If your current air conditioner (AC) isn’t maintaining your desired home temperature, you may need a new central air conditioning unit. Installing central air conditioning is costly, averaging $3,000 to $7,000. So it’s important to know what kind of central air conditioning you need and any additional cost factors to consider when budgeting. This guide breaks down everything you need to know.
What Is Central Air Conditioning?
Central ACs are the most common type of cooling system and are preferable for large homes. They have two units: a condenser unit outside and an evaporator coil inside. When the temperature in your home rises above your set point on the thermostat, the indoor unit extracts the warm air and cools it with refrigerant. The cool air is distributed throughout your home via fans and ductwork.
The refrigerant transforms from liquid to gas during this process. The gas is compressed and sent to the outdoor condenser unit. A large fan pulls in outdoor air, which absorbs the heat from the refrigerant and releases it outside. The refrigerant converts back to a liquid, which is sent indoors to begin the process again.
Central Air Installation Costs
Homeowners pay an average of $5,000 to $10,000 for a central air conditioner unit, including professional installation.* The main factors that affect AC unit cost are the home’s square footage and the unit’s SEER rating.
*Cost figures based on 2022 reports from multiple sources, including The Home Depot, Modernize, and Lowe’s.
Costs by Square Footage
Square footage determines which central air system unit your home requires. An HVAC technician will calculate the size based on the unit’s power output through British Thermal Units (BTUs). BTU measures the energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.
An air conditioner produces 12,000 BTUs per ton. For example, a 2.5-ton air conditioner equals 30,000 BTUs. The average AC unit cools roughly 400 square feet of house per 1 ton of air conditioning cooling capacity. Therefore, this unit would produce 12,000 BTUs per 400 square feet.
Below is the average price breakdown for central AC units based on BTU.
Cost by SEER Rating
AC units’ energy efficiency is measured by a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating, which represents a unit’s cooling output over a typical cooling season divided by the energy it uses in watt-hours. A higher SEER rating means you’ll save more money on energy bills. However, high-efficiency models typically cost more up-front.
A SEER rating above 13 is considered good. The average rating is 16 and the current maximum is 24. Anything above 20 is especially high-quality. Below are the average costs of central AC units based on SEER rating, including installation.
Factors That Influence Central Air Installation Cost
Besides the cost of the AC unit and the labor to install it, you may need to pay additional fees. We’ll review these potential costs in detail below.
Many homeowners need additional ductwork to install an HVAC unit. Existing ductwork can’t always handle a new AC unit’s increased airflow and may require replacement. You may also have leaky ductwork if your previous air conditioning unit wasn’t working properly. Ductwork can deteriorate over time, so you should have it inspected if you suspect a problem.
HVAC duct replacement costs an extra $500 to $2,000. If you only have to replace a small section of existing ductwork, you may only pay $10 to $20 per linear foot plus labor costs.
AC installation sometimes has hidden fees that won’t appear on your initial quote. You should factor these into your new system budget to be safe. Ask your HVAC expert whether the following items are included in your initial quote.
- Permit fees: Your local city or county building department may require a permit. If so, the unit will also require an inspection by a building department representative. This comes with an additional fee, which varies by your local ordinance.
- Additional contractor work: HVAC installation sometimes requires additional work, such as plumbing and electrical. A contractor may also have to modify your home’s framing or surfacing to bring the unit up to code. This additional work will increase your HVAC cost.
You may have to pay for additional labor beyond installing the new central AC; an example would be paying for the removal of your old system. Removing an old unit is relatively easy, and some companies will do it for free. Disposal fees average $25 to $200, depending on the system’s age. Removing and upgrading ductwork will also increase your price.
Central air installation requires a preinstallation evaluation, which is essentially an energy audit. This determines the AC unit size needed, your home’s insulation efficiency, and whether your existing ductwork will suffice. Specifically, a Manual J load calculation is used to measure your home’s heat retention. This is a critical step of the preinstallation process and costs around $250 for a 2,000-square-foot home.
Zones are dampers created in your home’s ductwork to regulate and redirect airflow to specific areas. Adding zones increases the total AC installation cost by $2,000 to $3,000. Installing an entirely new zone system costs $7,500 to $12,500. A zone system also uses a specific thermostat for each zone of your house.
How To Save Money on Central Air Installation
Installing a central AC system is expensive, but there are some ways to save money. Here are steps you can take to cut costs on this pricey home improvement project.
- Off-season installation: Plan to install your unit during spring or fall. These are considered the off-season for most HVAC companies. Prices are lower because they’re less busy.
- Rebates: Use Energy Star’s rebate finder to look for local governments, utility companies, and manufacturers that provide product rebates in your ZIP code.
- Smaller unit: If you live alone or only need specific areas cooled, you can get by with a smaller system. However, we recommend discussing this possibility with a trusted HVAC expert.
- Warranty: A new central air unit with a warranty can help reduce potential repair costs due to a malfunction or faulty installation. Check with the unit’s manufacturer for a manufacturer’s warranty, and ask your HVAC contractor about a labor warranty.
You need a trusted HVAC company to install your new central air conditioning system. Try to get estimates from multiple companies to closely compare costs and product selections. An HVAC professional may also include a warranty that helps protect your central AC investment.
When to Consider a Broader Home Inspection
When purchasing or selling a home, it is critical to complete a thorough inspection to understand the condition of the property. A standard home inspection includes an assessment of a home’s systems and physical structure. After the process, the inspector will provide a report detailing their findings and recommendations.
If you are thinking about buying a home or putting your home on the market, we strongly recommend finding an ASHI home inspector in your area.