Making a Smart Central Air Conditioner Purchase
Buying a central air conditioner or heat pump is a big home improvement decision, and there are several things you should know before you buy. ENERGY STAR®-rated central air conditioners have a higher seasonal efficiency rating (SEER) than standard models, which makes them more efficient.
To make your smartest purchase, you should:
- Understand energy efficiency ratings and our rebate to make sure your unit qualifies.
All central air conditioners and air source heat pumps have a SEER rating – a measure of the system’s average efficiency over the entire summer. The EER rating measures the geothermal/ground source heat pumps system’s efficiency on the hottest summer days. HSPF measures your heat pump’s efficiency when it is cold outside. In all cases, the higher the number, the better the efficiency of your unit. You should realize that air conditioners with high SEER levels usually cost more than standard efficiency units, but the energy savings should more than make up the difference in just a few years. Our rebates make this deal even cooler.
A quality installation is a “high efficiency” installation. The Option 1 incentives level requires a quality installation. To recognize your choice of selecting any contactors, we provide Option 2 path for non-quality installation of qualifying high efficiency equipment, albeit at lower incentive levels. Lowest quote may not the best value when there are different qualities of installation. A poor installation can result in not only increasing your electric cost (operating cost) but also your maintenance cost.
- Ask contractors for a Quality Installation (QI).
A quality installation is required for your HVAC system to perform at its rated efficiency. It is based on ACCA 5 QI Standard for HVAC systems, which includes properly designing (sizing), installing, testing and commissioning of qualifying HVAC installation. Participating contractors are trained to perform elements of a quality installation that are required by the Cool Homes Program. Research studies have shown that non-quality installations can reduce performance by 30%, if not more.
For more information regarding QI, please visit The Indoor Environment & Energy Efficiency Association - HVAC Quality Installation Specifications and Homeowner Resources.
- Have matching indoor and outdoor components.
Most central air conditioners and heat pumps have an outdoor component (the compressor) and indoor components (evaporator coil and blower). When replacing an existing system, some contractors may suggest that you only purchase a new outdoor unit – and retain the old indoor components – to save money. However, the indoor and outdoor components of central air conditioners and heat pumps are designed to work together, and your old indoor evaporator coil probably won’t match the new outdoor unit. Replacing both at the same time will help assure the highest level of energy efficiency and comfort for your home. To be eligible for Cool Homes incentives, installations require that the outdoor and indoor components to match.
- Have your contractor properly size the equipment using Air Conditioning Contractors of America approved software.
If you simply select the same size system you have now – or base the size of your new central air conditioner on your home’s square footage – you could be in for big problems. This is exactly why the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) developed a guideline, known as “Manual J,” to help contractors determine the correctly sized central air conditioner or heat pump for any given home. Manual J is the best way to determine your particular home’s needs – and to make sure you end up with the right system to keep your home cool and comfortable as efficiently as possible. To be eligible for Cool Homes incentives, installations must be "right-sized" using ACCA approved cooling load calculation software.
Make sure your contractor follows this important standard. Otherwise, you might be stuck with a more expensive oversized unit that could: cycle on and off excessively and noisily; cause humidity problems; increase maintenance costs; and, shorten the life of your equipment. Perhaps most importantly, an oversized unit can lower the efficiency of your system and increase your electric bills.
Oversized HVAC system is similar to using an oversized SUV for one person daily. The larger cooling capacity may be great on the hottest days of the year, but it will be inefficient to operate for the rest of the year with milder temperatures.
- Is your existing heating/cooling ductwork adequate for your new system?
The Cool Homes Program recommends (does not require) that ducts are tested to make sure that there is no excessive leakage. Your ducts are a critical part of your heating and cooling system, so it’s important that they be in good condition. Have your contractor look for:
- Leaks: Studies suggest that home ductwork typically leak 20 percent of the air that flows through them. Duct leaks are hard to see, but a well-trained contractor with the right equipment can locate and seal them for you.
- Insulating your ductwork: Even well-sealed ductwork can lose a lot of energy if they run through areas like attics or crawlspaces that are not normally heated or cooled. Consider having your contractor insulate your ductwork.
- Properly sizing your ductwork: Some ductwork systems are too small to allow proper airflow through the central air conditioner. While replacing ductwork can be expensive, it can pay for itself over time thanks to the annual energy savings.
Why is it important? Like sucking through a broken (or thin) straw which requires additional effort, a HVAC system needs to work unnecessarily harder and use more energy, if the ductwork is leaky, uninsulated and/or improperly sized. Instead of getting a larger (and more expensive) HVAC system to compensate for poor ductwork, make sure the ductwork is tested and, if necessary, properly sealed, insulated and sized for your new HVAC system.
Testing, sealing, insulating and re-sizing of ductwork may not be reasonable during an emergency replacement for an existing home. Therefore, the Cool Homes Program only recommends duct testing, sealing, insulating and re-sizing during a central air conditioner or heat pump replacement, weather and time permitting. Also duct testing and duct sealing services are available via the Home Performance Direct program. The Cool Homes Program highly recommends proper testing, sealing, insulating and sizing, if you are doing substantial renovation or new construction (may be required by local building codes).
- Ask the contractor to make sure that the system will be properly charged with refrigerant.
An under charged system will not properly cool your home. Over charged system will shorten the life of the equipment; including damaging the compressor. Improper refrigerant charge can significantly reduce both the performance and energy efficiency of central cooling equipment. To be eligible for Cool Homes incentives, participating contractors will test to ensure your system has the correct refrigerant charge.
- Ask the contractor to make sure that the system will deliver the proper airflow.
Improper system airflow can significantly reduce both the performance and energy efficiency of central cooling equipment. With the right equipment, a contractor can measure the airflow of your system to ensure that the system is properly cooling/heating your home. To be eligible for Cool Homes incentives, participating contractors will test to ensure your system has the correct airflow.
- Remember, you usually get what you pay for.
Don’t just look for the lowest price. Be open to paying more for energy-efficient equipment and properly trained installers. Any savings you reap from an inexpensive installation can easily be lost – many times over – in the form of higher energy bills, higher maintenance costs and lower comfort levels.
HVAC equipment may be the same but not all installations are the same. Contractors provide different level of work (and different quotes). The different levels of work can impact not only the installation cost but the performance (and operating cost) of the HVAC system. ACCA QI 5 Standard ensures that expectations of customers are properly met by having requirements clearly defined.
The ACCA Residential QI Checklist can be useful to evaluate different contractors and their quotes.
- Tell your contractor you want to participate in our Cool Homes Program!
By participating in Cool Homes, you’ll enjoy all the benefits of energy efficiency, and you’ll qualify for a rebate on an efficient, correctly sized and installed unit. While we can’t recommend specific contractors, we want you to know that the work of any contractors who participate in the Cool Homes Program is randomly inspected by expert technicians we hire. We also encourage you to use licensed contractors to install your unit.
The Cool Homes Participating Contractors list represents contractors who are participants of our Residential Central Air Conditioning Rebate Program. Services offered by the participating contractors do not guarantee incentive or program participation. Please check with the contractor.
We cannot and will not recommend one particular contractor over another. We accept no responsibility and make no warranties, expressed or implied, for the materials used or workmanship of any of the contractors listed. Ask for, and check, at least three references for any contractor you consider using. Due to the diversified licensing requirements for various counties & towns, have contractors furnish proof that they are licensed in your county & town. If the Contractor you are looking for is not on this list, please contact the Infoline at 1-800-692-2626 to confirm their participation.