Those of you who read our posts regularly know that we are a small, U.S. Veteran-Owned business in Southern California, and pride ourselves on giving people straight, honest answers to their questions – and there’s no question that makes people cringe more than asking, “what does a new HVAC installation cost?” Oddly enough, most contractors keep their air conditioning installation cost a closely guarded secret, as if the knowledge of how much it should cost will in some way change your decision when you have to make a call. I will tell you, that the fair price of an HVAC installation will vary greatly based on the type of heating and air conditioning system installed, as well as the options needed or desired (Ductwork included? Zoning system?). In this article, I will discuss the five system features that affect HVAC installation cost, fair price ranges you can expect to pay for those features, and what you can do to keep from getting ripped off on your new HVAC installation price.
Tip: Don’t buy a new heating and air conditioning system until you troubleshoot first! You’d be surprised how often we get called out to peoples’ houses for a second opinion after they were told by some contractor that they needed a new HVAC system, and they didn’t. Always troubleshoot first – here are a couple of helpful articles to get you started:
- Furnace won’t turn on – troubleshooting.
- Furnace won’t turn off – troubleshooting.
- Air conditioner won’t cool – troubleshooting.
ASM’s Disclaimer About HVAC Installation Cost
At ASM, we are not only utilized for our heating and air conditioning installations, furnace repairs, and other general HVAC applications, but we are called in from all over the United States for our HVAC consultation services. So, it is important for me to make a little disclosure:
- These prices are just guidelines, and are meant to give you an idea of what an honest, well-done HVAC installation costs.
- They are meant for residential HVAC installations only (prices differ for commercial HVAC).
- They are written for California – subtract $800-$1,000 from the prices below if you live in a state that is not so strictly regulated, as insurance and licensing fees are cheaper.
- These are the prices for a proper installation from a professional – Honestly not plugging ourselves, but it is a word to the wise – HVAC systems require fine tuning and the custom fabrication of parts during installation to work properly, otherwise they will likely fail prematurely. But there are plenty of people who will do it for cheaper than this, using substandard, used, or stolen equipment (stolen from construction sites and new housing developments). Or, they are using unskilled laborers, etc. But HVAC is not a “we’ll figure it out trade;” there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and there are just too many predatory companies out there. I’d highly recommend not skimping on your HVAC contractor. If you go cheap, you will typically pay more in the long run, and in California, that will be a lot!
- We are doing this to help keep you from being ripped off! Unfortunately, some people will likely take these guidelines as “set-in-stone” price quotes, and not realize one fundamental truth:
Asking how much an HVAC installation costs is kind of like asking, “how much does a new car cost?”
Well, are you buying a Porsche or a Honda? Is it a 911 or just a Boxster, and are you going to get the leather seats? Likewise, are you going to get a Carrier or a Goodman air conditioner? Does the ductwork need to be replaced? These are all questions that will affect HVAC installation cost, so let’s take a closer look.
More on our opinion of Carrier and Goodman HVAC products can be found here:
HVAC Installation Cost – The Factors
Before we get to HVAC installation prices, we will first need to briefly discuss some terms, definitions, and factors that will affect how an honest HVAC installation company determines their prices. Notice that I said honest. Unfortunately, there are dishonest people out there. There always has been, there always will be, and there is a good chance that you had an experience with such a contractor, which drove you to read this article. I can’t teach you how to tell if someone is honest, but I can give you the knowledge to help you decide. Take a look at How to Choose an HVAC Contractor for tips on what to look for.
1. House Size Affects HVAC Installation Cost.
First, you need to understand that central air conditioners come in a variety of sizes, and the size will affect air conditioning installation cost. Air conditioner size is measured in “tons.” However, the tonnage of an HVAC unit is not actually based on its weight. A “ton” is simply a measure of an air conditioner’s ability to cool your home. One ton is the ability of your air conditioning system to cool 12,000 BTUs (BTU stands for British Thermal Unit) in an hour. Likewise, a “2-ton” central air conditioner is able to cool 24,000 BTUs per hour. So, you are likely asking, what the heck is a BTU? A BTU is the amount of energy required to heat or cool one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. So a 1-ton air conditioner can cool 12,000 pounds of water by one degree every hour. That’s all it means, so don’t let yourself be told differently! How this affects your HVAC installation cost is that the larger your house, the more tons will be required to heat and cool it.
Typically, one ton is required per 400 sq/ft. of floorspace. So, a 2,000 square foot house would typically take a 5-ton HVAC unit. For more information on how to determine proper size, read: What Size HVAC Unit is Right for my House.
2. Ductwork Affects Air Conditioning Installation Cost
Unfortunately, one of the most heartbreaking things for us is when someone writes us to ask, “Did I pay too much for my new air conditioner?” They tell me they paid $10,500 for a new furnace and AC system installation, and ask if that’s fair. I say, yea, that’s a pretty fair price for an air conditioner installation, what type of ductwork did they install? “Well, they didn’t replace the ductwork, but the system runs like new!”
It will typically cost an additional $2,000-$3,000 for all new, standard, R-6 insulated, Mylar-sheathed flex ductwork. Why so much? Because it is extremely labor intensive to do properly and takes a couple of days (keyword: properly). It should have custom fabricated manual dampers at each T-Y junction for air balancing (if not, one room is blowing like crazy, and one has no airflow – but most people skimp on this to save time and money, so ask questions!), be custom insulated at each T-Y junction to prevent condensation and mold problems (also read: Condensation on Ductwork, and how to fix it) each joint should be double sealed and crimped (otherwise the ductwork will separate after a few years, air conditioning your attic instead of your house!), and strapped properly to prevent duct migration. Before you ask, the answer is “no, an inspector will not see most of these things” (except for the strap), as they will mostly be internal to the ductwork, and are mostly concerned with code violations.
Heartbreaking. Look, we will talk more about prices in a bit, but the bottom line is this:
There is a time to replace the ductwork, and there is a time not to replace the ductwork – make sure that your price is reflected accordingly!
More on ASM’s installation services can be found here: Air Conditioning Installation.
3. Type of Equipment Affects HVAC Installation Cost.
Just like the car example above, are you buying a Porsche or a Honda? Both are reliable; their prices are…a bit different. A Carrier is a fantastic HVAC unit, but it is typically going to be $800 – $2,500 more expensive than comparable units, and there are other options out there that are just as reliable.
Lennox, on the other hand, is probably the most expensive unit out there and I can’t stand them – they have a horrible logistics chain, making repair parts difficult to come by (taking weeks sometimes), poor customer service, and the parts cost three times as much. That’s not what this article is about, so read more in: Carrier vs. Lennox Furnace Review.
My point is that the type of equipment you get is going to affect your HVAC installation cost greatly. People often times call us for an air conditioning installation job and say, “I would like to install Carrier equipment.” Now, if you are a future client of ours, I’ll have to warn you – I can be a bit of a smart-ass. Why can’t work be fun? Besides…I was in the Navy for 11 years, what do you expect. So, naturally I respond with, “you don’t tell your doctor which medication to prescribe you, do you?” The point is, on the residential level, who you get to install your HVAC unit is far more important than which unit you choose – keep your options open and let your HVAC contractor make a few recommendations – that’s why you spent time finding a reputable contractor!
For more info on the different unit brands, take a look at: Top 10 Air Conditioner Brands.
- Side-Note – I recommend steering clear of contractors that are “factory authorized dealers,” or advertise “Your Local Lennox Dealer,” for instance. I truly believe and have witnessed that it’s a conflict of interest to only sell one brand of equipment. Just like cars, some equipment has bad years and it’s better to keep your options open. With “authorized dealers,” it is in their interest to push that equipment on you, regardless of price. There are contractors out there that are licensed to sell all makes and models – I’d look for one of those contractors because it makes no difference to us what you choose to install – what matters is that it is reliable, well-built, and works well for your house without breaking the bank.
What about features? Are you getting a zoning system (recommended for a large or two-story house if it’s within your budget)? Does someone in your house have asthma and require an integrated HEPA filter? More can be found at: How to Reduce Asthma Symptoms
4. SEER Value Will Affect Your HVAC Installation Cost.
I won’t get into what SEER is because that is discussed in another article (the article is SEER vs. EER and How to Use Them), but realize that SEER will affect your HVAC installation cost. Simply put, SEER is a measure of your air conditioning unit’s efficiency. The higher the SEER value, the lower the cost to run it.
I personally recommend getting no more than a SEER-16 unit when you have your new HVAC installation done. “But Tim, Tim! All the other contractors said that SEER-21 is the best, and it will pay for itself!” Once again, being smart, I retort – “If the other contractors are so great, why are you reading this article in the first place?”
Joking aside, here is the reason why I recommend SEER-16 and no more: the reason they are pushing the high-SEER models is because they are a lot more expensive, which makes them more money on their markup. The reason I am against them, is because (since you asked) anything manufactured over 16 SEER works using a variable-speed blower motor. Think of it this way – you have a 5-ton air conditioner, but since it is a SEER-21, it has a variable-speed blower motor which can change its speed based on demand. In other words, if demand is low, it runs at half-speed to save energy. How they get the extra SEER value is primarily because of this motor – A SEER-21 is basically a SEER-16 that has the ability to drop down to half size, changing from a 5-ton to a 2.5 ton.
Sounds great, right? What’s the catch? The catch is that these motors have a propensity towards breaking, are extremely expensive to fix, and will definitely break more often than a single-speed 16-SEER. It’s a reliability issue. Reliability is big with us, so we steer clear of features with reliability issues, and it’s as simple as that. When you factor in the price of repairs and the extra expense of the 21-SEER, you actually lose money. 16 SEER is the sweet-spot, and it is key to reducing your HVAC installation cost.
5. Project Difficulty is a Big Factor in HVAC Installation Cost.
Here’s where we get into the art of HVAC installation – if you have a small, difficult to access attic, or you require many custom fabricated parts (every installation will have some fabricated parts – another reason not to skimp on your contractor), or if you have blown-in insulation, the difficulty increases. Do you live in a historic home and want to tie your new system in to work with existing features? The price will go up to do the job right. All of these things add up to slow down the HVAC company, which takes more time, which costs more money for labor and parts, especially if they are a legitimate company which is licensed, bonded and insured. Simply put, this is the “X-Factor” in your HVAC installation cost. Again, you could get people to do it for cheaper…but you won’y be happy with the results, I promise.
But Tim, doesn’t his mean that a less-than-honest air conditioning company can just charge what he wants and say that it’s a difficult job? No. You see, dishonest contractors, typically, are also very stupid people (I figure if you’re still reading this, you’re warming up to me so I’m taking the training-wheels off). They aren’t smart enough to take difficulty into account, and will probably get confused if you ask them about it. They will tell you things like, “that’s how much the unit costs,” or “California has a new law that magically adds $5,000 to the price.” Trust me, follow your gut, and you’ll be able to tell who the honest contractors are.
HVAC Installation Cost – The Price Range
Okay, the part you’ve all been waiting for! The description of HVAC installation cost. If you skipped down to this part, then the answer is, “no.” Scroll up and read the section before – you must earn this! Besides, it’s important information for following the prices below.
The HVAC installation costs below are based on residential installations only, and are priced for a single unit. Two units should be about twice the price. “Tim, shouldn’t there be a discount?” If people start giving you discounts, they are probably charging you too much to begin with – that’s our philosophy anyway. Twice the parts and time should be twice the price from a fair contractor. The prices listed include component parts (with warranty), labor, and all materials for a complete HVAC installation.
- Important Tip: Don’t just pay attention to the high end of the price range! – which is what I know you are all looking at, but also look at the low range. If a contractor is cheaper than this, ask “why?” Usually it is because they don’t have liability insurance, workman’s compensation insurance, are unlicensed, all of the above, or worst yet, they don’t use HVAC technicians. You are spending a lot of money – make sure that they are licensed (In California, check here at CSLB License Checker) and insured. California has a big problem with people stealing new equipment off of construction sites and passing themselves off as HVAC contractors. Also make sure they use real HVAC technicians, not unskilled laborers – otherwise you’ll pay more in the long run. As an example, 30-40% of our residential business is from fixing improperly installed HVAC units from “bargain contractors!” Just a thought…pay the money to have a pro do it. It will cost you less in the long run and it will be done right.
Typical Price Range for a New HVAC Installation.
I divided new HVAC installation cost into three groups: first, the Change-Out, which is an installation of just your HVAC components without the ductwork; Full Installation, which is the installation of all HVAC equipment including ductwork; and finally, Full Installation with Features, which is a full installation with additional features such as a zoning system or media filter.
Change-Out HVAC Installation Cost
Price-Range: $6,000 to $8,800
Typical Job Time: 1 Day
A simple change-out should range in price from $6,000 to $8,800, depending on which unit you go with and any added features.
- Tip – Be careful with change-outs. Ductwork deteriorates and usually has to be replaced, and it is only if the ductwork is in fantastic condition that you should get a change-out without ductwork. Remember – the ductwork has already been there for 15-20 years, and now it will be there another 15-20…it has to be in good shape). However, many HVAC installation companies like to push change-outs because the ductwork is the most time consuming part of the job, and a change-out is quick, easy money. Realize that it’s only about 15-20% of the jobs that qualify for a change-out, so be careful.
- If anyone is doing a change-out for less than $6,000…RUN…
Full HVAC Installation Cost
Price Range: $9,200 to $12,300
Typical Job Time: 2-3 Days
A Full Installation is the most common type of HVAC installation for a reputable contractor. The ductwork adds two days of labor and about $2,000 to $3,000 to the price, but realize that this is a very important part of your HVAC system. Although it might sound like a good idea to reduce HVAC installation cost and get a quick change-out, realize that there is dirt and debris collecting in your ducts and the ducts themselves develop holes and full breaks over the lifetime of your unit, all of which may be hidden from sight by insulation. Remember, many contractors will push a quick change-out on you because it is easy and good money for them – you need to be involved and ask questions.
Cost of Full HVAC Installation with Additional Features
Price Range: $13,100 to $17,000 (to infinity if you keep adding and changing things)
Typical Job Time: 3-5 Days
The sky is the limit. I am a big fan of adding zoning systems, but realize that this will typically add $2,300 to $3,500 (or more) to the price. “Why a price range, isn’t it just a part?” No, the part then has to be installed, and the customized ductwork required will vary based on the difficulty of the job and layout of your attic. It is very labor intensive, and most people don’t even do it right. It should also include a bypass damper and ductwork! Simply put, the more you add, the more it will affect your HVAC installation cost.
Final Tips to Keep From Getting Ripped Off on Your HVAC Installation Cost.
A review of some tips from the article, as well as a few more:
- Spend time researching your HVAC contractors. Who installs your unit is far more important than what they install. I’ve repaired Carrier units that were 3-years-old because they were improperly installed, and I’ve seen Day and Night HVAC units that were 22-years-old and running strong. Make sure that they are licensed, bonded and insured.
- If possible, shop around and avoid “factory licensed dealer” type contractors. If they are a licensed dealer of only one brand, realize that you aren’t going to get an unbiased opinion. They have a vested interest in selling their product regardless of whether or not it is the best fit for you, increasing HVAC installation cost when things don’t work out. Pick a company that installs all major brands instead because they have no investment in one particular product other than whether or not it makes you happy and fits your budget.
- Be careful with HVAC change-outs. Change-outs are only about 15-20% of the HVAC installation industry. Decrease HVAC installation cost by investing in new ductwork now if needed. Your ducts wear out too, and make sure that your ducts are in fantastic shape if you do this. Many contractors push this because it’s easy and cheap for them, with good pay-off. Do your research and replace them if you need to in order to avoid doing it later, as well as avoid potential health hazards from using old, broken ductwork.
- Asbestos removal tip. Don’t trust any HVAC installation company that says that they will remove asbestos for you. They will do either one of two things: remove it and do a horrible job because they don’t know how (an illegal act in California, finable by up to $250,000), or they will say they did and never actually do it, which is dangerous to your health. Any HVAC contractor worth their weight will know not to touch it. Call an asbestos abatement company – it should cost around $500-$1,000, and your HVAC installation company will come in right after them and do the installation to decrease cost and inconvenience.
- Stick with a maximum of 16 SEER units. Like I said above, contractors push higher SEER units because they make more money, but these units can be unreliable at this stage of development and can drive up you HVAC installation cost – 21 SEER units run about twice the price of a 14 SEER unit. Likewise, a 16 SEER unit typically costs only about $600-$1,000 more than a 14 SEER, and will usually pay for itself over the lifetime of the unit.
- Tonnage will increase price by about $300-$400 per extra ton of cooling. Size your unit properly for your house and don’t worry about this as far as price is concerned.
- Try to find a company that does commercial HVAC as well. The experience required to do commercial HVAC applications is typically a good way to ensure that the technicians that work on your project know what they are doing – a key to keeping your HVAC installation cost down. It isn’t fool-proof, but keep it in mind as you do your research.
- Be careful of dishonest HVAC contractors. There’s no magical formula to see if an HVAC contractor is scamming you, unfortunately, but remember that they typically do this in one of two ways: first, they are charging grossly low prices (far below everyone else), or second, they aren’t including what everyone else is. In the first situation, they will charge you change fees, other hidden fees, or they stole the equipment and are passing themselves off as legitimate contractors (very common in California these days). In the second situation, they are charging you a very fair price, but aren’t including what the other contractors are (i.e. charging $10,500 for the installation which is fair, but not including the ductwork which is a scam unless there is some other, complex stuff going on there).
You might not need a new air conditioner – don’t spend the money just yet – other related ASM articles include:
- When is the best time of the year to buy a new air conditioner?
- Air Conditioner Circuit Breaker Keeps Tripping.
- Day and Night Air Conditioner Review.
Final Thoughts on HVAC Installation Cost
Do your research on reputable air conditioning contractors and spend time making sure that you have a company that you can trust – it will cost you less in the long-run. Trust me. Take your time, follow the tips above, and you will end up with an HVAC installation cost that is more than reasonable, keeping your family comfortable for years to come. For more on topics like this, see: ASM’s Air Conditioning Blog.
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