❄️ How to Choose an Air Conditioner?

Five AC types for five types of homes.

Before committing to a conditioning unit type, you should consider the following questions:

Does your house have air ducts? A central conditioning unit requires an air duct system. Installing one from scratch can inflate the setup costs out of proportion. For those who rent apartments or simply do not have air ducts installed, other options may be a smarter choice.

How large is your space? If a homeowner is looking to cool a large family house, then a central air conditioning solution is likely the optimal choice. However, small apartment owners can easily get away with non-central air conditioners. Those who prefer different temperatures in different rooms may also consider installing several wall-mount units, rather than opting for a central cooling system.

What is your budget? Ultimately, the decision can come down to the costs. Built-in window AC units and portable conditioners are considerably cheaper than central or ductless conditioning systems.

Already know which type of AC interest you? Jump to specific article here:

Air Conditioner

Central Air Conditioning

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75% of US households choose central air conditioning to cool their homes, which makes it the most popular house-cooling method. A central condensing unit—a large box with a fan—is placed outside the house. The evaporating coils are placed inside the house and are mounted on top of a furnace or air handler. The latter device uses a blower fan motor to blow air through the return vent, which is connected to the room. 

In day-to-day use, central air conditioning units are quiet, well hidden and easy to use. They’re also highly efficient. The average central air conditioning system uses 2,000 kWh of electricity per year, which amounts to about $260 in annual cooling costs. It is important to note that a 40-year-old air conditioning unit loses about 30% to 50% of its efficiency, which will be reflected in the cooling costs. Even a 10-year old conditioner can lose 20% to 40% of its efficiency. It is recommended to renew your central conditioning system every 10 years.

Installing a central air conditioning system costs between $3,758 and $7,271, depending on your house location, the condition of your existing air ducts and the particular system chosen. In terms of maintenance, regular AC check-ups cost $75 to $200 and should be performed at least once a year. This extends the system’s lifetime efficiency and saves costs. Repairs can cost as low as $100 and as high as $2,300, depending on the component broken and the amount of labor involved.

It should be noted that for old, pre-War houses, installing a central air conditioning system can be extremely expensive and cumbersome. The ductwork installation is tricky in old houses, which makes central air conditioning a suboptimal choice.

Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioner

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From a technical standpoint, ductless air conditioners work similarly to their central counterparts. A condensing unit is placed outside the house—often, mounted on an external wall—and connected via a narrow tube to the evaporator inside the house. However, there are a few important practical differences for homeowners. 

The biggest consideration is whether the house has ductwork done or not. Ductwork alone can cost between $1,000 and $5,000 for a single-family home, depending on the length of the duct and materials used. As the name suggests, ductless air conditioners do not require ductwork. A small hole will be drilled in the external wall of the house to connect the condensing unit to the air handling unit. 

The average ductless unit is as efficient as the average central conditioning unit. However, central conditioning units tend to lose efficiency quicker because the system is more complex. All air ducts need to be serviced regularly to maintain efficiency in a central cooling unit. Comparatively, the ductless system is basically just two devices, connected by a single tube.

For large houses, a ductless air conditioning unit usually doesn’t suffice. Ductless units simply do not have enough cooling power to cool a multi-store house. The ductless mini-split works best in small apartments or single rooms. For homeowners looking for temperature zone control, installing multiple ductless units is a viable option. 

It should also be noted that ductless air conditioners must be mounted in the room, which isn’t always the ideal interior choice for homeowners. A central unit is well hidden from your eyes and those of your guests. 

A 12,000 Btu ductless air conditioner costs $3,000 on average to install and is usually enough to effectively cool a 500 square feet room. More powerful ductless units can cost up to $14,000 to install. Annual ductless air unit service check-ups can cost as low as $200 and as high as $890, depending on the type of system you have.

Built-in Wall or Window Air Conditioner

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Built-in air conditioners, also known as window AC’s, combine all of the hardware components of an air cooling system into one metal box. The box is then built into an external house wall or a window. No tubes or ducts are required for this type of conditioner, but it will require a full box-size opening in the wall or the window.

From a home owner’s perspective, a built-in conditioner is very much like the ductless conditioning system described above. It doesn’t require any ductwork, but it will only cool one 500 sq. ft. room effectively.

Despite the less-than-pleasant design, window or wall AC units are efficient and relatively cheap. A homeowner can expect to pay $138 to $506 for window AC installation, including the costs of the cooling unit itself. Much like other AC types, a window conditioning unit costs $100 to $200 to service annually.

Portable Air Conditioner

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A consumer survey reported that portable air conditioners only deliver half of their promised capacity on average. Few are capable of lowering the temperature below 80 degrees, even after 100 minutes of uptime. Does this mean portable units are completely useless?

In short, portable AC’s have their moments. For example, when a window is too narrow to fit a built-in conditioner, the portable AC can come in handy as it only requires a small tube connected to the outside of the house.

Smart Air Conditioners

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These do not constitute a different type of air conditioner. By “smart” retailers usually refer to a software-powered thermostat that controls one of the previously described air conditioning types. Smart thermostats offer handy remote and automation features, such as:

Smart air conditioners also often come with a sleek design, which can be less taxing on the interior.

The standalone cost for a smart thermostat can range between $50 and $300. These costs should be added on top of the actual cooling system installation and maintenance costs.


Don’t know which one to choose? Share this article with your spouse or housemate and let them help you decide!