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The Ultimate Home Air Conditioning Buyers Guide

Home air conditioners are an important purchase, especially during the summer months. They’re one of the most valuable, can’t-live-without appliances a home can have, just like our furnaces. The process of purchasing an effective home air conditioning unit can create some stress.

How do I know I’m getting the best unit for my house? What makes an air conditioner good? What makes it efficient? How much should I invest?

Those questions can make the process of buying a home air conditioner challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. To answer those questions and more, look no further than this guide. 

How Air Conditioners Work: The Basics

Air conditioners use a condensing and evaporation unit to take the air inside your home, cool it, then redistribute it within your house. These two units work in tandem to repeat a cycle of refrigeration, which works like the precipitation cycle outside. 

Refrigerant turns into a gas inside the evaporation unit, which takes the heat and humidity from the air cycling through. It then returns to liquid refrigerant after being pressurized in the condensing unit. 

The humidity taken from the gaseous refrigerant turns into condensation. 

This cycle repeats continuously while your AC is running. With everything going smoothly, you’ll have a continuous supply of cold air and a seamless gas conversion cycle within your unit. This idea remains the same throughout the different AC types, only changing slightly to accommodate for different unit placements. 

The more efficiently this cycle runs, the farther your cooling costs go. Here is a list of parts to break down the cycle and general parts of an air conditioning unit further.

  • Compressor
  • Condenser Coil
  • Condenser Fan
  • Blower
  • Metering Device (Expansion Valve)
  • Electrical Components
  • “A” Coil, or Evaporator Coil
  • Air Handler or Furnace

These components are crucial to the proper functioning of your AC unit. If any part is broken or damaged, you’ll notice the effects come summertime. But don’t fear-we’ll go over some of the most common A/C services and issues and how to fix them later on in this guide. 

What Makes an Air Conditioner Efficient and How To Tell (SEER Rating)

Your ideal home air conditioning system will be highly efficient, meaning it makes the most of every dollar you put into it. Efficiency in air conditioners is rated using the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) number provided by the manufacturer. The higher this number is, the more efficient your unit is. 

Chart showing the savings as SEER ratings increase

Beyond this number, there are a few other factors that help determine how efficient your unit is and how efficient you need it to be to make the best of your home size and budget. You can determine your total energy cost by using this formula:

Unit size x BTU/h X running hours per year X $/kWh /SEER / 1,000W/kW = total annual energy cost.

Let’s break that equation down a bit more. 

  • BTU (British Thermal Units): This refers to the rate that measures how much heat needs to transfer to bring one pound of water up a degree. Or, measures the heat transfer needed to freeze a short ton (2,000 lb, 907 kg) in 24 hours. You’ll find this number specified on your AC unit. 
  • Operation hours: this number is what you believe to be the total time you run your AC per year. As you’d imagine, this number fluctuates largely by province and climate. 
  • Cost per kilowatt-hour: the amount of money you spend per kilowatt-hour is again largely dependent on your city. Check the average Ontario electricity rates here.
  • Size of your AC in tons: The unit size describes the heat transfer rate of melting or freezing one short ton of water. It’s not a measurement of weight. 12,000 BTU = 1 ton, in the air conditioning world. 

Now, let’s plug some numbers into the equation and run a test. Let’s say we have a 4-ton unit. To get the BTU number, we’ll multiply 4 x 12,000 to get the tons into BTUs per hour. 

(4 tons) x (12,000 BTU/h/ton) = 48,000 BTU/h

Then we compare the unit’s efficiency rating with how much you usually pay in kilowatt-hours. For this experiment, let’s say you use your unit for 600 hours a year. We’ll say the kilowatt-hour cost is $0.13, and the unit has a SEER rating of 25.

(48,000 BTU/h) x (600 h/year) x ($0.13/kwH) / (25 SEER / (1,000 W/kW) = $150/year. 

These numbers will change based on your unit’s SEER rating and how much you run your AC, but all together you’ll get a very good estimate of your yearly cooling costs. 

Signs you need a new air conditioning unit

signs you need a new home air conditioner

Avoid dumping unnecessary costs into an old AC by being aware of the most common signs it needs replacement and not repair.

Your AC’s getting old.

Air conditioners have a lifespan of about 15 years. If yours is old enough to start attending high school, it’s best to replace the unit. As air conditioners age, their efficiency drops, which becomes more of a problem if your ducts and HVAC system are newer. 

Older AC units also struggle to effectively cool the same square footage they were once able to, which can lead to hot spots, a house that’s never quite cool no matter how cold you set the thermostat, and a general lack of efficiency that keeps your cooling costs high. 

It takes a long time for your house to cool down.

The time it takes for your home to cool down to a comfortable temperature may seem fickle and diverse. Each home you visit likely cools at its own rate, but the differences should be slight between homes. If you find yourself sitting and sweating for a long period, waiting for the cold to arrive, it’s a good idea to replace your unit. Though it may seem normal, or just your machine being unique, that’s not the case. Air conditioners should cool quickly and efficiently, ultimately not leaving you to sweat for a noticeably long time. 

Your air conditioner is making loud, scary sounds. 

An air conditioner that sounds like it’s tumbling around a washing machine is likely on its last leg. Thumps and loud rumbles aren’t the usual sounds of an air conditioner in good condition, nor is a wailing or squeaking sound. 

You’ll notice a slight rumble and hum from the outdoor condenser unit, especially when the fan is blowing, but anything above or added to that hum isn’t a good sign. Inside, the hum should be even quieter and impossible to notice. 

If you notice a wailing coming from the vents when the AC is on, that’s also not a good sign. Fortunately, this indication of AC failure is one of the easiest to spot and catch before it can get any worse. 

Your air conditioner repeatedly breaks down or malfunctions.

A yearly check-up or service call should be all you need to keep your air conditioner running smoothly and efficiently. If you and your local HVAC expert are starting to see a lot of each other, it may be time to replace the unit altogether. 

Like the other staple machines in our homes, our ACs are made to last and run with as few problems as possible. No problems at all are ideal, but realistically, that’s not always the case. 

Take notice if your air conditioner repeatedly needs the same repairs done over a short period, or if it blossoms into new problems almost as fast as you can fix them. Getting a new unit saves you maintenance costs down the line, and a massive reoccurring headache each summer. 

How to choose the right air conditioner size

Though you shouldn’t concern yourself too heavily with calculating the perfect air conditioner size for your home, getting in the most efficient and cost-effective ballpark is worth a bit of effort. And finding that ballpark is pretty simple, once you know what you’re looking for. 

Choose between the different sizes of home air conditioner units

Here’s the general list of things to note about your house before settling on an AC unit. 

The size of your house.

This one’s obvious, but important to note. Air conditioner units grow in half-ton increments, from 1-1.5 to 2-2.5, etc. A 2.5-ton air conditioner would be a waste of money in a two-bedroom house, and a one-ton unit wouldn’t have nearly enough kick for a large family home. 

To compare those numbers in square feet, a one-ton unit can satisfyingly cool a 750-1,000 sq. ft. home. For a 2,000 sq.ft. home, you’ll want to opt for a 2.5 ton or 2-ton unit. 

The width of your home’s ductwork. 

Some older homes aren’t quite up to par with the airflow requirements of newer air conditioning units. If you’re looking to upgrade your home’s old air conditioning unit, make sure you’re also checking the size of your ducts. A new air conditioner that can’t receive the extra airflow it needs will, unfortunately, be a disappointing purchase. 

The number of windows in your house and how much sun it gets.

Homes with a large array of windows naturally allow in more light and heat during the warm summer months, which in turn affects how hard you need your air conditioner to work. If you do have a lot of windows or receive direct summer sun throughout most of the day, it’s wise to get a more powerful AC unit. 

Even if your house doesn’t align with the sizing guidelines, there will still be more hot air to cool compared to a house of the same size with fewer windows. 

The insulation quality of your home and your home’s age. 

A new house with stellar insulation will heat and cool differently than a fifty-year-old house with a bad insulation job. Many roofing companies will offer attic insulation services, which tend to be very effective for maintaining internal temperatures. Your air conditioner will work more efficiently in the first scenario, but since buying a more powerful air conditioner is cheaper than buying a newer home, you’re best to just ‘size up’ with your AC unit. This extra upfront cost will ensure cold air for years to come. 

What’s the average price of an air conditioner?

Couple comparing prices of of new home ac unit

The average cost for a new air conditioner after installment costs and warranties is between $3,000 and $6,000. What you will spend is wholly dependent on a list of preferences and prerequisites, which are listed below. 

  1. Technical requirements: this requirement groups the size of your house, how many floors it has, the layout of it, and the existing ductwork of your house. The BTU load is also included in this requirement-if a unit uses 48,000 BTU, you’ll need the electrical requirements to make that possible. Usually, the fewer BTUs needed, the smaller and cheaper an AC unit is.
  2. Code requirements: you may be limited by the safety codes put in place around your area. For example, some of the more powerful AC units may not be supported by the safety codes for your home, which would make getting the license for it difficult. 
  3. Air conditioner type: the more efficient and powerful an AC unit is, the more it will cost. This price is typically one homeowner finds worthwhile, especially down the line. The different subcategories of air conditioners also change the price you pay; for example, a single portable unit will be much cheaper than a complete central air system. 
  4. Personal preference: since air conditioners are a big purchase in a monetary sense and a practical sense, you may want to be sure you’re getting the most out of it. Warranties, service guarantees, and regular service plans will all hike up your total air conditioner price tag–but many would argue it’s well worth it. 
  5. Environmental choice: you also have some customizability regarding the noise levels of your AC, its efficiency, and even how well it filters the air as it cools. Other comfort options are available too, which will add to their small price changes.

The general costs of the different kinds of air conditioners (fully installed) and their lifespans are as follows:

  • Central AC: $3,500-$6,000 with an average lifespan of 15 years. 
  • Ductless AC: $3,000-$6,000 with an average lifespan of 20 years. 
  • Portable AC: $250-$700 with an average lifespan of 5-10 years.
  • Wall-Mounted AC: $450-$700 with an average lifespan of 10 years.
  • Window AC: $200-$1,000 with an average lifespan of 8-10 years. (We don’t install window units)

The 5 Types of Air Conditioners 

The five different types of air conditioners you’ll see in residential homes are central AC, ductless AC, window-mounted AC, wall-mounted AC, and portable AC machines. 

Central Air Conditioners 

This is the most common way to get cold air pumped around your house quickly and efficiently. A central AC system makes use of what most homes already have-a furnace, complete with ductwork. Central AC takes advantage of this and shares the ducts, distributing cold air the same way your furnace distributes hot air in the winter. 

Central AC for homes

With central air, each room of your house can be cooled simultaneously, provided that the rooms all have vents. Central air is a popular choice in residential and commercial buildings for its ability to cool an entire building, regardless of the room count (within reason). 

Central air uses a split system, with a condensing unit outside and an evaporating unit inside. The evaporation unit sits on your furnace or inside your air handler. A split-system air conditioner is a highly practical way to make use of the ductwork that already exists within your home. Like furnaces, central air systems come in a few different efficiency options. 

  • Single-stage units operate on an on or off setting with no in-between. 
  • Dual-stage units run stronger when it’s hotter and slower when it’s cooler, which contributes to increased efficiency. 
  • Variable speed units adjust on a temperature-controlled basis to keep your house at a certain temperature day in and day out. 

Ductless Air Conditioners

(Please note City Energy only install’s new ductless AC units-we don’t repair old units)

Ductless air conditioners work like central air, but without ductwork. This is perfect for those who lack the ductwork used with furnaces or to cool a room that stubbornly refuses to cool down. 

Ductless air conditioners connect an outdoor condenser and indoor evaporating unit(s) through pipes. Refrigerant travels to the evaporation unit and the usual air conditioning cycle repeats. 

Out door condensers for a ductless ac system

With ductless units, multiple indoor heads can attach to one outdoor condenser, which helps with the single-room cooling limitations of the heads. If you wanted, you could have an indoor head in each room of your house to mimic central air. 

Wall mounted ductless ac system

Window-Mounted Air Conditioners

(City Energy does not install or repair window units)

Window AC units offer air conditioning to a single room or even a small floor of your house. Window AC units are relatively cheap, but they usually only have the power to cool a single room or a small studio apartment. But if that’s all you need, window AC units can be the perfect fit. 

residential window air conditioner

Installation is doable in an afternoon, and with minimal to no prior air conditioning-installation knowledge required. The condenser and evaporator are all housed in one unit, which means the unit needs to sit at a slight tilt to properly drain the coolant cycle’s product, condensation. 

Wall-Mounted Air Conditioners

Wall-mounted air conditioners are just like window AC units, but usable year-round. While window units need to come back inside during the winter, a wall-mounted unit can stay up with no ill effects. However, installation is more complicated. 

Wall mounted AC unit in residence

A hole needs to be drilled to connect the condensation and indoor evaporation unit, which a professional should do. Wall units cool the same amount of space as window units, just with the convenience of not needing to reinstall it every summer. Wall units are also great options for those without the proper window support for a window unit. 

Portable Air Conditioners

As the name suggests, portable air conditioners can be rolled around to whatever room needs them. Because of their size and noise, portable air conditioners are usually used as a temporary cooling boost or as a last resort, when window, wall, or ductless AC units aren’t an option. 

Portable ACs need to be placed with care, as the tube that drains their condensation must be running out a door or window. Some models collect condensation in a bucket, which you’ll need to dump often. 

As with other AC units, make sure you’re getting the right-sized portable unit for the room you’re wanting to cool. Some of the bigger units can manage a small floor, but most can only efficiently tackle a single room.

Basic Repairs and Maintenence Needs for Air Conditioners

Like all machines, your air conditioner is bound to run into some problems in its lifetime. You should be performing basic maintenance and pre-season preparation before summer to avoid paying unnecessary AC repair costs. There are a few common air conditioner ailments, many of which you can treat yourself. Here’s what to watch out for:

Frozen Coils

The refrigerant used by ACs is cold enough to freeze the evaporator coils, but only if they aren’t getting enough airflow or if there’s a clog in the ducts or air filter. This prevents warm air from reaching the coils, which means the air released from your vents will be warm. If the coils are frozen you may also notice ice on the coils, ice on the AC unit, or ice on the refrigerant line running outside. 

Frozen coils on an Air conditioner

To fix this, you’ll need to slowly thaw the coils. Don’t try to chip the ice away, rather, turn the AC completely off and let the ice melt over 24 hours. Make sure to clean and change your air filters and check for any clogs in your ductwork before turning your unit back on and running it.

Strange noises or unsatisfactory performance, AKA, old age.

Air conditioners are not designed to last past the age of 15 or so. Once they start to get on in age, you’ll notice a decline in performance and a collection of strange new noises. The only way to ‘fix’ this is by buying a new unit.

Overheated contactor and capacitor

The contactor and capacitor run the fan and blower motors in AC units. They tend to get overworked and overheated in the summer months, causing them to fizzle out prematurely. This is especially likely if your unit is nearing the end of its lifespan. A break may get them working smoothly, or you may need to replace them with a newer set.

Refrigerant leak

Your home AC unit uses refrigerant to cool the air it blows out. Refrigerant is dangerous to be exposed to, so make sure you get the help of a professional before trying to fix the problem yourself. Here’s what can happen when your AC’s leaking refrigerant:

  • Hissing sounds from the unit
  • Vents blowing warm air
  • Frozen coils
  • Strangely high cooling costs

Again, don’t try fixing this one yourself. Once you’ve determined that a refrigerant leak is possible, call your North York HVAC company for an inspection.

Let us make your cooling system the best part of your home

Investing in a home air conditioning system doesn’t have to be difficult. At City Energy, we aim to be the support you need regardless of whether you purchase an AC unit or hire us for repairs. We know that once you see the level of service we provide, you’ll never need to call another HVAC contractor again!

Please contact us with any questions you have or schedule an appointment for your home air conditioning needs.