Central Air Conditioning Cost – 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.

A note on the accuracy and freshness of the pricing data in this guide This guide provides the latest available pricing information based on the actual prices homeowners are paying across the US (national averages), coupled with the information published by prominent HVAC brands such as Trane.

Inflation continues to cause central AC price increases of almost 40% over the last few years. For example, Trane, a leading heating and cooling brand, has raised prices 38% over the last few years including a 12% increase for 2022.

Differences in AC size and brand account for the wide price ranges and the overlap in them.

Entry-level Cost: $4,900 to $9,600 – These are single stage AC units in the 13-15 SEER range.

Midrange Cost: $6,600 to $12,500 – These are single-stage and two-stage ACs in the efficiency range from 15 to 19 SEER.

Premium Cost: $8,800 to $15,000+ – These are the best 2 stage units, plus we have included all variable capacity central air conditioners. They have an 18 to 28 SEER efficiency range.

28 SEER? Are you sure? Yes, efficiency continues to rise. And the Lennox SL28XCV is the current leader with efficiency of 26 to 28 SEER depending on size. The Carrier Infinity 26 with up to 26 SEER efficiency is second. Even Goodman makes a 24.5 SEER AC.

If interested, here is the Energy Star’s Most Efficient Central Air Conditioner and Heat Pump list.

What is Included in the Price? What’s Not?

  • A condensing unit (the outdoor unit)
  • The indoor coil, which is installed in or adjoining the air handler (a furnace can be an air handler).
  • Installation materials including the lineset, refrigerant, wiring harness and outdoor shut-off.
  • Professional installation from a licensed, insured installer.
  • The required mechanical permit.
  • New thermostat – cost for a basic digital model starts at about $50. Smart thermostats like Ecobee and Nest range from $200 to $300. WiFi, high-end thermostats cost up to $700.
  • Standard warranty – Most warranties are 10 years for all parts. A few brands offer 12-year warranties on premium units. Cheaper units are backed by 5-year warranties.
  • Local utility rebates. This is where you get some cash back. Your energy company probably offers rebates of $150 to $400 for the installation of central air conditioning of at least 15 or 16 SEER – it varies by company. Rebates for programmable and smart thermostats are around $40 to $75.

The cost does not cover ductwork throughout the home but may include minor ductwork adjustments made when installing a new cased or uncased indoor coil. And when replacing just the AC part of the HVAC system, new electrical wiring is typically not needed.

Extended warranties are not covered either. Extended warranty cost is based on the initial cost, the length of the extension and the percentage of the cost the warranty covers. They range from $1,000 to more than $2,000.

In the opinion of most consumer information experts, HVAC extended warranties are not worth the money. They are offered by third parties, and claims are frequently denied with product failures blamed on improper installation or a lack of proper maintenance.

Item Cost Average
Condensing Unit $1,300 – $10,800 $4,400
Indoor Coil $460 – $1,500 $675
Installation Kit/Lineset $550 – $950 $600
Pad (optional) $75 – $200 $125
Thermostat (optional) $50 – $700 $250
Permit $150 – $300 $225
Standard Warranty No Charge N/C
Pro Installation $2,200 – $3,600 $2,700

Cost Factors

These can be stated briefly.

Size: Central AC condensing units range in size from 1.5 to 5.0 tons, or 18,000 to 60,000 BTUs, which is the amount of heat per hour the unit is capable of removing from the air in your home.

Efficiency: Models are available from 13 to 28 SEER – though 13 SEER units will be phased out next year.

Performance: Your options are single stage (1 stage), two stage (2 stage) and variable capacity (aka modulating and variable speed). The better the performance, the higher the efficiency rating, though there is overlap.

What additional equipment is included: This equipment includes a new thermostat, new outside shut-off panel, wiring and/or 240-volt breaker and a pad for the condensing unit. If you’re replacing an old AC, some, or all of these might not be needed.

Brand/Quality: You must know the brand to understand the quality and brand connection. For example, brands like Trane and Carrier have consistently excellent quality from the top of the line to the most affordable.

Goodman offers average quality in all its units. Lennox’s best line, the Signature Series, is very good. The mid-level Elite Series is average for the industry, while the entry-level Merit is mediocre in quality.

Who installs the unit: The installer must be licensed, but some contractors have advanced certifications and experience – and charge more. You often get what you pay for in this regard.

Location: Brand prices differ across the country due to distribution issues/transportation costs. Local cost of living is a factor too.

Central Air Conditioning Costs by Brand

Central AC prices vary quite a bit by brand.

Trane/American Standard, Lennox and Carrier/Bryant cost the most. Goodman, AirQuest and Aire-Flo are on the low end of the spectrum. Most of the rest are in the middle.

Some of the cost difference is quality – but marketing factors and reputation play a part too.

Here are central AC prices by brand:

Brand Basic Better Best
Lennox $6,400 – $8,900 $8,400 – $11,800 $10,700 – $15,000
Trane/American Standard $6,700 – $9,400 $8,800 – $12,500 $11,000 – $15,000+
Carrier/Bryant $6,800 – $9,600 $9,100 – $12,400 $11,200 – $14,800
Rheem/Ruud $5,300 – $8,800 $7,900 – $11,600 $10,500 – $14,000
Daikin/Amana $5,400 – $9,000 $8,000 – $11,900 $10,800 – $14,700
Heil, etc. (1) $5,200 – $8,700 $7,700 – $11,700 $9,900 – $14,300
Goodman (2) $4,900 – $8,500 $6,700 – $11,400 $9,000 – $14,000
York/Luxaire/Coleman $5,100 – $8,900 $6,900 – $11,600 $9,400 – $14,100
Armstrong Air $5,300 – $9,100 $7,300 – $11,800 $9,900 – $14,600
Payne $5,800 – $8,900 $8,800 – $11,900 N/A
Aire-Flo $5,000 – $7,900 $6,600 – $10,900 N/A

(1) Heil is one of many identical brands made by International Comfort Products. Others are Tempstar, Day & Night, Arcoaire, Comfortmaker and Keeprite.

(2) Goodman is owned by Daikin. While Daikin, Amana and Goodman are nearly identical, Goodman pricing is kept lower to attract a different segment of consumers.

How Much is the Installation (warrantied professional labor)?

For clarification, all pricing above includes installation. But some homeowners want the costs broken down or are considering buying an AC and installation parts online and hiring their own installer. If you plan to buy online, understand a couple things.

First, your options are limited to low-end equipment. Goodman is the exception in online shopping. You can buy any air conditioner Goodman makes. Quality is average.

AC installation cost is $2,200 to $3,600.

Most cost factors are discussed above. Briefly, they include who you hire (experience level, certifications, company size), modifications to the sheet metal connected to the air handler, potentially adding a new electrical circuit and site conditions that affect the time needed for installation.

Buying Guide: Choosing Central Air with the Best ROI

The key to getting the best return on investment is to choose an air conditioning unit with the right efficiency for your climate. Performance plays a role too, as you’ll see when we discuss good matches for various US climate regions.

There are two wrong approaches homeowners sometimes take:

1). Keep the upfront cost low: That’s fine in a cool climate. But in Arizona or Georgia, buying an inefficient air conditioner will eat up all your upfront savings in high monthly electricity costs.

2). Buy the most efficient unit: This is the opposite mistake in cool climates. You’ll never recoup the extra cost of a 20 SEER or higher AC in Minnesota, or Michigan compared with a reasonably efficient 14-16 SEER AC.

This image shows temperature and some humidity differences. Both are keys to choosing the right AC for your home.

Let’s take the regions from hottest to coolest and discuss the best air conditioning choices for each.

Here’s a summary chart. Details follow.

Region SEER Performance Cost Range
Hot-Humid 17 – 21 2 Stage $10,500 – $14,000
Hot-Dry 19 – 22 Variable $11,800 – $15,000+
Mixed-Dry 16 or 17 1 Stage $7,200 – $11,500
Mixed-Humid 17 – 19 2 Stage $8,400 – $13,800
Marine 14 – 17 1 Stage $4,900 – $10,000
Cold South/West 15 – 17 1 Stage $5,200 – $10,000
Cold North/East 16 – 18 2 Stage $6,600 – $12,000
Very Cold 14 – 16 1 Stage $4,900 – $9,600

Hot-Humid

You want an efficient AC and one with staged air conditioning because it will remove more humidity than a single-stage air conditioner. The reason for staged air conditioning is that it runs on lower, longer cycles. This moves moist air over the cold coil at a rate that optimizes condensation and dehumidification of the air.

Best ROI: Two stage AC in the 17-21 SEER range

Alternate: If you are a stickler for “perfect” climate control, then upgrade to a variable capacity AC. You’ll lose some ROI through the higher upfront cost, but efficiency will be higher and your air will be more comfortable.

Hot-Dry

Arid air has less moisture, obviously, so the dehumidification isn’t as important. Plus, when the air is drier, it feels comfortable at a higher temperature. This allows you to set the thermostat a little higher (78 instead of 72, for example) and be just as happy.

But the AC will run much of the year, so high efficiency is essential.

In fact, efficiency is the deciding factor.

Best ROI: Variable capacity AC with a SEER rating of 19-22. Sure, you could go with a Carrier 26 SEER or Lennox 28 SEER unit, but the higher cost will eat into the ROI. But it doesn’t hurt to get estimates on those systems to see what the actual costs might be.

Alternate: You can save money upfront but sacrifice a little in monthly operating cost with a 17 SEER single stage air conditioner. 17 SEER is the most efficient single stage model made by most brands. This is a top choice if you’re happy with setting the thermostat to 78 or above.

Mixed-Dry

The temperatures aren’t quite as hot, and the air is dry.

Best ROI: This is the perfect region for a high-SEER single stage AC.

Alternate: If choosing the most environmentally friendly AC is important to you, then upgrade to a variable capacity AC with 22 SEER or higher efficiency. You can find them from Lennox, Carrier, Trane, and Goodman/Daikin/Amana.

Mixed-Humid

Temperature can get pretty warm here, and it’s the humidity that can really make air uncomfortable.

Best ROI: A 2 stage AC. Your SEER rating options are 16 (all brands) to 21 (only Lennox). There are a lot of 17-19 SEER 2 stage models too, so you have plenty to compare when you get central AC cost estimates. Choose one with the right upfront cost vs operating costs for your budget.

Alternate: A variable capacity AC. They’re manufactured from 18 to 28 SEER and a wide range of prices. Choose a model based on your budget and/or your commitment to the greenest cooling possible.

Marine

Yes, Marine climates can get quite hot, as the last few years have proven. But the heat doesn’t last long, and much of the warm months, the weather is pretty temperate.

Best ROI: A single stage AC in the 11-17 SEER range. This gives you options for your budget.

Alternative: An affordable 2 stage AC. You might also consider a single-zone mini split for the living area of your home or window units where needed.

Cold

The term “cold” is a little inaccurate for this region, and it is quite big. Many of the areas within it can see peaks of 100F during the summer and extended heatwaves.

ROI South & West: In the southern and western parts of the region, air is drier. A 15 to 17 SEER single stage AC gives the best value for the money spent.

ROI North & East: In the rest of the region, especially Illinois west to New York where the air is more humid, a 2 stage 16 to 18 SEER air conditioner is the best investment.

Alternate: A 2 stage AC in the South/West and a 1 stage air conditioner in the North/East.

Very Cold

The AC season is short, and peak temperature rarely surpasses 90F.

Best ROI: If you choose AC at all, then a single stage model with 14-16 SEER makes sense.

Alternate: Using a window AC or two in west-facing rooms or one in the kitchen where the oven or stove heats up the air.

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