What to Look For
Consumer Search recommends using price as your guide when shopping for a new or replacement central air conditioner. While most manufacturers sell to Heating, Venting and Air Conditioning (HVAC) contractors who then charge a markup, there are ways to cut costs. If you're willing to play the "general contractor" role, you can buy air conditioners from direct-to-consumer retailers and separately hire contractors. Some but not all contractors are willing to work under these conditions. In terms of equipment, buy only what you need to cool your home's interior and choose one with a SEER or EnergyStar efficiency rating.
Avoid air conditioners that use freon as a refrigerant. Freon produces hydrocarbons in the environment and its use is being phased out. Choose air conditioners that use Puron, known as R-410 refrigerant. EnergyStar recommends that if you're replacing an older air conditioner with one having a higher efficiency rating, you should also replace your heating system. Since the central air conditioner relies on the furnace's blower to push cool air through the ducts, you'll want the blower to be as efficient as the air conditioner. This factor should be considered when you're budgeting for a new air conditioner.
Where to Buy
Bryant, Carrier and Trane are highly rated in terms of equipment quality and efficiency, but they do not sell directly to consumers. If you wish to save money on the equipment, you will have to ask individual dealers if they'll sell the units without using one of their HVAC contractors. Each manufacturer has a list of suppliers and trained contractors they refer sales to. Be aware that Trane and Bryant have more stringent training installation guidelines for their HVAC contractors. If you're independent contractor isn't trained on these models, you might pay more for repeat visits to correct problems.
Most central air conditioner manufacturers don't advertise price on their websites. However, Furnace Compare, a website that compiles comprehensive buying guidelines and reviews on HVAC equipment, provides a report examining more than 300 central air conditioners (including models, numbers and efficiency ratings), prices, heat pumps and how much your air conditioners installation should cost. Price estimates range from $3,000 for just the equipment to $6,000 if you need to install duct work. You should budget $4,000 to $8,000 or more for installation including the cost of a new blower. A new heating system will increase the price.
The air conditioner system is reliant on the furnace so you should change the furnace filter before you power up the air conditioner system. While the furnace manufacturer usually installs a basic fiberglass filter, there are anti-microbial and hepa filters that remove additional allergens, mold and particulates.
Until Dec. 31, 2010, homeowners who replace their central air conditioners in a "principal residence" with an EnergyStar or SEER rated model might be qualified for a 30 percent tax credit. To determine if your air conditioner qualifies, you must have a Manufacturer’s Certification Statement which according to EnergyStar is "a signed statement from the manufacturer certifying that the product or component qualifies for the tax credit."