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Best central air conditioner 2020: AC units for every home and budget

Best central air conditioner 2020: AC units for every home and budget

Central air conditioning will keep your home cool by taking heat from the air and cooling it down with a refrigerant. With the weather hotting up, now’s a great time to invest in a central air conditioner to keep you cool, especially if you’re spending more time at home then usual. 

What should you think about before you buy? Firstly, think about the area you need to cool. If it’s a large area you need to keep cool, then a central air conditioning unit will be ideal, but if it’s just one room, take a look at the best window air conditioners or the best portable air conditioning units.

Secondly, think about how much you’re willing to spend on your air conditioner unit. Usually, installation costs more than buying the unit itself. The units we have in our guide range from around $1,000, but you can expect to pay between $2,000 and $6,000 for installation, depending on where you live. 

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Take note of the noise rating for each air conditioner too, as some units can be particularly loud and be disruptive if you’re trying to sleep with them on.

How long does a central air conditioner last? You can expect your central air conditioner unit to last 12 to 15 years if it’s looked after properly. Look out for models that have the HVAC Lifetime warranty coverage as this will be handy down the line. Which units are best for energy efficiency? To save money, consider the SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) on air conditioners. Models with a higher SEER are ones that will actually cost you less in the long run.

1. American Standard: Best central air conditioner brand overall

American Standard central air conditioners review

(Image credit: American Standard)

American Standard

Best overall

Models in range: 7 | Top SEER rating: 22 | Warranty: 12 years on compressors for some models and 10 year warranties | Prices (unit only) starting from: $1345

Reliable units
High energy efficiency
Quiet compared to others
Expensive installation costs

American Standard is one of the leading brands in the HVAC industry, known for its variety of high performance, central air conditioners. They offer a range of reliable units with three series available – Platinum, Gold and Silver. Energy-efficient units start from the standard 14 SEER rating and can reach up to 22 SEER, which is the best for high efficiency and handy for saving on those electricity bills. The units are equipped with advanced features such as the Aero Quiet II System, and sound levels are super quiet. 

The units are well engineered and built to perform under harsh conditions. American Standard are also known for their versatility and compact unit sizes, making their systems ideal for mobile homes. Although unit prices are reasonable, installation can be costly, with fees ranging anywhere between $1000 and $5,000. However, American Standard’s exceptional 12-year compressor and 10-year parts warranties can save you money and time in the long-run.

We chose this as the best overall unit for its affordability, impressive features, and for the fact that it’s one of the quieter brands on the market.


2. Goodman: Best value central air conditioner brand

Goodman Central Air Conditioners Review

(Image credit: Goodman)

Goodman

Best value

Models in range: 5 | Top SEER rating: 19 | Warranty: Lifetime compressor warranty on some units and 10 years + | Prices (unit only) starting from: $985

Low cost
On-board diagnostics
Excellent warranties
No high-end models

For a budget-friendly yet efficient central air conditioner, Goodman is the best brand. Offering five central air conditioning models, prices for a unit alone can start from as little as $985, although installation costs are not significantly cheaper than elsewhere.

Despite its low costs, the company does not compromise on quality, and units are equipped with several handy features. An example would be the convenient onboard diagnostics that help with the maintenance and upkeep of the units. Users can store up to six fault codes which will notify them in the event of a developing problem. Goodman air conditioners are also quiet, ranging from 40 decibels normally, up to 70 decibels at the most.

While you could find more energy-efficient brands on the market, you are still likely to make an overall saving. A real saving grace is Goodman’s excellent warranty coverage. They offer a 12-year compressor warranty on most models and 10-year warranty on others, which is better than many competitors. Reliable and efficient, Goodman air conditioners are ideal for those living in hotter environments who require comfort and value for money.


3. Amana: Best central air conditioner brand for warranties

Amana Central Air Conditioners Review

(Image credit: Amana)

Amana

Best warranties

Models in range: 8 | Top SEER rating: 24.5 | Warranty: 10 years, plus compressors come with a Limited Lifetime Replacement warranty | Prices (unit only) starting from: $1,310

High SEER ratings
Good customer care
Noisy
Compressor lacks protective grill

Amana is another reputable name in the HVAC industry, owned by Goodman Brand. It offers reliable units that start at 13 SEER and go all the way up to the high-efficiency 24.5 SEER. Amana air conditioners are reliable, with impressive features to boost performance. The top-tier products are equipped with a ComfortNet technology system that offers an extensive degree of user control by also functioning with Wireless accessories. Other advanced features include a Copeland High-Efficiency Scroll Compressor to enhance energy efficiency, and a CoreSense Diagnostics system that provides accurate troubleshooting and fast repair diagnosis.

Although unit prices are reasonable, they can have high installation costs. The top tier model with the highest 24.5 SEER rating can cost around $2,950 for the unit alone, and can be around $5,200 with installation. While units are robust, a downside is the lack of insulation and protective grills around the compressor, which may be prone to damage.

However, Amana air conditioning systems offer some of the best warranty coverage on the market. They offer a limited lifetime replacement warranty for models with ratings of 16 SEER and higher. And all other units come with a 10-year compressor and all parts warranty. 


4. Carrier: Best range of central air conditioners

Carrier Central Air Conditioners Review

(Image credit: Carrier)

Carrier

Best range of options for homes

Models in range: 16 | Top SEER rating: 21 | Warranty: 10-year parts limited warranty and five-year parts and compressor | Prices (unit only) starting from: $1,525

Range suits all needs 
Quiet operation
Expensive 
Lower SEER ratings

When it comes to choice, Carrier is one of the top brands on the market. With three series and 16 models, customers can find an air conditioning system to suit their needs and budget. Reliable and durable, units start from a SEER efficiency rating of 14 right up to the highest SEER rating of 21. Its models also run extremely quietly, with sound output as low as 65 decibels, so noise shouldn’t be a nuisance. 

As you would expect with such high quality, prices are more expensive. Its starting 13 SEER unit can cost around $3,100 with installation, while the premium, 21 SEER unit can reach up to $5,300. Although you can find cheaper units elsewhere, Carrier air conditioners are well built and known to last for years.

Furthermore, its high efficiency and in-built dehumidifier makes Carrier suitable for more hot and humid climates, and will likely contribute to a huge reduction to electric bills. 


5. York: Quietest central air conditioners

York Central Air Conditioners Review

(Image credit: York)

York

Quietest brand on market

Models in range: 11 | Top SEER rating: 21 | Warranty: 10 years parts and lifetime compressor warranty | Prices (unit only) starting from: $1,565

Inexpensive units
Highly efficient 
Warranties cover parts, not labor
High installation costs

York is one of the largest heating and cooling suppliers in the world. With 11 models available, York offers two types of air conditioning system, delivering high-efficiency and comfort. All units are equipped with useful features and start from a SEER rating of 13, reaching up to a maximum of 21 SEER. 

One stand-out feature of York air conditioners is the QuietDrive comfort system. An advanced sound dampening feature that keeps noise levels down as low as 72 decibels. This makes it one of the quieter brands on the market, and ideal for those living in suburban neighbourhoods. 

Prices are reasonable, with the average 20 SEER unit costing around $2,770, and around $4,300 with installation. It’s always recommended to have your unit correctly installed by a York Certified Comfort Expert (CCE) Contractor. Many of the technical issues that have occurred with York air conditioning units have been a result of poor installation. However, with York’s lifetime compressor and 10-year parts warranties, there should be no concerns with the longevity of the unit. 

Overall, if you’re after an efficient and super-quiet air conditioning unit that won’t break the bank, York is the ideal brand.


6. Lennox: Highest SEER rating

Lennox Central Air Conditioners

(Image credit: Lennox)

Lennox

Highest SEER rating

Models in range: 11 | Top SEER rating: 26 | Warranty: 10-year compressor and five-year covered component warranties | Prices (unit only) starting from: $1,475

Energy efficient
Easier on utility bills
More expensive units
High repair costs

Lennox air conditioners are ideal for those who require a high-efficiency and cost-effective solution for their homes. Offering three types of air conditioning system, the range starts from a 14 SEER rating (Merit), right up to a remarkably high 26 SEER (Signature). Since nine out of out of 11 models are certified Energy Star, this makes Lennox air conditioners one of the most energy-efficient brands on the market, meaning customers could make a significant saving on their energy bills.

However, expect to spend a little more on premium units, as a 26 SEER unit costs around $3,775 alone, and $7,190 with installation. Even the low SEER rated models will cost you a lot more than similar products available on the market. Even considering Lennox systems are more costly, they are still a worthwhile investment based on performance and high efficiency.

For these reasons alone, Lennox air conditioners are suited to those living in hotter climates who expect to get more usage. In addition, this is a much more economical choice of central air conditioner in the long term.


7. Rheem: Best central air conditioners for colder climates

Rheem Central Air Conditioners Review

(Image credit: Rheem)

Rheem

Best for colder climates

Models in range: 7 | Top SEER rating: 20 | Warranty: 10-year parts and labor warranty | Prices (unit only) starting from: $990

Low purchase and running costs
Excellent efficiency 
Noisy
No lifetime warrant

For those who require high efficiency with low running costs, Rheem is the ideal brand. A reputable industry leader, Rheem offers three series and seven types of air conditioner. Units are equipped with advanced features, such as modulating burners to accurately control temperature, enhancing overall performance. And the Prestige Series comes with a Comfort Control system that offers on-board diagnostics, and EcoNet-enabled systems. 

Although Rheem air conditioning systems have low initial costs, their prices increase with higher SEER ratings. An average 13 SEER unit costs around $990 for the system alone, and around $2,100 with installation. Meanwhile, the premium 20 SEER unit costs around $1,850 for system alone, and around $3,000 to be installed. Bear in mind there are no lifetime warranties available, and labor costs to replace parts are also expensive. However, all units come with 10-year parts and labor warranties. 

There are more high-efficiency brands on the market but Rheem excels in its low running costs. It is for this reason that Rheem systems are better suited for colder conditions or environments that don’t require extensive use. 


How much do central air conditioning units cost?

On average, you can expect to pay between $2,000 and $6,000 to have a central air conditioner installed in your home. Your actual costs may vary depending on the size of your home, the air conditioner brand, the unit’s SEER rating, the installer you choose and a number of other factors. It’s a good idea to get multiple quotes from multiple installers to ensure you get the best service for the best price.

Beyond a basic install, there may be other costs. For example, if your home lacks the required ductwork, you can expect to add a couple thousand dollars to your installation budget. Lastly, you can expect an increase in costs if you get a multi-zone system or replace your gas furnace as part of the install.

Are new central air conditioners more energy efficient? 

Central AC units with excellent energy efficiency ratings can save you more on your electricity bills than standard models. However, you can expect the highest efficiency models to be the most expensive upfront.

Air conditioners with exceptional cooling capabilities that also consume very little electricity earn high SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) ratings. Compare the unit’s upfront cost with potential energy savings over time to see if it's worth the investment.

New air conditioners are much more energy efficient than older units though. While older AC units were typically rated around 8 to 9 SEER, the U.S. Department of Energy now requires a minimum of 13 SEER or 14 SEER for central air conditioners, depending on where you live. 

Of the 98 models we looked at, only 39 rated below 16 SEER, the average of all the models we evaluated. Although the highest SEER rating we came across was a 26 on the Lennox XC25, Amana, Trane and American Standard all offer models with 22 SEER or higher. The representatives at Energy Star also recommend regular maintenance, such as replacing filters at least every three months and having your unit tuned up at least once a year to make sure it's running efficiently.

Regardless, if you’re replacing an older unit with a new one, you can already expect to get a much more energy efficient unit. 

Are new central air conditioners noisy? 

The latest central air conditioners often have noise-reducing features, such as specially designed fan blades, compressor and pan base insulation, and variable-speed fans. However, since the unit sits outside your home, it's important to choose one that won't bother you or your neighbors. The best AC units produce sound levels under 71.25 decibels – as loud as a conversation in a restaurant. 

Central air conditioning unit size

Many central air conditioner models come in multiple sizes, so you can choose the most appropriate one for your home’s square footage. If a central AC unit is too small, it wastes energy and struggles to produce consistent cooling on the hottest days. If it's too big, you paid extra when a smaller model would be more energy efficient – and it won't dehumidify your home as effectively. A trained technician can help you choose the ideal unit for your home, local climate conditions and budget.

Central air conditioner warranties

Each brand has a conditional warranty, which means you must register your AC within so many days of the purchase date to be covered for the full term. However, this doesn't apply in California or Quebec, where conditional warranties are not allowed. When you register your central AC unit, you can expect a warranty that lasts at least 10 years, though some brands, such as Amana, Trane, Coleman and Goodman, offer 12-year or lifetime warranties on their premium products; without registration, warranties average about five years.

A professional should install your central air conditioner

Unless you have experience with brazing, electrical work, plumbing and framing – and can handle refrigerant according to EPA regulations – it is ill-advised to install a central air conditioner yourself. Professionals have the education, skill and experience to install your central air conditioner safely and properly.

Not all contractors have the appropriate certifications and experience to work on your HVAC system. It's smart to seek out reputable, qualified contractors in your area. You can start by looking at online customer reviews on Google, Yelp, Citysearch and more, which often reflect the quality of an HVAC installer. Don’t choose the cheapest bid or closest contractor without vetting their qualifications first. AHRI specifically recommends finding a NATE-certified technician, as they have passed a nationally recognized test showing they have the knowledge to size, repair and install the proper system for your home.

Although professional HVAC installers often give specific recommendations on central air conditioners, take some time to do your own research before you call so you can explain your needs.

Choosing a thermostat for your central air conditioning unit

Central air conditioners are often only as good as the thermostats to which they are connected. When installing a new system or replacing old HVAC equipment, consider replacing your thermostat as well. We suggest a programmable thermostat that allows you to schedule when your HVAC system runs. If you want more advanced features, such as smartphone control, automatic schedules and smart home integration, consider getting a smart thermostat made by Nest or ecobee. You can also check with your contractor for recommendations.

Central air conditioner vs window air conditioner: which is better?

Ultimately, whether you get a window air conditioner or a central air conditioning unit will depend on your budget and your home’s layout. Based on how expensive a central air conditioner is, it’s understandable that you might want something more affordable. In our comparison of window air conditioners, we found that the average unit costs between $100 and $300, which is definitely cheaper than a central air conditioner by a wide margin.

Cost

Window air conditioners are more affordable to purchase and to run than central air conditioners. That said, if you need to cool your whole home, a central air conditioner is usually more cost effective and efficient, because you don’t have to run individual units. 

Comfort 

The size of the space you’re cooling plays a big role in how comfortable you can make your home. In a large home, a central air conditioner will provide even cooling to all the rooms in your home. However, a window air conditioner is good for smaller spaces, such as studio apartments or single rooms. 

Climate

If you live in a place with long, hot summers, a central air conditioner is a better option to keep you comfortable. However, if you live in a place with relatively cool summers where you don’t turn on your air conditioner very often, a window unit is a great choice to provide temporary relief from the heat.