Buying a new air conditioner can be a stressful experience. After all, how the hell can you know if what the contractors are telling you is actually true? To understand that question, we must remember that education is our friend. As such, today’s article will address the fundamentals of buying a new AC unit for your home. Those of you who have read our articles, know that we are a small, U.S. Veteran-Owned heating and air conditioning business based in California. We have built our reputation on giving our clients honest, straight answers to their HVAC questions; today will be no different. In this article, we will discuss important things to consider when buying a new air conditioner, including: fair air conditioner prices, SEER values, picking an HVAC (heating, ventilation & air conditioning) contractor, sizing your new air conditioner, and other tips to keep in mind before purchasing your new AC system.
Buying a New Air Conditioner – The Fundamentals
In this section, we will discuss some of the major factors to ponder when buying a new air conditioner. Remember, being educated on these issues will be important as you move forward and start dealing with local contractors, so I’d recommend that you familiarize yourself with each of them prior to receiving bids.
First, however, it is important to know if you even need to buy a new air conditioner. The average life expectancy of an air conditioner is between 10 and 15-years, whereas a furnace can last twice as long, typically boasting a lifespan of 20-30 years (National Association of Home Builders – “Life Expectancy of Home Components”). In the following article, we lay out the times when you should repair your air conditioner, and the times you should invest in replacement – take a look before moving on; it’s worth your time:
1. Picking SEER Values When Buying a New Air Conditioner
People often ask us, “when buying a new air conditioner, what SEER value would you recommend?” They are kind of shocked to hear our answer…we usually recommend no more than a 14 SEER air conditioner, and in some, relatively rare occasions (think desert areas), we recommend 16 SEER. “But Tim! Our contractor said that if we got the 21 SEER air conditioner for $3,000 more, it would pay for itself in only a couple of years!” If that’s true, then I also have a bridge to sell you…first off, you made two mistakes: one, you listened to a contractor; don’t do that (I know what you’re thinking…my wife just said the same thing: “but aren’t you a contractor?”). Two, don’t be so gullible!
SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, and is an objective means of evaluating the efficiency of an air conditioner. Simply put, the higher the SEER value, the more efficient a unit is…when it’s brand new, in a laboratory. Think of SEER as being kind of like Miles-Per-Gallon (MPG) for your car. But let’s just think for a second…if you buy a car that gets 30 MPG, does that mean that you’re going to get 30 MPG as you race up and down the 405 freeway at 90 miles-per-hour, playing slalom with the commuters? Of course not.
The Problem with Buying High-SEER Air Conditioners
Unlike MPG, SEER can be a little bit misleading when buying a new air conditioner. That’s because the SEER values presented to you are calculated in a lab setting, using a very specific set of parameters (the depths of which lay outside the scope of this article; try this if you want to nerd-out: AHRI – Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute – SEER Calculation). The problem is, no one in the real world lives like that. Do you like your AC set to 72 degrees, or 68? Do you live in Montana, or in Palmdale, California? There are just too many variables to make a statement as rash as: “you’ll pay for the unit over its 10-15 year lifetime.” This brings me to my next point – reliability.
When we make our recommendations for buying a new air conditioning unit, reliability is a big factor for us at ASM. We just can’t recommend a unit with reliability issues, and thus far, I haven’t been all that impressed with the high-efficiency air conditioning units that I’ve seen so far (high efficiency means above 16 SEER). They typically use two-stage compressors, and I honestly don’t think the technology is quite there yet. We get a lot of repair calls on these, and oh, by-the-way, the parts for them are about two or three times the price of those for the lower SEER models. As such, when you step outside of the laboratory and into the real world, start factoring in maintenance and repair costs, we’ve found the higher SEER units to be more costly, on average, to the consumer.
“But Tim, then why does my contractor keep telling me I should upgrade to the high-SEER unit and save money?” Ah, the real answer; we have that too. The answer is because they are more expensive, since you asked, they can mark them up higher, and in turn, make more profit. In fact, when buying an air conditioner, some brands may be twice as much for the high-SEER version as for the standard AC units. It’s the same reason that McDonald’s asks you if you want to “Super-Size” your meal, and car salesmen try to offer you the “luxury package.” The only difference is, and air conditioner is utilitarian – it serves a simple, mechanical purpose – so, you aren’t getting plush leather and heated seats for your extra money.
For your guidance, federal regulations require a minimum SEER value of 13 SEER on all newly installed air conditioners, which is still significantly more efficient than the unit you already have (which is likely an old 7 or 10 SEER model). If you live in California, as you might imagine, federal regulations aren’t enough…we need more regulations (sigh)! So, in California, the minimum SEER requirement is 14 SEER. Just keep in mind that your new unit, even if you go with a basic 14 SEER model, will still be significantly more efficient than your old unit – sometimes by as much as 7 SEER points! You don’t need to pay for the extra SEER value, in my not-so-humble opinion, if you actually know how air conditioning works.
At ASM, we recommend 14 or 16 SEER units only, as we have found them to be more hardy, more reliable, and less costly to the consumer.
For more information on SEER, try these related articles:
2. Choosing the Proper Size When Buying a New AC Unit
Choosing the proper size when buying a new air conditioner can be tricky. It depends on a lot of factors, and while it is possible for some experienced contractors to size an AC unit without doing a formal calculation, most contractors should do it anyway.
When in the process of buying a new air conditioner, you will come across a term known as “tonnage.” This, however, is not a reference to weight. A ton is a measurement of an air conditioner’s cooling power, and can be thought of as being kind of like the engine size of your car. A 4.0 L V-6 is more powerful than a 2.5 L V-6, for instance. As such, a two-ton air conditioner is more powerful than a one-ton. Be careful, though, because unlike a car engine (and other things, as I constantly remind my wife), bigger is NOT always better (pause for laughter and/or angry glares). You are looking for a very specifically sized air conditioner for your home. For more information on this, try:
Although you might not see them writing down data, to properly size your air conditioner, the technician will have to access most parts of your house, including your attic, crawl spaces, basement, and also visit every room (be wary of anyone who doesn’t take the time to get inside of the attic or basement).
The problem is, to be honest, that many companies use salesman to make these calls, instead of an actual HVAC technician. So, as you might imagine, just make sure that you ask a lot of questions if this is the case.
The size of your air conditioner will depend on multiple factors, including your location, insulation, square footage, and various other factors. In Southern California, for instance, the rule of thumb is that you need one ton of cooling power for every 400 square feet of living space. As such, a 2,000 sq/ft house would typically need a 5-ton air conditioner. As with most rules-of-thumb, this is just a guideline – you’ll need to consider several other factors before making your decision. However, if you get a good contractor, then you won’t need to worry about this at all – they will calculate it for you.
3. Fair Prices When Purchasing a New Air Conditioner
People often ask us, “what’s a fair price when buying a new air conditioner?” As per usual, I tell them that this question is kind of like asking, “how much is a new car?” Well, are you buying a Toyota, or a Ferrari? It’s the same with buying air conditioners. There are dozens of brands out there, each with their own marketing strategy. That being said, however, I will tell you an industry secret that most contractors don’t even know, let alone tell you: these different air conditioning companies are usually comprised of the same internal components, including evaporative coils made by Aspen Coils.
In fact, I think it’s time for a gratuitous side-rant…did you know that Carrier, Heil, Day & Night, Payne, and Bryant are all made by the same company? They are all manufactured by United Technologies. In fact, up until a few years ago, these air conditioners would all come in the same box, with 5 different name-plates in it…it was actually up to us to install the name-plate of the brand the customer requested! As you might imagine, our competitors would be a bit irked when we’d charge the same price regardless of brand, and ask the client what they wanted their air conditioner to say…”Do you want your AC to say ‘Carrier,’ or ‘Bryant?'”
Still, there are a few brands I’d steer clear of though, so it might be worth reading these articles:
Typically, a new air conditioner (installed) is right around $5,000, and around $6,000 – $7,000 if you have the furnace replaced at the same time. This is just a ballpark, of course, but it will at least give you an idea of what to expect when buying a new air conditioner. This should include all fees, taxes, a thermostat, a high-quality air filter, and installation from a legitimate company.
As with most things, you get what you pay for, so there are companies out there that will do it for cheaper, but the tradeoff may be the quality of the installation and parts used. It’s up to you, so keep that in mind. These price guidelines do not include ductwork, if needed. For more information on a fair price when buying your new air conditioner, try this article:
4. Choosing an HVAC Contractor When Buying a New Air Conditioner
Choosing an HVAC contractor is the most important thing that you will do when buying a new air conditioner. Start by getting multiple bids to see who you like (and trust). This will be the difference between a job being done properly, or having trouble with your air conditioning system for the rest of its service life. It is also the difference between getting a fair price when buying an air conditioner, and just plain getting ripped-off. DO YOUR RESEARCH.
I always tell people to get on Google and do some research on their local contractors – read their reviews and see who has a proven track-record of happy customers. Also, avoid sites like Yelp, which charge businesses for memberships, as they have been accused of editing their reviews and removing negative reviews of clients who pay them money to be a “Yelp Member” (and I happen to agree with this, based on our own experiences with refusing to pay for membership).
Regardless, make sure to read through some reviews and see who has a good reputation. But, also be wary of anyone who has nothing but 5-star reviews too…something fishy is likely going on. As with most things in life, no matter how good of a job that a contractor does, there will always be one or two people out there who have something to say: “They did a great job, but they were 15 minutes late on the first day.” Although annoying to contractors, it is a sign to you – a potential client – that this is a legitimate business, with trustworthy reviews (vice someone who put up 15 fake 5-star reviews).
Many of you lay outside of our service area…or maybe you just don’t like me or my attitude…so here’s an article on choosing a reputable HVAC contractor in your area:
Save Money on Your New AC Installation…Watch This Short Video:
Take a look at how this online calculator can save you hundreds, or thousands on your new AC installation:
Additional Tips When Buying a New Air Conditioner
Some additional advice when buying a new air conditioner:
- ALWAYS get bids from multiple contractors – I advise people to get at least 3 bids. If a contractor is reputable, he won’t care that you are getting multiple bids – he will set himself apart from his competition.
- Be wary of any contractor that tries to make you sign a contract “On the spot” – These contractors are more like car salesmen, than contractors (no offense if you’re a car salesman…). A decent contractor will always have plenty of work, so try to avoid these high-pressure sales tactics – it should be a red flag.
- You get what you pay for when it comes to contractors – I’m not saying to go out there and pay for the most expensive guy, but if you are buying a new air conditioner, everyone else is charging $7,000 to $8,000 for a job, and one guy comes in at $4,000, an alarm should go off in the back of your head. Where is this reduced price coming from? There are many possible reasons, none of which are good, such as: utilizing used equipment, not licensed, no insurance, unskilled laborers, etc…just be careful out there.
- Go with your gut – The predatory contractors are really good at sounding legitimate, and it’s sad. All I can tell you is to use your gut – it’s there for a reason. 10-million years of human evolution has given us this “sixth sense” when it comes to reading people. When you meet the honest, trustworthy contractor…you’ll know it, and they will almost always be low-pressure. That’s because they have a waiting list of jobs year-round. Just a thought…
Final Thoughts on Buying a New Air Conditioner
Buying a new air conditioner can be intimidating, but don’t let the fear of being ripped-off ruin your experience. Purchasing a new AC unit doesn’t have to be a hassle. Spend some time doing your research on contractors, as this will be the most important decision that you make when buying. Once you find someone that you like and who is trustworthy, then everything else is a cakewalk from there. Keep the SEER value low (and the unit reliable), unless you have deep pockets – no, you don’t need all of the gadgets – and make sure that the contractor is offering you a fair price for your new air conditioner. I hope you found this article on buying a new air conditioner to be helpful, and wish you the best of luck in your endeavor! For more articles like this one, check out ASM’s Air Conditioning Blog.