Top 10 Most Efficient Central AC Units: Costs and Pros & Cons

Our HVAC pros have selected the 10 most energy efficient central air conditioners.

The units are divided by performance: 4 variable capacity options and 3 each for two-stage and single-stage models. Our strategy is to give you the most efficient options based on the performance level you want, as will be clear in the model reviews.

This guide is focused on the standard split system air source central air conditioners.

Each model is reviewed with the total cost installed, unit features and benefits, pros and cons, and information on how to use the AC for top ROI.

Split System Air Conditioner Options

As you shop for central ACs, considerations will include:

Size/Capacity: Residential air conditioning units can range in size from 1.5 to 5.0 tons, which corresponds to 18,000 BTU to 60,000 BTU.

Efficiency: ACs start at 13 SEER, though the least efficient from most brands are now 14 or 15 SEER. Maximum efficiency increases every year and tops out at 28 SEER with Lennox SL28XCV (024-230A) model for 2022.

Important Notes:

SEER is Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, a measurement of how effectively the unit uses electricity to move heat from inside to outside.

SEER ratings: Each model’s SEER rating is qualified with “Up to.” Why? Because the efficiency level drops slightly in larger models.

For example, the Carrier Infinity 26 offers 26 SEER in the 2-ton and 3-ton sizes, but the 3.5-ton to 5-ton models range from 22.5 to 25 SEER.

Carrier Infinity 26 air-conditioner with greenspeed intelligence 24VNA6

Installed Cost: Expect to pay $4,900 to about $12,500 to have a central AC installed. This includes the outdoor condensing unit, a matching coil placed in or adjoining your furnace or air handler, new refrigerant lines and possibly a new thermostat.

Average Cost: Most homeowners pay between $6,500 and $10,500 for a 3-ton, 18 SEER air conditioner with a two-stage compressor.

Cost factors are straight-forward: The central air conditioning unit’s size, quality, efficiency, performance level and the complexity of installation are the major determinants of final cost.

The units in our Top Central AC list are manufactured by brands known for superior quality.

What is an Air Source Central Air Conditioner?

Let’s break down that question to find the answer:

Air source: The AC pulls heat from the air in your home and, here’s the key, releases it in the air outside.

While this is obvious, we mention it in distinction to a geothermal or ground-source air conditioner that releases the heat through piping beneath the ground or submerged in water.

As a result, air-source ACs are not as energy efficient as geothermal units. However…,

Central: This means it serves the whole house – or a large section of a very big house. The units in this list work in conjunction with an air handler, which in most homes is a gas furnace. Cooled and dehumidified air is pushed through supply ducts into each room or zone of the home. Return ductwork circulates warm, humid air back to the air handler to be “treated.”

Air conditioner: These units supply cooled and dehumidified air only. The refrigerant in the system absorbs heat indoors and carries it outside to be released. They do not have reversing valves like a heat pump, so central AC units cannot supply heat.

As noted, they DO require ductwork, unlike a ductless mini split central AC, or heat pump.

Top 10 Most Efficient Central Air Conditioners

1-4 are Variable-capacity ACs: They have compressors that operate between 40% (25% on some models) and 100%. The “speed” of the compressor modulates very slightly up or down to maintain very even indoor temperatures. They are the most expensive, most efficient and remove the most water from humid indoor air.

5-7 are 2-stage models: These units are top-sellers for their balance of efficiency, climate control and reasonable cost.

2-stage central AC units are manufactured with compressors that run at 65% of their potential to maintain your home’s comfort level. When outdoor temperatures rise quickly or you turn down the thermostat, they shift to 100% capacity to catch up.

8-10 are Single-stage ACs: Their compressors operate at 100%. They are the most affordable and least efficient. In very humid weather, they might not remove as much moisture from the air as you would like.

Remember, the list is grouped 1-4/variable capacity, 5-7/two-stage and 8-10/single-stage, so the most efficient air conditioners top the list.

Identical Brands – Most of the units in our list have a “twin” from another brand. For example, the Carrier Infinity 26 and the Bryant Evolution Extreme 26 are identical in all but the cabinet and name plate.

So, if you don’t see your favorite brand on our top 10 list, then check the Identical Models entry at the end of each Review. It might be there. Below the Reviews, we also list a who’s who in HVAC equipment manufacturers and the brands each makes.

  1. Lennox Signature Series SL28XCV Air Conditioner
  2. Carrier Infinity 26 Air Conditioner
  3. Lennox Signature Series XC25 Air Conditioner
  4. Daikin DX20VC Air Conditioner
  5. Lennox XC21 Air Conditioner
  6. Daikin DX18TC Air Conditioner
  7. York YXT 19 Air Conditioner
  8. Lennox Signature Series SL18XC1 Air Conditioner
  9. York YCG 17 Air Conditioner
  10. Lennox Elite Series EL16XC1 Air Conditioner

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Central Air Conditioning Cost per Unit: Buying Guide for Different Climates

Home and property owners like you have heard rumblings that latest central air prices are way up and are asking, “how bad is it?” This buying guide has all the details whether you are replacing an old AC or installing a new central air unit or improved efficiency.

What’s covered in this guide? Cooling Only – This guide is about adding a new central AC or replacing an old one. It does not cover the cost of a new air handler – the inside unit with a blower fan that is connected to the ductwork. If you have a forced air furnace, it doubles as an air handler to house the indoor coil and circulate air conditioned, dehumidified air.

Central AC Cost – Installed

Central air conditioners can be divided into entry-level, midrange (most popular) and premium models for the sake of discussion. Here are the latest prices and what you get for the money.

Equipment Cost Installed Cost Efficiency Stages
Entry Level $2,700 – $4,600 $4,900 – $9,600 13 – 15 1
Midrange $4,400 – $9,200 $6,600 – $12,500 15 – 19 1 or 2
Premium $6,300 – $12,700 $8,800 – $15,000+ 18 – 28 2 or Variable

Yes, those are prices for just central air conditioning, plus a new thermostat if needed.

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Central Heat & AC Installation Cost – Home HVAC Pricing Guide

Most new heating and cooling systems cost $16,000 to $18,000 this year. Premium systems can cost more than $24,000.

Price hikes of more than 20% have hit the HVAC industry over the last few years – Trane is up 25% after announced increases each of the last two years. Add to that increased costs for local installers, and the consumer is paying at least 30% more.

Buy now or wait? Will prices fall to more “normal” levels if you wait a year or two to buy? Will it pay off to pour money into an old system to keep it going in the meantime?

We’re not optimistic. The best advice is probably to buy a system now, because your dollars are losing value with each passing month. 🙁

This guide is focused on the cost of central heating and cooling systems, and explaining the top available options. Our goal is to help you get a system with the best return on investment, meaning you won’t spend more upfront than you can recoup through lower energy costs or go too cheap (inefficient) and get burned by high operating costs, since energy prices are rising, too.

How Much Does an HVAC System Cost?

Each type of central heating and cooling system is explained below with pros and cons, cost factors and best uses.

This HVAC system cost comparison shows price ranges based on system size, performance, and efficiency. They are listed by popularity – a central AC and gas furnace remain the bestselling heating and cooling system.

E.R. = Efficiency Rank among the system types listed.

System Average Cost Sizes E.R. Full Cost Range
AC & Furnace $16,500 1.5 to 5.0 Tons 5 $11,500 – $23,000
Heat Pump & Air Handler $17,200 1.5 to 5.0 Tons 4 $11,900 – $23,500
Heat Pump & Furnace $18,500 1.5 to 5.0 Tons 3 $12,800 – $24,500
Gas Package $10,500 2.0 to 5.0 Tons 7 $8,600 – $13,800
Electric Package $11,700 2.0 to 5.0 Tons 6 $9,100 – $15,000
Mini Split $13,900 .5 to 7.0 Tons 2 $3,100 – $26,000
Geothermal $27,500 2.0 to 7.0 Tons 1 $18,000 – $40,000

Average cost: These are heating and cooling prices for an average-sized system installed, which is 3-4 tons for an AC or heat pump and 80,000 to 100,000 BTU for a gas furnace where applicable.

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