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Central Air Conditioner Buyers Guide 2020

Finding the right air conditioner (AC) is certainly no simple task, and it can even be unnecessarily expensive for you if you aren’t sure what to look for. Our 2020 central air conditioner buyers guide lays out all the details you’ll need to consider for your purchase. 

Here is what we will be examining:

  • Changing Your Whole System? Consider a Heat Pump
  • AC Efficiency 
  • AC Performance Options
  • The Proper AC Size For Your Home & Climate
  • Professional Installation

Changing Your Whole System? Consider a Heat Pump 

If you are looking to replace an AC unit that is part of a split system but still want to keep your current furnace or air handler, then this section won’t be useful for your purchase.  

For those wanting to replace or install an entirely new residential HVAC system, you should know that purchasing a heat pump is a cheaper and more efficient alternative to a gas furnace. 

Heat pumps use a small amount of energy to transfer heat from one place to another. Because they simply transfer heat, they don’t need to burn anything—such as gas—to function. You can use a heat pump in both the winter and the summer, as it will pull in heat from the outside to warm up your home or push out the heat inside your home to cool it off. 

Depending on the efficiency and performance features involved, combining a heat pump with an air handler will be equal to or less than the cost of a new central AC unit with a new gas furnace. 

It is only in climates where the temperatures often fall below freezing (32F) that a gas furnace will be more sufficient for you. In this case, you should consider purchasing a dual fuel system, which combines a furnace and a heat pump. This system will allow you to alternate between the furnace and the heat pump according to what makes most sense with the outside weather each day, keeping your home conveniently warm while saving you more money in the long run.  

For more on heat pumps, check out our 2020 heat pump buyers guide

AC Efficiency

ACs range from 13 SEER to 25 SEER or higher. 

SEER is “Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio,” also known as “Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating,” and is the measurement used to determine an ACs efficiency. The higher the SEER number, the more efficient the AC unit. 

Here are several things you will need to consider when determining the AC efficiency your home requires:

Value-driven choices: Is being eco-friendly a priority for you? If so, then purchasing the most efficient AC within your budget will allow you to maintain that priority. There are a number of great AC models to choose from, but these three are among the most efficient:

  • Lennox XC25. This model has up to 26 SEER. When powered by Lennox SunSource solar equipment, your energy use from the grid, as well as your cooling cost, can be zero. 
  • Daikin DX20VC and Amana AVXC20. These two are essentially the same unit, sharing efficiency up to 24.5 SEER.   

Housing Plans: Are you planning on moving soon or staying put for a while? The longer you stay in your home, the more cost-effective it will be for you to purchase a central AC unit that has a higher-level efficiency rating.  

On the other hand, if you are planning on moving soon, it will be more cost-effective to purchase an AC with a lower-level efficiency rating. You will have to consider how this may affect your ability to sell, however, as buyers may not prefer a home with an AC unit too low in efficiency. Consider installing one that has 16 or 17 SEER.  

Climate: Most homeowners base their needed AC efficiency on how long, hot, and/or humid their summers are. To see what our experts recommend for different climates, let's refer to a recent guide we prepared:

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)

AC Performance Options

How much you are willing to pay for a central AC unit determines how effective it is at balancing indoor temperatures, removing humidity, and running quietly. The lower the SEER, the less effective the unit will be. This doesn’t mean that ACs with lower efficiency are poor products. It just means that you may simply lose out on some of the AC performance capabilities you prefer your unit to have. 

Here’s a breakdown of how different efficiency levels affect AC performance: 

1. Single-Stage ACs, 13-16 SEER: These units run at 100% capacity, pushing the air out in short, loud bursts. They do not regulate the humidity as well as two-stage or variable-capacity ACs, and they are known to cause temperature imbalances, as they often cool the home beyond the set thermostat reading. 

You should note, however, that these AC units cost less than two-stage or variable-capacity AC units. 

2. Two-Stage ACs, 16-20 SEER: These units run anywhere between 65% and 100% capacity depending on the outside temperatures. Higher capacity is used on hotter days, while the unit adjusts to lower capacities on cooler days. The use of lower capacity allows for a quieter unit and better humidity regulation. 

3. Variable-capacity ACs, 19-26 SEER: These units run at varying capacities, as they monitor your home’s temperature and adjust appropriately. Their rotary compressors vary in speed by 1% or less increments, being able to run in low capacities such as 35% or 40% and as high as 100%. 

For the unit’s maximum performance, your furnace or air handler must have a variable-speed blower. Combining the variable-capacity AC and the variable-speed blower makes this type of unit quieter and more efficient than single- or two-stage ACs. 

The Proper AC Size For Your Home

The size of your AC is just as significant as everything else. An AC unit that is too small won’t sufficiently cool your home; an AC unit too large will undergo temperature swings and will likely break down faster due to short cycling. 

If you are unsure what size best fits your home, the industry-standard Manual J load calculation determines this for you by assessing these components and more: 

  • Your home’s construction type
  • Your home’s foundation
  • Number of floors to your home
  • Insulation
  • Number of windows and doors 
  • Roofing
  • Landscaping
  • Surrounding climate 

The load calculation will determine what British Thermal Unit (BTU) your new AC unit should have. A BTU is a standard measurement for an AC’s cooling efficiency per hour of use. Residential central ACs usually come in BTUs of 18K, 24K, 30K, 36K, 42K, 48K, and 60K, in which a larger BTU number means a larger AC unit. 

Contact your most reliable HVAC technician to apply a load calculation on your home. Make sure to inform your HVAC technician about any recently updated features to your home, such as new windows or insulation, as that will factor into the load calculation and may mean your new unit should be smaller than your previous one.

Professional Installation

Installing an AC unit isn’t a DIY project, so you’ll have to contact an HVAC professional to do the job. This said, we know that even professionals can poorly install appliances from time to time. 

It’s worth researching which HVAC company in your area is licensed, insured, and has the most experience with AC unit installation. If you don’t have the time to figure this out, we can make this process easier for you. HVAC contractors in the Free Estimate service are prescreened for experience, licensing, and insurance. Because these contractors know they are competing for your assignment, they will be less likely to take installation shortcuts or overprice you. 

If you’re interested in the Free Estimate service, there is no cost to filling out a form or any obligation to accept an estimate.

Has our 2020 AC buying guide helped you? Consider sharing this with others on social media. 

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