How much does installing a new air conditioner cost?
A qualified HVAC company can help you find a new air conditioning unit that suits your house. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member Robert N. of Berea, Ohio)
In many parts of the United States, air conditioners aren't just "nice to have," they're necessary during the summer months. Newer A/C units are quieter, more powerful and more efficient than earlier models, and they can in many respects offer greater value. But each step up the cooling ladder comes with a commensurate cost. So how much does it really cost to install a new air conditioner?
Air conditioner basics
The first step in getting a new air conditioner installed is determining what size you need. A/C units are measured in tons, which refers to the amount of heat they can remove from a home in one hour. A one-ton unit, for example, can remove 12,000 British thermal units (BTUs), while a three-ton system will remove 36,000. The larger your house, the more cooling power you'll need: A 1,600 square foot house, for example, might be well-served by a two and a half-ton unit. However, many other variables factor into determining which size will work best in your home. For example, a basement is naturally cooler than first- or second-floor rooms. "You cannot calculate the size and tonnage by square foot alone," says Dave Hutchins, owner of Bay Area Air Conditioning in Tampa, Florida.
Next you will need to hire a contractor. While it is possible to purchase an air conditioner from a wholesaler and install it yourself, the level of skill required is substantial. Also, you must be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to handle refrigerant. For homes that have never had central air, an installation requires new breakers in your electrical panel, wires run through your foundation, new duct work linking to your existing HVAC and the mounting of your unit on metal brackets or a concrete pad.
You'll want to ensure a crucial task like this is done correctly, so avoid time sink (and potential injuries), find a reputable A/C pro and get a free quote on your system. For a basic, two-ton model, expect to pay $3,000; a mid-range unit will run approximately $5,000 and top-of-the-line A/C systems can creep up over $10,000.
Angie’s List members who had similar new air conditioners installed in 2013 reported paying an average of $5,043.64 with a general range of $4,603.43 to $5,483.85, not counting discounts many service providers offer to Angie’s List members.
Other A/C facts
To offset the cost of air conditioning, it's possible to find rebates or tax breaks from federal or state agencies. Unfortunately, federal tax credits expired at the end of 2013 for residential systems that are Energy Star-rated and aren't part of a new home build. You can check the Energy Star website for current tax credit information. State governments may offer rebates if you install a particularly high-efficiency system, but there are often limited in duration, so it's worth checking around before you hire a professional air conditioning company.
In addition, air conditioning manufacturers are phasing out the hyrdochlorofluorcarbon (HCFC) known as R-22, which is an ozone-destroying greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, manufacturers may no longer produce and companies may no longer install any new A/C units that contain R-22. Companies can still manufacture new parts like condensers with R-22 for replacement in existing units. According to Hutchins, "Homeowners can legally buy and install units that are charged with R-22 or any other refrigerant, [but] they cannot buy a jug or cylinder of refrigerant to add to their system." He add, "Some areas require a homeowners 'permit' form the building department, [but] I would not advise a homeowner to do this at all."
What will cost more
Several factors can increase the cost of your air condition installation. If you need a new thermostat, for example, or if the design of your house is such that substantial amounts of duct work are required to link with your existing furnace, you'll pay more than average.
The seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) is also a critical factor. This ratio is a measure of an A/C unit's total cooling output (measured in BTU) during a season, divided by its total electric energy input. The higher the resulting number, the better. Currently, all units sold are over 13 SEER, and some can perform at up to 27 SEER. The advantages of improved SEER ratings are lowered energy costs and cooling times, but they come with a corresponding cost increase. If your hot season isn't particularly long, the increased price may not be worth it.
It's also possible to lower the noise of your air conditioner. Louder units can run over 80 decibels on a hot day, which is painful up close. Many municipalities have passed laws that require new installations to be under a certain decibel level. At 75 decibels, for example, you'll probably hear the unit from the garage or through a window on the same side of the house, while at 70 it will begin to fade into background noise. Most popular brands have high-efficiency, low noise models available for an increased price.
Air conditioning costs depend in large measure on whom you hire, what size of system you need and your A/C unit's overall efficiency.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 17, 2013. We've updated it with 2013 cost data and current tax credit information. We've also corrected some information based on your comments and consultation with highly rated companies.