An air conditioning unit is a luxury. When it’s sweltering outside, being able to escape the heat in the comfort of your own home is enormous. But, like most luxuries, your AC unit can cost you. In fact, ENERGY STAR reports that nearly 13% of the average American household’s utility bill goes toward cooling costs. And with an average annual bill of over $2,000, that means you’ll likely spend at least $250 keeping your air conditioner running each year. 

Fortunately, choosing the right unit helps you keep those costs as low as possible while still delivering the cooling you need and we’ve created this guide to help. 

In this article:

Types of Air Conditioning Units

Portable air conditioning units are a great option for too-hot small spaces, but they have some serious drawbacks. Notably, its range is pretty limited and isn’t very aesthetically pleasing. That said, if you’re looking for a quick fix when temps climb, we’ve rounded up our top picks for portable air conditioners for you. 

For greater cooling capacity and less visibility than those portable options, you can set up a more permanent AC unit. These are the types worth considering:

Type
Description
Best for…
Split-System
A 2-part central air conditioner that takes up more space but gives you greater efficiency
People looking for top marks in energy efficiency who have plenty of space to hide the two components
Packaged
A single-unit central air conditioner that takes up less space but can be less efficient and more expensive to maintain
People looking to hide their AC out of sight and out of mind
Heat Pumps
An HVAC system that can pull heat from your home, cooling it, or pump heat back in, warming it
People looking for multiple uses from their cooling system
Ductless Mini Split
Single-room, two-part air conditioners
People who only need to cool a small space or who want an affordable retrofit

Split-system air conditioners

Split-system air conditioners are central air conditioning units, meaning they connect to the ducts in your house and can cool any room that’s connected to the duct system. It’s a common misconception that air conditioners work by pumping cold air into your home. Actually, split-system air conditioners — along with all other AC units — work by pulling warm air from the space and cooling it, then it recirculates that un-warmed air. This requires a compressor to circulate refrigerant as a liquid and an evaporator to turn the refrigerant from liquid to vapor so it can cool the warm air, and then recirculate it in your home. 

In the case of a split-system air conditioner, the compressor is housed in a large box located outside your home, while the evaporating coil is usually housed in a closet, attic, or other out-of-sight location. The split nature of the components lends this system to its name. 

Why would you want an air conditioner that’s going to take up space both inside and outside your home? There are a few reasons. First, the increased space components are allowed with a split-system format that enables greater efficiency. If you’re looking for the most efficient AC unit possible, this is your best bet. Also, because your maintenance tech can walk right up to the condensing unit, maintenance is easier and more affordable. 

Packaged air conditioners

Another central air conditioner, packaged air conditioners are — as the name implies — packaged into a single unit. And this unit is usually placed on the roof, meaning you don’t have to worry about it being an eyesore. 

The problem? Because its engineering is constrained by size, you can’t get as much efficiency out of a packaged unit as you can a split-system air conditioner. Plus, because someone will need to climb on your roof for maintenance, keeping it maintained adequately usually costs more. 

Heat pumps

Want a system that can pull double duty? Consider heat pumps, which can pull heat from your house to cool it in the summer, then pump heat back in during the winter. 

If these units can multitask, why doesn’t everyone choose them? Great question. There are a couple of things you should know. Generally, heat pumps have a shorter life span than air conditioning units. Since replacing your unit is a sizable cost, this is a major consideration. 

Another thing to know about heat pumps is that they lose efficiency as temperatures drop. People in frigid climates usually pair their heat pump with a furnace. At that point, the multitasking functionality that draws people to heat pump systems falls away. 

Ductless/mini-split air conditioners

What if you don’t have a ductwork system in your home or you really only need to cool one room that gets hot? Turn to a ductless or mini-split system. Like the split-system units we discussed above, these air conditioners have an outdoor compressor while the evaporator and air handler are housed indoors. In this case, the indoor components are housed in a small wall-mounted unit that’s usually placed toward the ceiling. 

Without any ducts through which the air has to travel, the cooling effects are delivered immediately. This means greater energy efficiency, but the ductless system’s reach is limited. Unless your rooms are small and have large pathways between them, you’ll likely need to place a unit in every room you want to cool. 

Important Factors for Choosing an Air Conditioner

Now that you probably know the type of air conditioner you think is best for your home, it’s time to start shopping brands and models. Here are some factors you should consider during your hunt. 

Size 

Size is a helpful factor because it narrows your options fairly quickly. If you have ample indoor and outdoor space, a split-system air conditioner can give you top energy efficiency. But if your square footage is limited, a packaged or ductless system might be best for your home. 

Square footage isn’t just important for fitting the actual unit itself, either. The larger space you need to cool, the greater cooling capacity you’ll need. Cooling capacity is measured in British thermal units (BTUs). Looking at BTUs can quickly rule out certain systems.

Efficiency/SEER rating

Buying and maintaining your air conditioner is only part of the cost of ownership. Each time you turn it on, you’re going to have to pay to power it. The higher efficiency your unit delivers, the lower your utility bills. So it’s worth shopping around and checking efficiency ratings.

When it comes to air conditioners, efficiency is measured as a seasonal energy efficiency rating or SEER. This is the total amount of heat your unit can remove — measured in BTUs — divided by the energy it takes to remove it. And because AC units are primarily used in the summer, this is measured based on performance during the annual cooling season. The higher the SEER, the more efficiency you’ll receive. 

Warranty

Another cost of ownership consideration is a warranty, which is a pretty big one. When you’re shopping, make sure to compare warranties. Air conditioner repairs can cost thousands of dollars. The more your warranty covers, the less likely you’ll be to get stuck with a big-ticket repair bill. 

Maintenance

Your air conditioner’s filters, coils, drains, and other parts all need to be checked on a regular basis. Maintenance might seem like a hassle, but it keeps your unit running as efficiently as possible (minimizing your utility bills), while helping you avoid an all-out breakdown, which is typically pretty pricey. Generally, you’ll need a professional to come out and maintain your air conditioner. 

When you’re shopping units, ask your dealer or contractor about maintenance so you have a good understanding of what this to-do will cost you. 

Air Conditioner Buying Process

Now that you’re informed, it’s time to start shopping. We recommend the following steps:

No. 1: Make some decisions on your own 

While we definitely advise getting a professional involved before deciding on an air conditioner, making some choices on your own can ensure you’re not swayed by a one-off promo or a specific dealer’s personal preferences. Think through where you want the air conditioner to go so you can know if you want a packaged, split-system, or ductless system. Or, if you think you want something to pull double-duty, research heat pump options. 

Also, measure the size of your space and use an air conditioner sizing calculator to figure out how many BTUs of cooling capacity you’ll need. You can also use one of the Energy.gov energy efficiency calculators — which can be used for air conditioners and heat pumps — to find out how much a higher SEER can save you annually. 

Once you know your size specs, your BTU requirements, and your ideal SEER, it’s time to talk to some professionals. 

No. 2: Contact contractors and dealers

If there’s a specific brand of air conditioner that’s caught your eye, find one of its dealers (the brand website should have this information) and get in touch. But don’t stop there. Contact some HVAC contractors in your area too. Getting estimates from multiple parties ensures you’re getting the best price on your unit. Don’t forget to ask about warranties and maintenance, too. 

Plus, this is the first contact with a company that could serve you for the foreseeable future. If you find a contractor you particularly like or a company that gives you exemplary service, make a note. Assuming you choose a unit they service, the company can be your air conditioner maintenance provider for years to come. 

No. 3: Schedule a pre-install evaluation

Once you’ve narrowed down your options based on the contractors or dealers you like and the estimates, it’s time to make sure your unit is sized correctly. This means getting a professional to come to your house for a pre-install evaluation, which you’ll usually have to pay for. But it’s a worthwhile expense because it ensures you don’t pay for more air conditioning capacity than you need. 

This evaluation should include a Manual J load calculation, during which your air conditioning professional determines the right cooling capacity for your air conditioner based on the size of your home and how much heat it gains throughout the day. 

Your evaluation might also include a check of your ductwork system for any leaks. Before your evaluation, ask what it includes to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. 

No. 4: Schedule installation

The time has come. You’re ready to get that carefully selected air conditioner installed in your home. Schedule it with the contractor or dealer of your choice. Remember that summer is usually peak season, so don’t put this off. Scheduling your installation during the cooler months ensures you can easily get on the company’s calendar — and it might even help shave a little off installation costs. 

With this guide, you’re ready to shop intelligently for the right air conditioning unit for your home. Do a little homework to understand your house’s specific cooling needs better and you’ll be able to rest easy knowing you’ve made the best choice for keeping your home cool.