Performance & Efficiency
Best Central Air Conditioning Brands
What are the Best Central AC Units?
Best Overall – Amana
When choosing the best central air conditioner brand, we looked for the one that has the most efficient models covered by the longest warranties. A great example of this is the Amana AVXC20 central air conditioner, which can achieve up to a 24.5 SEER energy efficiency rating and carries a lifetime warranty. It isn’t quite as efficient as Lennox's top model but still performs remarkably well considering the average SEER rating of the brands we evaluated is 16.7.
Even if a top-tier Amana unit is more expensive upfront than models made by many other brands, its lifetime warranty can save you money over time. For example, if the compressor or heat exchanger, the most expensive parts, fail at any time while you own your home, Amana will replace them for free. It's important to note that the lifetime compressor coverage only comes with models that have SEER ratings of 16 or higher. Models with SEER ratings under 16, as well as the other parts on all of Amana’s units, carry a 10-year warranty. Read our full review of Amana brand air conditioners here.
- Its warranty coverage is fantastic.
- The top Lennox unit is slightly more efficient.
Best Value – Goodman
Goodman's advantage is many of its central AC units come with lifetime compressor warranties, though its GSX models are only covered for 10 years. If your unit has a lifetime warranty and the compressor fails, the company will replace it for free as long as you are the original owner and still own the home it’s installed in. This lifetime warranty is noteworthy because most other manufacturers only cover their equipment for one or two decades at most. Goodman covers other parts for 10 years, which is longer than other manufacturers. Its units also have onboard diagnostics that let you know if something's wrong with your air conditioner.
When we examined the SEER ratings for Goodman's five central AC models, we noticed the highest rating was only 18. Although this is better than the industry average of 16.7 SEER, it's not nearly as efficient as top models offered by the other nine manufacturers we researched, but that means you can safely expect your final replacement bill to be lower than other brands. There is a direct correlation between higher SEER ratings and higher price. Goodman units have lower SEER ratings and a lower price, generally. Read our full review of Goodman air conditioners here.
- Its onboard diagnostics make it easy to identify problems.
- Other brands make more efficient central air conditioners.
Most Efficient – Lennox
Of the brands we evaluated, Lennox has the highest Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio ratings we've seen, as high as 26 SEER. For comparison, the most efficient models from most other brands have SEER ratings around 20. Lennox also sells less efficient models, with SEER as low as 13, in case you don't have the budget for a more efficient one. Of the 11 models Lennox sells, nine are Energy Star qualified. Although Lennox makes central ACs with two-stage air compressors, some models have compressors that run at several speeds. With more speed settings, units can more precisely control the cooling in your home. It’s also a primary reason Lennox's top-tier models are more energy efficient than their competition.
Lennox’s central AC units can hold up in most weather conditions. They are made mostly from galvanized steel and have a zinc-coated steel base. The company’s central air conditioners are also quiet, with some models registering only 59 decibels, which is about as loud as a normal conversation. However, some of its units are louder than average, coming in at 76 decibels.
Most Lennox Signature products have a 10-year limited warranty that covers the compressor and most components. Unfortunately, these warranties aren’t robust when compared against the lifetime warranties a few central air conditioning brands offer. Also, its replacement parts are more expensive than those used by other brands. Read our full review of Lennox air conditioners here.
- The company's air conditioners are very quiet.
- It offers weaker warranties than other brands.
Why Trust Us
We've been testing thermostats and tower fans since 2016. This experience has helped inform our conclusions relating to other heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment. We apply strict standards to each product we test, primarily focusing on performance and how user friendly they are. We pay attention to details and research thoroughly so we can better help our readers find the right products for their needs and budget.
As we researched for this comparison, we looked at information on central air conditioners from trade associations, such as the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) and North American Technician Excellence (NATE). We also found excellent guides from two U.S. governmental resources: Energy Star and Energy Saver.
How We Evaluated
We researched and evaluated the energy efficiency, minimum sounds levels and warranties of 98 product lines across 10 major HVAC manufacturers. During our research, we found a striking correlation between average energy efficiency and a brand’s perceived value. For example, Goodman, a budget brand, has an average SEER rating of 15.3 and doesn't sell any models with efficiency ratings over 18 SEER. In contrast, Lennox models have an average rating of 17.9 SEER, the highest we've seen, and the brand is generally considered a premium option. While you can't use a SEER rating to predict a unit's exact price, it’s important to consider how much efficiency you're willing to pay for.
To determine the minimum sound level for a brand, we looked at the specification sheets for each model listed on its website. In some cases, we used data from the product pages. The standard manufacturers use to determine sound power levels comes from AHRI test standard 270-08, so we're confident in the validity of the data we collected.
Once we had the data, we set about finding the average minimum sound level for each brand. Sound power is logarithmic, meaning that 70 decibels is 10 times louder than 60 decibels, so measurements don’t average like normal numbers. As such, we had to use a logarithmic calculation to find this average. The average loudness of the central air conditioners we reviewed was 71.25 decibels, with American Standard as the quietest brand at 69.9 decibels. The loudest brand was Frigidaire, coming in at 72.9 decibels.
The last thing we researched was the manufacturers’ 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.
What to Look For in a Central Air Conditioner
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.
Central AC units with excellent energy efficiency ratings can save you more on electricity bills than standard models. However, you can expect the highest efficiency models to be the most expensive upfront.
The easiest way to identify an energy-efficient air conditioner is by its Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating, as defined by AHRI. Air conditioners with exceptional cooling capabilities that also consume very little electricity earn high SEER ratings. Compare the unit’s upfront cost with potential energy savings over time to see if it's worth the investment.
The U.S. Department of Energy 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.
Today’s 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.
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.
Choosing a Thermostat
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.
How Much Do Central Air Conditioners 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.
Which is Better: Central Air or Window Units?
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.
Do AC Units Pull Air From Outside?
Central air conditioners do not pull outside air into your home. As the name suggests, these machines condition the air inside your home by moving it over an interior evaporator coil, which pulls heat from the air using a refrigerant. After the air is cooled down, it is then blown back into your home. At the same time, the heat, which is now stored within the refrigerant, moves through pipes to the exterior of the unit where it’s released into the outside air.
Since the cooling process involves recirculating indoor air, central AC manufacturers suggest keeping windows and doors closed while the system is in use. This is especially true when the air outside is warmer than the air in your home. Warmer outside air, especially in hot climates like the American Southwest, can negatively impact the cooling performance and energy efficiency of a central air conditioner.
If you want your HVAC system to bring fresh air into your home, consider getting a ventilator to use alongside your central AC unit. Ventilators can be particularly helpful when outside air temperatures are lower than those inside your home, allowing you to have more comfortable air without using as much electricity in a process called free cooling.
For more information on how central air conditioners work, check out this article from Goodman.