Central Air Conditioner ULTIMATE Buyer Guide
Everything you need to know about buying a new central air conditioner in Canada, including top brands, costs, model types, best features, what to buy, and more!
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When the pleasant breezes of spring transform into the high temperatures of summer, having a cooling system in your home can make the heat and humidity more bearable. While people in apartments or smaller homes can beat the heat with a portable or window air conditioner, those of us in family-sized homes find a central air conditioning system to be a better fit.
Conventional central air conditioners cool your home using a two-part system. The exterior unit, which is installed outside the property, consists of a condensing coil, compressor, fan and two refrigerant lines connected to the evaporator coil inside the home. This second coil cools the air, which is then pushed through the home’s heating / cooling ducts by the furnace blower.
Most central air systems are energy-efficient and keep internal temperatures pleasant without overburdening your power bill. To find out what system is right for you, though, let’s take a closer look at the most popular options on the market today.
AIR CONDITIONER TYPES
Related Article: Air Conditioner Types Compared
Choosing the right AC solution requires a careful consideration of your needs. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What type of dwelling do you live in? Is it a studio apartment? A single-family home? A multi-storey condominium?
- What is the square footage of the home, and how many storeys does it have?
- What are the average summer temperatures where you live? If they’re especially high, you’ll want a stronger system.
If you live in an apartment or smaller home, a window air conditioning unit or portable air conditioner will likely meet your summer cooling needs. For mid- to large-sized family residences or homes with multiple storeys, your best choice is a central cooling system. There are two primary types: central air conditioning and split air conditioning.
Central Air Conditioning
As stated at the beginning of this guide, a traditional central air conditioning system consists of two units: an outdoor compressor and condenser and an indoor unit attached to the furnace, whose blower pushes cooled air through the ducts in your home. Although they are more expensive to install than a window or portable air conditioner, the benefits include:
- An even distribution of cool air throughout the home
- Built-in filters deliver cleaner air
- You can opt for a programmable thermostat to control your cooling costs
Central air conditioning systems are also practically invisible and add substantial resale value to your home.
Split Air Conditioning
Split air conditioning systems are also a type of central cooling, but they are ductless and not built into forced-air furnaces. Like central air conditioning, they consist of an indoor and outdoor unit that work together by extracting hot air from inside your home and expelling it outside through the compressor.
The indoor unit (or units, as more than one may be needed in larger homes) is usually mounted high on the walls, on the ceiling, or on the floor. Because no ductwork is involved, split air conditioning systems are recommended for condos, home extensions, and older homes with thick walls. Benefits include:
- Ability to set different temperatures for different rooms
- Venting not required
Although aesthetics may present an issue to some homeowners, split air conditioners are a flexible and energy-efficient way of keeping yourself and your family cool during the height of summer.
THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BUYING OR REPLACING
Related Article: 5 Things to Know Before Buying a Central A/C
Installing a central air conditioning system is an investment, and like all higher-cost investments, they require careful consideration beforehand.
Replacing an Old System
Perhaps you already have central air, but the system doesn’t appear to be operating at full capacity this season. Should you try repairing it first before opting for an entirely new system?
There’s no quick answer to that question, but replacing an air conditioner can be expensive, so confirm that your AC is on its last legs before doing so. For systems that are only a few years old, repairs and minor upgrades can cost less than preparing your home for an entirely new one, which can require you to drill holes in the foundation to run new lines and even install brand new ductwork.
If your air conditioner is older, however, it may be more financially prudent for you to replace it. New systems can use less than half of the electricity of your former unit. It may also be better for the environment: as of 2010, ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbon may no longer be used as a refrigerant.
Installing a New System
If you don’t have a central air system in your home or your current one is more than 8 to 12 years old, a new air conditioner is likely the best option. These older systems typically operate at or below 10 SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, a metric used to measure the amount of electricity needed to provide a specific cooling result. These days, federal law requires new central air systems to operate at 13 SEER, which will translate into 30% less energy consumption and, consequently, lower cooling bills.
If an entirely new system makes the most sense for you, below is a list of additional considerations:
- SEER Rating: While a new 14 SEER AC system will do a reasonably effective and efficient job of cooling your home, going up to 18 SEER can significantly raise your energy savings and lower cooling expenses over the longterm. The initial investment may be more expensive, but you may be able qualify for a provincial tax credit (this particular rebate applies to Ontario only, but other government rebates may be available in your region).
- System Size: Air conditioning is measured by the ton, or the cooling ability of a one-ton block of ice melting in 24 hours. The right size for your property will depend on square footage, average temperatures where you live, and even how much shade is usually on the home. An experienced contractor will submit a load calculation showing your recommended system size along with their bid, but in general you’re probably looking at a 1.5 ton system for homes up to 1500 sq. ft. and all the way up to 5 tons for over 4700 sq. ft (again, this can vary significantly based on different factors and is just a general estimate).
- Condition of Your Ductwork: If you’re not going with a ductless split-air system, have a professional check your ductwork for efficiency. All gaps should be sealed and in some cases it may be advisable to replace the ductwork with new, insulated pipe.
- Your Building Envelope: If your home is poorly insulated, it’s going to put a strain on your air conditioning system and might even compel you to buy a bigger one than you’d otherwise need. Resolving this issue will give a smaller system enough cooling power to do the job at a lower energy cost.
A central air conditioning system may not be worth it if you live in an especially small home or are a renter instead of a homeowner. Otherwise, it has distinct advantages over installing and running several smaller units. They include:
- Less noise
- More uniform comfort levels
- Better energy efficiency – unlike window units, central air conditioners have variable speed settings, which allows you to set them at a higher temperature while remaining comfortable because humidity levels are lowered
If anyone in your household has health issues such as asthma or a heart condition, central air can keep out dangerous humidity levels and use built-in filters to remove allergens and other pollutants.
What is a central air conditioner compressor? And how does it impact A/C efficiency?
All central air conditioners contain what’s known as a scroll compressor that circulates the refrigerant through your air conditioner’s coil. The type of compressor your central air conditioner has is directly related to the energy efficiency of your unit.
Common types of compressors used in central air conditioners:
- Single Stage: this type operates in an on/off mode. It is the least energy efficient of the three types. Single stage compressors are most commonly seen in entry-level efficiency central A/C units, such as 13 and 14 SEER.
- Dual Stage: More intuitive than the single stage compressor, this two stage compressor offers consumers moderate-high energy efficiency. You’ll typically find Dual Stage compressors in 16-18 SEER central A/C units.
- Variable Speed: the most efficient scroll compressor available. Central air conditioners with a variable speed compressor offer consumers greater energy efficiency and control over their home cooling. Variable Speed scroll compressors are found in premium energy efficient central air conditioner units, starting at 18+ SEER.
It’s important to note, that your indoor coil is also an important consideration when it comes to the energy efficiency of your central A/C unit. A quality indoor coil should be properly installed by a certified HVAC technician so that your central air conditioner system is able to achieve optimal energy efficiency performance when cooling your home.
Related Article: Central Air Conditioner Prices in Canada
An important part of the purchase process is educating yourself about the reasonable costs of acquiring a high-efficiency central air conditioner. On average, you are looking at $2500 – $3600 for a value brand or model, $2800 – $4500 for something mid-range, and anywhere between $3200 – $6000 for a premium brand or high-end unit. Other factors affecting price include:
- Model: Every major brand, from Amana to York, has model ranges that vary from entry-level to more advanced in terms of features, operation, and efficiency
- Unit Size: A 1.5 ton unit is going to cost less than its 4 ton counterpart, so choosing the right size for your home’s square footage is important (be sure to seek the help of a trusted professional to properly size your home).
- Efficiency Rating: AC systems with a higher SEER rating will require a bigger initial investment, although they soon pay for themselves in terms of energy savings.
- Where You Live: If you reside in an area where summer temperatures are higher, you may need a larger unit than a home your size might ordinarily call for.
Installation-Related Factors: Installation costs will be different for traditional and ductless systems. If your current ductwork is old or leaky, updating it will add to the overall price.
According to Energy.gov, the typical lifespan of a central air conditioner is approximately 15 to 20 years. Like most pieces of equipment, how you care for and maintain it will have an effect on its life expectancy. Make sure your installer shows you how to get the most out of your investment.
Additional maintenance tips that can enhance the working life of your air conditioner include:
- Maintain the yard area around the outside unit to eliminate overgrowth, remove debris, and improve air circulation
- Give the outside unit a quick hose-down at the beginning and end of each season to rinse away any dirt or debris
- Clean the condenser and evaporator coils using an approved product
- Clean the air filter at the beginning and end of each season that the furnace blower is in use
- Empty the drain pan to prevent rusting and algae growth
- Clean the indoor unit around the heat vents
If you detect any operating issues, it’s best to contact a professional to service the unit. Central air conditioners are complex pieces of equipment and going the DIY route can result in expensive damage.
Before purchasing any new central air conditioning system, check the warranty carefully, as offered warranties can vary considerably from one manufacturer to the next. Reputable companies will usually cover the following:
- Connecting tubing
- Refrigerant charge
- In some cases, the labour necessary for replacement and repair (you should also get a labour warranty on installation from the contractor or distributor who does the install)
A review of popular manufacturers provides the following baselines:
- 10-year limited compressor warranty
- 10-year limited parts
- One year limited labour
Related Article: The Best Central Air Conditioners – Best Warranties
Related Article: The Best Central Air Conditioners
Canadian customers have a wide range of quality and reputable central air brands to choose from. Eleven of the top brands sold in Canada, together with their available model ranges, are listed below.
Energy Consumption & Efficiency
Those ranges that include units known to have an ENERGY STAR rating are noted with an asterisk (*). Not ENERGY STAR certification usually depends on the exact model, and whether it is properly configured with an energy-efficient coil.
- Affinity Series – YXV*, CZH*, CZF, TCHD
- LX Series – YCG*, YCS, YCE, YFE, YCD,YFD, YCJF*
- ProComfort Deluxe Series*
- ProComfort Series*
- Performance Series*
- American Standard:
- AccuComfort Variable Speed Platinum 20*
- AccuComfort Variable Speed Platinum 18*
- Gold 17*
- Silver 16*
- Silver 16 Low Profile
- Silver 14
- Silver 13
- Prestige Series: Variable Speed (RA20)*
- Classic Plus Series: Two-Stage (RA17)*
- Classic Series: Single Stage (RA16)*
- Classic Series: Single Stage (RA14)*
- Classic Series: Single Stage (RA14**W)*
- Classic Series: Single Stage (RA13)*
- XV20i TruComfort Variable Speed*
- XV18 TruComfort Variable Speed*
- XR16 Central Air Systems (R-410A refrigerant)*
- XR16 Central Air Conditioning Systems*
- XR16 Low Profile*
- Evolution Series*
- Preferred Series*
- Legacy Line*
- 16 Seer Central Air Conditioner*
- 14 Seer Central Air Conditioner
- 13 Seer Central Air Conditioner
- 13 Seer Side Discharge Air Conditioner
- Infinity Series*
- Performance Series*
- Comfort Series*
- Dave Lennox Signature Collection*
- Elite Series
- Merit Series
Central air conditioners are not a one size fits all home cooling solution. More important than brand, proper sizing and installation of your central air conditioner are critical to ensuring proper operation.
Remember, bigger is not always better! Think of the size of the tires on your car. Would it run better if you put say large tractor tires on a small sedan? Similarly, an A/C will operate most effectively and efficiently when it’s correctly sized for your home, not too big or too small.
Determining the correct size of air conditioner you require for your home depends on, the following factors, among other things:
- size of the home
- climate and region
- how well insulated the home is
- trees and shade around your home
For this reason, it is often best to enlist the help of a trusted local professional when attempting to correctly size your new A/C. A heat-load calculation may be required.
A central air conditioner’s size is measured in tonnes. The majority of central air manufacturer brands produce air conditioners in the following sizes: 1-5 tonnes. (Note this chart is just a general guideline, other factors must be considered by a professional to correctly size an A/C)
|Square Footage of Home||Size of Central Air Conditioner|
|Up to 1500 sq. ft.||1.5 ton (2 ton if 2-story home)|
|1500 – 2200 sq. ft.||2 ton|
|2200 – 2800 sq. ft.||2.5 ton|
|2800 – 3200 sq. ft.||3 ton|
|3200 – 3700 sq. ft.||3.5 ton|
|3700 – 4200 sq. ft.||4 ton|
|4200 – 4700 sq. ft.||4.5 ton|
|Over 4700 sq. ft.||5 ton|
All central air conditioning systems consist of two coils:
- Evaporator: Located in the air handler of the system, it holds the refrigerant sent in by the compressor. When air moves over the evaporator coil, this refrigerant removes the heat, cooling your home’s interior.
- Condenser: The condenser coil is located outside, where it dissipates heat from the coolant into the surrounding air with assistance from exhaust fans. Keeping it clean is important, as the system runs more efficiently when excess heat is able to leave it quickly.
The coil you choose for your system has a major impact on the unit’s efficiency. If either one ever has to be replaced, beware of companies that charge really low prices, as the coils they use may be subpar. Another thing to bear in mind is that if your evaporator coil fails, you should consider replacing the condensing unit as well, especially if the system is over seven years old. Using mismatched coils can put added stress on the air conditioner and cause it to fail sooner.
NOISE AND DECIBEL RATINGS
Air conditioner sound levels are measured in decibels (db). The lower the decibel rating, the quieter the system when it is operating. The more silent units typically fall into the 50-60 db range, which can best be understood by the following real-world examples:
- 50 decibels = the sound of rainfall or ambient noise of the large office
- 60 decibels = the sound of a conversation held in normal tones
When you’re shopping for a quiet air conditioner, look for the following features, which will have a dampening effect on any noise from the unit:
- Variable-speed blower fans: By preventing the system from running full blast 100% all the time, you reduce noise levels and even energy bills.
- Noise-reducing fan blades: New A/C innovations include reducing the noise caused by fan blades
- Compression insulation that traps noise and mounting materials that limit sound when the air conditioner is running.
Note: Keep in mind however that the quietest central air conditioners are typically units that are rated above 20 SEER. These units are rare in Canada and are meant for warmer climates. Units commonly sold in Canada are usually in the 65 – 78 decibel range.
DEHUMIDIFIERS, HUMIDIFIERS & AIR FILTRATION
Dehumidifiers: If you live in an area that gets especially humid in the summertime, you may be wondering if your central air conditioner should be supplemented by a dehumidifier. Given the fact that the system already sucks the humidity from the air, adding a dehumidifier is generally not necessary and can even be counterproductive in terms of higher energy costs.
Humidifiers: These are used to add moisture to the air, which is preferable during winter months when the air tends to be drier. During the summer months, these are usually switched off so that it doesn’t interfere with your air conditioner which is trying to remove humidity from the air. For more information about air filtration and humidifiers, see here.
Air filtration systems: These can be added to your home heating and ventilation system to enhance air quality. Your central air conditioner uses the same central ventilation that your furnace does. For this reason, these filtration and humidification systems work for both your heating and cooling system.
When you purchase a new, ENERGY STAR central air conditioner you may be eligible for the following rebate(s):
- $400.00 rebate for Ontario consumers who are upgrading an existing air conditioner to a new, high-efficiency models*
- Other provinces, see the current heating & cooling rebates for Canadians here
*only applicable to consumers who are UPGRADING from an older model, not simply adding a new one to a home where there was none previously.
Please note, the local distributor whom you purchase your central air conditioner from should be able to assist you with filling out and submitting paperwork for all of the rebates you are entitled to. In some cases the company must be registered with the government to provide rebates. Ensure the company you buy from is registered by finding a local company through our free quote page.
Other deals and promotions can be viewed on our Current Deals page.
If you want to replace your central air conditioning system or install a new one, but can’t pay for it all at once or prefer a manageable monthly repayment amount, financing is usually available. This way, you can start enjoying cooler indoor temperatures (and lower electricity bills) right away, but pay for it later. Most providers offer a financing option, so be sure to ask.
Get Quick Quote on a New A/C from Respected Local Distributors
At Furnace Prices we offer Canadian consumers a free, no-obligation quote from one of our local distributors. We currently serve Canadians in many cities and regions across Canada, and are rapidly expanding. Fill out our online form and get your quote today!
Glossary & Commonly-Used A/C Terms:
Central Air Conditioning – a central air conditioner is attached to your forced air ventilation system to cool and dehumidify the air. Cool air is distributed throughout the forced air vents throughout your home.
Central Air Tonnage – the size of your air conditioner is measured in tonnes. Typically air conditioner units run anywhere from 1.5 – 5 tonnes in size. It’s essential that you purchase the correct tonnage to cool your home appropriately, otherwise you risk damaging your cooling system.
Refrigerant – environmentally friendly, R-410A Chlorine-free refrigerant is contained in the air conditioner’s coil and acts by dehumidifying the warm air in your home. Less common to modern air conditioners is the non-environmentally friendly R-22 refrigerant. When selecting the best high-efficiency air conditioner for your home, be sure to pay careful attention to which type of refrigerant the model of your choice uses.
Compressor – moves refrigerant through the coil. The compressor is just one of the key parts that should be checked by an HVAC technician prior to the start of the summer season. Broken compressors can result in costly repairs to your air conditioning system.
Single Stage – single stage air conditioners, as it sounds, have one setting. Your cooling system is either turned on and cooling your home or it is off, making it less efficient than a two stage air conditioner.
Variable Speed – available in some midrange and premium brand models, variable speed refers to the fan motor of your air conditioning unit. A variable speed fan allows your air conditioner to achieve a superior level of cooling and increased energy efficiency in the lower setting. Models with this feature tend to be more expensive, however, the return on investment is a greater cooling ability with higher energy savings.
Two Stage – two stage air conditioners provide consumers with two settings, allowing it to cool your home more efficiently. The two settings are low and high. Your air conditioning system will start off in the low setting and kick into the higher setting in response to temperature changes. The intuitive nature of this system makes it very energy efficient. Two Stage air conditioners are typically seen in the mid-range and premium brand tiers.