A new central air conditioner is a big investment for a homeowner and a significant home improvement in terms of comfort and quality of life during the heat of summer. Because of the cost involved, taking the time to understand what goes into choosing the right unit will go a long way toward making a wise choice that balances cost, performance and energy efficiency.
Multiple factors go into the cost of a new central air conditioner. In addition to the purchase and installation price, consider the cost of operation over the unit’s lifetime. A new, high-efficiency unit will likely save a substantial amount on monthly energy bills when replacing an older inefficient model. A general recommendation is to purchase the highest efficiency air conditioner you can afford.
Purchasing a system that is the correct size is critical to the air conditioner’s energy efficiency, performance and reliability. A larger air conditioner will be more expensive, but not necessarily do a better job of cooling your home than a smaller one. If it is too large it will cycle on and off too frequently, using more energy but doing a poorer job of cooling your home. Similarly, a unit that is too small will be less expensive to purchase, but it will not be able to keep up with the load requirements.
To correctly size a new air conditioner, take into account the square footage of your home, the number of levels, the number of residents, the amount of insulation and your home’s orientation (how much sun and shade it gets).
SEER stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. It equals the cooling output of the unit divided by the total energy input during the same period. The SEER rating is used to indicate the energy efficiency of the unit. The higher the rating, the greater the efficiency. An air conditioner with a high SEER rating provides excellent cooling power at a lower energy cost than one with a lower SEER. Energy Star compatible air conditioners have a SEER of at least a 14.5.
Freon/R-22 has been phased out starting in the early 1990s with production ceasing entirely in January 2020 because, while it is excellent for cooling, it is extremely harmful to the ozone layer if released. The manufacture of air conditioners using R-22 stopped in 2014. Most air conditioners from 2015 on use R410A, although there are other Freon alternatives available.
If your air conditioner uses Freon/R-22, it is not a problem unless the system develops a leak. In that case, you have the option to repair your system and recharge it with recycled R-22, which will become an increasingly costly proposition, or to upgrade your system to a new energy-efficient one that uses a safer refrigerant. Switching your old air conditioner to an environmentally friendly Freon alternative is likely not possible or advised.
As mentioned above, look for a high SEER rating and Energy Star certification for the greatest energy efficiency. In addition, choose a model that offers programmable temperature settings which allow you to fine tune the system to best meet your needs during different times of day and different days of the week, according to your lifestyle. An energy-saving setting is another beneficial feature. It turns off the fan as well as the compressor when your home is sufficiently cooled.
A programmable thermostat makes it easy to maximize your air conditioner’s energy efficiency. By setting the temperature according to your family’s schedule, you can save money by not cooling your home when no one is there.
Warranties vary among manufacturers, so be sure to consider that in your decision. Understand what is covered and for how long, as well as what might potentially void the warranty.