optional and 95%+ gas furnace
  • HP Option: 16+ SEER heat pump plus a 92%+ gas furnace or oil furnace (Dual fuel systems)

 Consider Performance Options

The next central air conditioner buying tip is about how well the unit:

  • Balances indoor temperatures
  • Removes humidity to make your home more comfortable
  • Runs quietly

You have performance options within each air conditioner efficiency range in the chart above. If you want superior performance to what units in your climate/efficiency range offer, you’ll have to upgrade to get them.

Single-stage air conditioners are 13-16 SEER: These units run at 100% capacity whenever cooling. The result is short, loud blasts of cold air that cause temperature imbalances since they often cool beyond the thermostat’s temperature setting. Single-stage ACs also have the poorest dehumidification due to the shorter cycles.

Two-stage air conditioners are 16-20 SEER: These ACs have low (65%) and high (100%) settings, and they run on low when outside temperatures rise and fall slowly, as they do on most summer days. High capacity is used for times when temperatures rise quickly or when you boost cooling by adjusting the thermostat. Slow, low cooling is quieter and removes more humidity.

Variable-capacity air conditioners are 19-26 SEER (aka variable-speed and modulating): These top-of-the-line central air conditioners have compressors that modulate like cruise control to keep indoor temperatures as near perfectly consistent as possible. The speed of the rotary compressor varies in 1% or less increments from as low as 35% or 40% depending on the brand to 100%. For maximum performance, the furnace or air handler must have a variable-speed blower. The combination creates the quietest, most efficient, most comfortable and driest cooling of all.

Proper Air Conditioning Capacity for your Space is Important

There is so much more than your home’s square footage that goes into choosing the right size/capacity central air conditioner to cool it. The industry-standard Manual J load calculation considers your home’s construction type, foundation, number of levels, insulation, windows and doors, roofing, landscape, climate and more.

In short, it’s important that your HVAC technician do a load calculation when deciding on the right capacity for your AC. Central air conditioners typically come in BTU capacities of 18K, 24K, 30K, 36K, 42K, 48K and 60K for residential installation. An air conditioner that is too small won’t keep up with summer’s heat and humidity; one that’s too large will create temperature swings and might break down due to a phenomenon known as short cycling.

Note: If your home’s insulation, windows, doors and/or roofing have been upgraded since the last AC was installed, it is quite possible that your new air conditioner should have less capacity than the last.

Hire an Experienced Professional to Install your Central Air Conditioner

An overlooked reality is that a poor installation job can make a very good central air conditioner mediocre at best. It won’t run as efficiently as it should and will be prone to mechanical problems. Your indoor comfort will suffer too. Most HVAC technicians know what they’re doing, but you want to be sure to avoid those that don’t due to inexperience or, well, other issues.

It’s worth researching the top HVAC installers in your area because you’re making a large investment in your home when you buy a central air conditioner or complete split system. If you don’t have the time to make the calls and follow up on references and whether the company is licensed and insured, we can make the process more convenient. The HVAC contractors in the Free Estimate service are prescreened for experience, license and insurance. Plus, they know they’re competing for the installation job, so offer appealing pricing. If you’re interested in finding a qualified contractor, click the button and fill out a quick form. There is no cost and you’re not obligated to accept any of the estimates.

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