- Typical Range: $3,810 to $7,480
- National Average: $5,644
Air conditioning is considered a necessity in most regions where temperatures can soar during the summer months. If your central AC unit is more than 10 to 15 years old, your energy bill for cooling your home is higher than usual, or the air doesn’t seem as cold as it used to be, then it’s probably time to install a new central AC unit. The national average to install a new AC unit is $5,644, with a typical price range of $3,810 to $7,480. Central AC unit costs are determined by a few primary factors: the amount of ductwork needed, the size of the unit, the SEER rating, and any needed repairs. The benefits of a new central AC unit quickly make up for installation costs, so keep reading to discover all you need to know about central AC unit costs.
Factors in Calculating Central AC Unit Cost
Central air conditioners are the most popular method for blowing cool air into each room of the house, and the cost to install them varies depending on the size of the house and unit. Installing a central AC unit in an older home may cost more than installing one in new construction. You may also want to consider the energy-efficiency rating for long-term energy costs.
Total central AC unit costs are strongly influenced by installation costs, which vary from one project to the next. If a new unit needs to be installed without updating existing ductwork, labor costs have a lower average of $1,250 to $2,300. For complete ductwork and unit installation, most homeowners spend an average of $2,550 to $3,600. The actual unit is an additional cost, and the price depends on the type of unit.
For most regions, a central AC unit is the popular choice to pump cool air to the entire house, and it’s often combined with the heating unit as a complete HVAC unit. If only an air conditioning unit is needed, professionals can install ductless split systems for an average price of $2,000 to $14,500. For cooler regions where a sunny day overheats only a single room, a window AC unit can be installed for $150 to $500. Portable units are another convenient option that are similarly priced to window AC units.
When it comes to AC units, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Central AC units measure their output in BTUs (British thermal units) and are available in 1.5- to 5-ton capacities. To calculate the AC unit size that you need, multiply the square footage of your home by 18 (because it takes about 18 BTUs to cool 1 square foot). If you have high ceilings, multiply the number by 1.25. Then, divide that number by 12,000 to get the tonnage required.
For example, a 2,000-square-foot home would require 34,000 BTUs to cool it. Dividing 36,000 by 12,000 equals 3, so this home would require a 3-ton AC unit. The most common sizes are 3- and 4-ton AC units. A unit that is either too large or too small will fail to cool your house correctly, so it’s best to have a technician evaluate your home.
The SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) rating influences the price of an air conditioner and determines how effectively a unit operates throughout the season. Units with a higher SEER rating may cost more up front, but they’ll have lower operating costs. According to HomeAdvisor, all AC units must have at least a 13 SEER rating. If your unit was installed before 2006, consider updating it to take advantage of the new energy-saving efficiency.
A good estimate to calculate central AC unit costs is $2.50 to $6 per square foot. Installing a central AC unit in a hotter climate will cost more since a more powerful unit with higher-than-normal efficiency ratings is needed to avoid burning out quickly. A unit with a SEER rating of 16 to 18 will work for most climates. Depending on the SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) rating, you can expect a 1,200-square-foot home to cost between $3,000 and $4,000 for AC installation.
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The price of an AC unit does not necessarily reflect the total quality. Well-known name brands may have the same parts as other brands, but they have a history of product longevity or quality service. A local HVAC company can share the features and benefits of brands that work best in your region. Prices range between $1,700 to $3,400 from brands that include Aire-Flo, Frigidaire, Goodman, Lennox, Carrier, and York.
Additional Costs and Considerations
New construction usually has the most straightforward central AC unit costs, but sometimes homeowners need to upgrade an old unit or install a new one altogether. In these cases, the total cost is affected by different situations that may or may not apply. Additional plumbing, electrical work, the removal or repair of existing HVAC systems, mold testing, asbestos removal, and other factors can increase the cost to install a central AC unit.
Zones and Controls
For larger homes, a multiple-zone air conditioning unit might be the best choice to control uneven heat distribution adequately. Some rooms or areas of the house may collect and retain extra heat if exposed to more sun. Cooling only these areas more frequently using a zone system helps prevent other rooms from receiving arctic blasts of air too often. Adding more zones and controls will increase the price but may make the house more comfortable overall.
Existing ductwork may not handle the increased airflow of a new AC unit and could require replacement. Leaky ductwork can also be the culprit of an air conditioning unit that doesn’t cool like it used to. Over time, ductwork can deteriorate, so it’s always a good idea to have it inspected if you suspect a problem.
Adding central air to a house means plumbing lines will need to be installed. All central air units need a drain line as condensation builds from the air handler. This helps prevent water damage. This installation will add to the cost, as will any necessary repairs to existing damaged plumbing lines.
The central AC unit requires electricity from a hard-wired, dedicated circuit. A standard 240-volt connection is required, and depending on the size of the AC unit, it’ll require between 15 and 60 amps of power. You’ll need to hire an electrician to install this outlet and update your circuit breaker.
Existing HVAC System Removal
Removing an old unit is relatively easy, and some companies will remove it for free when they install your new system. Disposal fees typically average $25 to $200, depending on how old the system is. Removing and upgrading ductwork will increase the price since it could be a time-intensive task.
If you add a new room or change the height of large spaces (like adding a vaulted ceiling), the central air system should be updated. New ductwork and vents will be installed at a minimum, but a larger unit may also be required to cool the entire house adequately. A pro can help determine if an existing unit will be sufficient for home modifications.
Mold Testing and Removal
On rare occasions, mold could have contaminated old and damaged ductwork. Use a mold specialist company to do certified testing. Improper cleaning methods can damage fiberglass and flexible HVAC ductwork, so you’ll need to get a qualified technician to safely remove the mold without exposing the rest of the house.
Asbestos Testing and Removal
A phrase that many homeowners dread hearing is “asbestos removal,” but if asbestos fibers are found, then it’s best to get them removed as quickly and safely as possible. Hiring an asbestos removal company is the right move to make when dealing with asbestos in your ductwork. These professionals will be able to identify if the asbestos can be encapsulated or if the ductwork will need to be replaced entirely.
Permits and Potential Fines
Since clean and adequate airflow is critical for humans, air conditioning system installation is regulated, and professionals must obtain proper training and licensing. AC units use a cooling chemical called Freon that installers are trained to handle to prevent contamination or accidental spills. Be sure to review the installation contract to understand what local and federal regulations apply to avoid potential fines for improper installation.
Fortunately, all central air conditioners include a manufacturer’s warranty that lasts between 5 and 10 years. Warranties generally cover parts and equipment, but the installer may also offer a warranty for labor on repairs that fall within a specific period. Extended warranties might also be available, but these often cost more than any standard repairs that could occur over the lifespan of the AC unit.
Central AC Unit Cost: Types of AC Units
When it comes to installing a whole air conditioning system, as opposed to small window units, there are two types of AC units you can choose from. Central air conditioning with ductwork is the most popular choice for homeowners who are ready to install a complete HVAC system to maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the year. A ductless split system is another excellent choice that can be installed in specific rooms without ductwork—even if a heating system is already installed in the house.
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Central Air System
A central system involves installing an HVAC system in a mechanical room with a small amount of plumbing and electricity available to operate the equipment. Using ductwork, a central air system pulls air from large areas of the house, filters the air, then cools it before blowing the cool air back into the house through the ductwork and vents. Most air filters should be replaced every few months to ensure the system can flow clean air into the home without stirring up excess dust or allergens. The average cost of a central air system is $3,810 to $7,480.
Ductless Split System
Ductless split systems use a condenser and compressor unit installed outdoors and an evaporator installed indoors. Sometimes this indoor evaporator is already used to heat the house. The more zones you want to cool, the more this system will cost. Ductless systems are faster and easier to install since ductwork doesn’t have to be installed throughout the walls or attic. You can expect to pay between $2,000 and $14,500 for a ductless split system AC unit.
Central AC Unit Cost: Do I Need a New Central AC Unit?
Spending a few thousand dollars on new equipment isn’t the easiest pill to swallow, but there are several reasons why it’s a good idea. Central AC units eventually wear out just like any other mechanical equipment. An older unit should be replaced to regain energy efficiency, improve cool air output, reduce humidity, and more. Excessive noise and dust, even after changing filters, are also indicators that it’s time to update your AC unit.
AC Unit Age
Most central air conditioner systems have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. Without proper maintenance like changing air filters or having it serviced regularly, it may wear out sooner. Older units are less efficient than newer models, so the quality of cool air may significantly improve with installing a new unit.
Noise and Dust
AC units that grow noisy usually mean they have outlasted their prime or have a ductwork problem. Noises may result from ductwork that is not large enough to handle the square footage of the house or from an inner coil that has worn out. Constantly finding dust around the house is another indicator that there is leaking ductwork.
Higher Utility Bills
Some summers are hotter than others, but if you’ve noticed a much higher energy bill than usual, your AC unit may be working harder but less effectively. Typically, you’ll see a sudden spike from one month to the next. The motor and other parts may not operate at the same capacity as before, so the system runs more often to compensate. Replacing the central AC unit should solve this problem.
AC units are designed to remove excess humidity, which is typically associated with a warmer sensation. When you’ve noticed more humidity in your house than expected, you may want to have your central air system inspected to see if it needs repair or replacement.
If you’re constantly calling an HVAC expert for repairs, it’s probably time to get a quote for a new unit. While warranties help cover repair costs, they don’t last forever. If an expensive repair hits just after a warranty expires, you’ll need to consider whether it’s better to simply replace the unit. Do this quick calculation to help you decide: Multiply the total cost of repairs by the age of the system. If the amount is more than $5,000, you may save on central AC unit costs by installing a new unit.
A broken-down or worn-out AC unit can be a significant deterrent for prospective home buyers, especially in hot climates. Replacing an old central AC unit is an almost invisible update that positively impacts your home’s value—not to mention your own comfort. If you live in a climate where AC isn’t a necessity but a luxury, installing a split system might just appeal to more potential home buyers who would like to have the option.
Home Improvements and Additions
The type of cooling system selected will depend on the area that needs to be cooled. Adding new rooms will require an update to ductwork and potentially a new AC unit. If the cooling system is too small to handle the addition, it will run more frequently, reducing its lifespan and increasing your energy bill. Whether you’re building a garage apartment or blowing out your kitchen and dining room, be sure to consider the impact on your cooling system.
Central AC Unit Cost: DIY vs. Hiring a Professional
Installing a central air conditioning unit is not the most glamorous way to spend your hard-earned money, but it’s certainly one of the most comfortable necessities in some regions. It can be tempting to wonder if you could install your own AC unit to save on costs, but this is one area that’s not advised for a DIY project unless you’re already licensed to do so. Cooling systems use a chemical called Freon that’s regulated by the EPA as a harmful (yet helpful) substance that creates instantly cool air or liquids. Only trained and licensed technicians are allowed to handle this chemical.
Professional installers can adequately measure your home to determine the best ductwork layout and unit size to cool your house to a comfortable temperature. They’ll also know how to install ductwork properly to avoid leaks and to ensure each room gets adequate airflow. Overall, it’s a small price to pay to ensure the safe installation of a long-term benefit for comfortable living.
How to Save Money on Central AC Unit Cost
Central AC unit costs can feel overwhelming. The cost to install a central AC unit in a new house is less daunting since central AC unit costs are typically built into the project in most areas. No matter which situation applies, here are some ways to save money on AC unit installation costs.
- Look for local and federal rebates and tax breaks for upgrading an old system to a newer high-efficiency system.
- Consider installing an AC unit in the spring or fall when HVAC professionals are less busy.
- Ask about installing a ductless split system if you prefer to cool only a few rooms in the house.
- Replace an old central air conditioning unit to save on monthly energy costs.
- Frequently maintain the central air system to extend the lifespan and deter significant repairs.
- Ask about seasonal discounts.
- Obtain more than one quote to find the best deal for the best system.
Questions to Ask About Central AC Unit Cost
Fortunately, installing a new central air conditioning system doesn’t have to be a complicated process when you work with a pro. An in-person consultation will help the technician understand your needs and map out the best system. To feel more comfortable discussing your project, consider asking any of these pertinent questions about central AC unit costs.
- Are you licensed and insured to install a cooling system?
- How long have you been in business?
- Is a central air or ductless split system best for my needs?
- What size or capacity of an AC unit do you recommend for my house?
- If I already have ductwork installed, can it be used with a new unit?
- Will you inspect my existing ductwork for leaks, mold, and asbestos?
- How much will it cost to remove my old AC unit?
- What kind of upgrades or smart tech is available for new AC units?
- What is the SEER rating of the AC unit you recommend for my house?
- How much will I save on energy costs each month?
- Which brands do you recommend for my region and why?
- Are there any local or federal rebates available?
- What kind of warranties or guarantees are available?
- How long will it take to install this central air system?
- What kind of maintenance will this system require?
- Can I do any maintenance myself?
- How long will this system last?
Even though you’ve read a lot of information about central AC unit installation costs, you may still have a few questions. Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
Q. What are EER and SEER ratings?
EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio) is the standard measurement of energy efficiency for cooling systems throughout the year. It’s calculated by dividing the BTUs by the rate of energy input in watts. It’s a calculation that’s used more by manufacturers than homeowners.
SEER is how an AC unit’s energy performance is measured during the season used, typically when outdoor temperatures range from 65 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooling output is divided by the electric input to determine the rating. A higher rating is more efficient, and a minimum rating of 13 has been required on all models since 2006. Central air units that operate at a 13 SEER can boost efficiency by up to 30 percent.
Q. What ton AC unit do I need?
Determining the proper size AC unit for your house is not a cut-and-dried process, so you’ll want to have your house evaluated to find out the best option. A 3-ton AC unit is a common size for most homes.
Q. How do I maintain my AC unit?
Be sure to replace the air filters every few months to prevent the system from overworking to draw in enough air to operate correctly. Cover the outdoor AC compressors during the winter. Open the units and clear away any debris before turning on the AC in the spring or summer. Gently spray or clean off the fans and inner fins to ensure they can operate smoothly with all the airflow they need. Inspect the compressor to make sure it’s level. Settling soil or tree roots can tilt the compressor and affect its ability to operate correctly.
Q. How long does it take to install an AC unit?
The size and scope of a project dramatically affect how long it will take to install a central air conditioner. On average, it takes 1 to 5 days. Replacing a unit will take less time than replacing or repairing ductwork. It may take longer to install or upgrade an AC unit during a home addition if the ductwork is extensive or if a new unit and controllers also have to be installed.