Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit - Which AC is Best?

Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit - Which AC is Best?

We base most of our posts on the questions we are asked most often on the job.  We are frequently asked questions about comparing central air conditioner vs window units.  However, it is important to note that, in most cases, it isn’t a choice.  A central air conditioner requires a tremendous amount of space to be installed and operate properly.  As such, if you live in that 8-story apartment building in Queens (that was built 30 years before the advent of air conditioning), you might just need a window unit.  Those who have read our articles before know that we are a U.S. Veteran-Owned heating and air conditioning company based in southern California, and have built our reputation on giving honest, straight answers to peoples’ HVAC questions.  Our central air conditioner vs window unit buying guide will be no different.  In this article, we’ll describe to you the advantages and disadvantages of each, when to choose a central air conditioner vs a window unit, and finally, we’ll tackle the basic price points for each.

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central air conditioner vs a window unit - Window AC

Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit Comparison – The Pros and Cons of Each

Look…no one wants to spend more money than they need to, but in this section of our central air conditioner vs window unit comparison guide, we’ll stick strictly to the facts, and worry about the prices later.  If you are that concerned, then why don’t you see if you even need to replace your air conditioner in the first place:

In most circumstances, if your home or apartment already has a window AC unit, then one of two things is probably true:

A) You live in a building that has not been rigged, or is unable to support, central air conditioner components.

B) You live in a colder climate like my home state of Montana, and use your air conditioner for two weeks out of the year.

The Pros and Cons of Window vs Central Air Conditioners

Central Air Conditioner Pros:

  1. Efficiency and Features – A window air conditioner just won’t have the amazing features of a central air conditioner, and won’t be able to provide air filtration to the extent that a central air conditioner will (important if you have asthma or bad allergies).
  2. Even Room Temperatures – A window air conditioner will be frosty near the unit, but might have warm spots on the other side of the room.  That is because it will not circulate the air in your room as efficiently as a central AC unit.
  3. Whole-House Cooling – A central air conditioner will cool your whole house, whereas a window air conditioner will only cool the room it is installed in.

Central Air Conditioner Cons:

  1. They Are Expensive – Central air conditioners are a lot more expensive to install and run than a window AC unit.  More on this later.
  2. They Are Expensive to Fix – You could buy a new window air conditioner for the price of an average central AC repair.
  3. They Are Expensive – Did I mention that they are expensive?  This is America (‘Merica to some).  Cool your whole house, not just the room you’re in…that’s for Europeans (I love Europe…this is a joke).

Window AC Unit Pros:

  1. They Are Inexpensive – Window air conditioners are a lot cheaper to buy and operate.
  2. Air Condition the Room You’re In – Window air conditioners only air condition the room that they are in, so you can have one in the bedroom, one in the main room, and only run the one that you need, saving energy.
  3. No Installation Cost – HVAC contractors like us are expensive, and you can’t install a central air conditioner by yourself.  But, you can install a window AC by yourself!

Window Air Conditioner Cons:

  1. Filtration – Although window air conditioners are getting better at filtering the air, they just can’t compare to a central air conditioner.  So, if you have asthma or allergies, central AC is far better.
  2. Hot Spots – Window air conditioners don’t circulate the air in your room as efficiently as a central AC unit, so you’ll have spots that are freezing, spots that are warm, and spots that are just right.  Put the guy’s chair in the freezing part, and the lady’s chair in the hot spot…maybe this is a pro, not a con?  My wife is always cold, so maybe we need a window AC…I digress.

See How Much a New Central Air Conditioner Should Cost:

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Choosing a Central AC or Window Unit Probably Isn’t Up to You

Of course this is a free country…do what you want.  But what I mean is that a standard split central air conditioner takes up between 10 and 15 feet of space in your attic or crawl space, has refrigerant lines, high and low voltage electrical components, and drainage lines all running out from it.  It will also have a condensing unit stationed outside to dissipate the heat collected from inside your home.  Conversely, a window AC takes up about a foot and a half of your window.

In fact, this complexity is precisely what allows central air conditioners to gain the efficiency features that window units lack (even though a window AC will generally cost less to run).  But, there is the obvious trade-off…if your home doesn’t have the infrastructure to support these components, you’ll have to add it…and for the hefty price-tag of an additional $1,000-$2,000 if you don’t have them already in your home.

To the contrary, a window AC unit can be placed in almost any room with a minimal amount of installation.  Many of them you can even install yourself.  So, the question then becomes, is it even possible for you to install a central air conditioner?

window unit vs central air conditioner - central AC condenserWhen You Can Install a Split Central Air Conditioner vs a Window Unit

Next in this central air conditioner vs window unit guide, let’s discuss when you can install a central air conditioner.  The minimum requirements to install a central air conditioner are typically as follows:

  1. At least 24 inches of vertical height in an attic or crawlspace.  Or, a utility closet.
  2. 5-10 feet of unobstructed horizontal or vertical space in an attic or crawl space.
  3. A suitable outdoor location for a 3′ X 3′ condensing unit that meets your local code requirements for placement.
  4. The ability to run refrigerant lines between the two, typically no more than 15-20 feet away from one another.
  5. Suitable area for ductwork to be installed.
  6. Access to high-voltage electrical (220V)…if not, this can usually be installed.
  7. Access to natural gas or propane for your furnace (you can use a heat pump if you only have electrical).

But Tim!  I have none of these things!!!  Hold your horses…there’s another option…

Packaged Central Air Conditioners – The Other Option

You aren’t done with our central air conditioner vs window unit guide just because you didn’t meet the requirements for a split AC, sparky…so just sit back and relax!  You aren’t relegated to the depths of window AC units just because you don’t have room for a split central air conditioner…the geniuses (debatable) of HVAC engineering have another solution: the packaged air conditioner.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with a window AC unit, but just realize that a window AC will never have the power or efficiency of a central air conditioner.  Plus, if someone in your home suffers from asthma or bad allergies, central air conditioners have a variety of HEPA and other custom HVAC filter options that a window AC just won’t have.  Food for thought.

Packaged AC units are a type of central air conditioner that are designed for people just like you who want the power and efficiency of a central air conditioner (vice the low-power of a window AC unit), want to air condition their whole house, but don’t have the room.  What they do is combine all of the AC components we discussed above, into one, “packaged” AC unit that is about 5′ X 5′ in size, and can be installed on the roof of your home.  Here’s the catch, though…the ductwork runs directly out of these units.  So, if you have no way of getting a duct to the roof (or the side of your home), then it looks like you’ll be purchasing a new window air conditioner from Amazon…

Pro Tip About Installing Packaged AC Units

Anytime you are installing a new packaged AC unit, you are probably going to have to breach your roof.  What this means is that the HVAC technicians will cut a hole about 2 ft by 4 ft in order to run your plenum (kind of like a manifold for your AC ductwork) through your roof and into your attic (if you don’t understand, it’s okay…translation: they’ll have to cut a hole in your roof).  They will seal the roof upon completion, but if you are in the market for a new roof anytime soon, do the AC first…then the roofers can come by and seal everything perfectly.

Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit – Choosing a Window AC

Most people are skim-readers, so you probably didn’t read the paragraph above.  Sigh.  In this central air conditioner vs window unit guide, we’ve discussed two important topics that you need to understand:

  1. Choosing a central AC vs a window unit probably isn’t up to you; it is a result of the layout of your home.
  2. A central air conditioner will always have more power, and additional options that a window AC will not.

So, to be clear, we’ve discussed when it is possible to install a central air conditioner, now let’s talk a little bit more about window units.  A window unit is installed when:

  1. There is no room for a central air conditioner.
  2. You can’t afford a central air conditioner…or you are a cheap New Yorker like my dad.

We’ve discussed the amount of space required for a central AC unit at length, so let’s focus on the latter.

Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit Cost

  • Average Window AC Cost: $312
  • Average Central AC Cost: $5,117

Window AC Unit Cost

Window air conditioners typically cost around $350 for a decent brand, but can be purchased for as little as $125.  Although I wouldn’t recommend going for the “bargain brand” if you can avoid it, I myself have been down-and-out at times, and just not had the money to get the best-of-the-best.  So, you may have to buy a more modestly priced window AC.  Here are some decently priced window AC units available from Amazon:

Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit - Which AC is Best?

Central AC Unit Cost

Comparatively, central air conditioners can be on the pricey side, typically running between $5,000 and $8,000, depending on the brand chosen, features, and the layout of your home.  If you add on the furnace (and I assume that you want to be warm in the winter), you’re now talking between $7,000 and $10,000.  Ouch.

This is because there is a tremendous amount of infrastructure required for your central AC unit, including gas lines, high and low-voltage electrical, drainage lines, refrigerant lines, etc., all of which needs to be installed, checked, and tuned.  An in-depth discussion of central AC pricing is outside the scope of this article, but here are two more articles that address the topic:

Final Thoughts on a Central Air Conditioner vs Window Unit

I hope this central air conditioner vs window unit guide was helpful in setting things straight in your mind, albeit brief.  In the end, remember that there are two things that determine whether you have a central air conditioner or a window unit: available space, and money.  If it is within your budget, then I’d highly recommend that you go for the central air conditioner.  I know it’s expensive, but you’ll see where that money went once it’s up and running.  Do some research on contractors, shop around, and you’ll be fine.  We wish you the very best of luck on your project, and if you’re in southern California, then you might be in our service area.  Click below for more information.

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Timothy Kautz
About the author
Timothy Kautz

The University of Virginia - 2005 / The Wharton School of Finance - 2016 / U.S. Naval Aviator 2005-2015. At All Systems Mechanical air conditioning and heating, we believe that the experience our clients have is every bit as important as the products they receive. Simply put, our results speak for themselves, and we'd be happy to help. If you're in the market for a new AC or furnace, make sure that you get a fair price! Try our online calculator; click the tab on the top of this page for more information.