2023 Central AC Unit Cost – How Much Does Central Air Cost?

CEO Khai Intela
Are you tired of your noisy, leaking air conditioners? A quiet, efficient central AC unit can be an ideal solution. On average, homeowners spend $4,200-5,600 to install a 3 TON (36,000 BTUs), 14 SEER Central...

Are you tired of your noisy, leaking air conditioners? A quiet, efficient central AC unit can be an ideal solution.

On average, homeowners spend $4,200-5,600 to install a 3 TON (36,000 BTUs), 14 SEER Central AC (without installing/replacing air ducts), which is typically sufficient for a 1500-1800 sq. ft. home. But why settle for average when you can have more?

Upgrade to an 18-SEER Central AC unit and experience the benefits. It may cost between 50% and 70% more than a 14 SEER unit, or about $6,500 - $8,600 for a 3-ton unit, but it will also use almost 30% less power. In places like California, where electric costs are among the highest in the US, you can save as much as $550 to $800 per year with an 18-SEER central AC.

The total cost of central air depends on whether or not your house has existing ducts, the desired system size, and the complexity of installation. Let's dive deeper into the factors that influence the cost of installing a central AC unit.

How Much Does A New AC Unit Cost?

Use our Central AC Cost Calculator to estimate accurate pricing for Central AIR (AC and/or Hot Air Furnace), based on your house size, climate zone, efficiency, and equipment type (standard vs Central Heat Pump).

Central AC Unit Cost With Existing Ducts

If there is ductwork already in place, your total installation price for a whole house central air system will be very reasonable. For a 1,600-2,000 sq. ft. house, a 2.5-ton central AC system costs $3,900-5,000. Most homes that have a forced-air heating system have ducts that can be used for AC as well. If you have a gas, warm air furnace, an HVAC contractor will put a coil in there for the A/C system and then run the electric to complete the setup. Without unforeseen complications, the install will take 2-3 days.

Keep in mind that opting for a more efficient, powerful system can be very expensive. These central air units can cost $10,000-15,000. The total will depend on the size of your home and the amount of power it takes to cool it.

Cost To Install Central Air With No Existing Ductwork

If your house does not currently have ductwork, you will need to install it first before you can put in a central air system. Installing ducts can be pricey, but if you absolutely want central air, you need ducts. Central air with duct installation costs $8,000-15,000. You can use this Duct Calculator to estimate ductwork costs. Putting in new ductwork ranges from $3,000 to $10,000. Pricing is so widespread because there are many factors that may impact installation difficulty:

  • Location of the ducts
  • Number of stories in your house
  • Number of vents
  • Duct material you want to install
  • Number of temperature zones you want to have

Adding ductwork is a labor-intensive project that involves cutting into your ceilings, walls, and floors. However, an experienced HVAC pro can do a retrofit and hide the new ductwork with minimal disturbance to the structure of your house and very little mess. This is possible today thanks to the advent of modern duct systems, which are both flexible and small in size. As a result, a contractor can easily fit the system inside a small space, such as a closet. Contrary to popular belief, you will not need to do any major construction that may alter the present layout and look of your home. Even 10 years ago, a homeowner would have to live through demolition of certain walls and parts of the house in order to install the ductwork for a new central air conditioner. Today, this is a pretty painless project.

PRO TIP: If your house does not have ducts, consider a Ductless mini-split AC (heat-pump) system, to deliver targeted cool or warm air. Mini-split AC does not need ducts, so you will be saving $8,000-15,000 by eliminating ductwork!

What’s Included In An Average AC Replacement Cost Estimate?

Central air cost estimates that HVAC contractors provide assume the following:

  • You are replacing an existing Central AC system, and already have all the ductwork in place, as well as line sets used to carry refrigerant between the outdoor unit (Condenser coil + Compressor) and the indoor unit (Evaporator coil + metal cabinet that houses blower motor, filter, etc).
  • You have a proper electrical connection in place, with adequate gauge electric cable, circuit breaker, and outdoor disconnect box.
  • Your line set (copper tubing) is in decent shape and is not leaking.
  • Your thermostat and wiring are in proper working order.
  • Your electrical connection to the indoor unit is in proper working order and is up to code.

Central air replacement cost includes new equipment, sized for your home, a new AC cabinet with an ECM blower motor and AC evaporator coil. Also included are the wiring for the system, including adapters and harnesses needed to connect AC with the furnace (if you have one), as well as all the safety shut-offs. Besides the above items, a new condenser with a compressor, as well as new refrigerant (typically R410A), will be included. As far as labor, the installer should put the whole system together, add the proper amount of refrigerant charge per manufacturer’s specifications, as well as test sub-cooling and superheat to make sure that your system is properly charged. After that, systems will be connected to the thermostat and tested to provide proper airflow.

What is NOT Included In A Typical Central Air Cost Estimate?

As you may conclude from above - new copper tubing (lineset) and electrical wiring, as well as ducts, are not typically included in a central air install, for several reasons:

  1. A new lineset is expensive and is often not needed.
  2. Running a new lineset in existing homes may be problematic, due to the specific construction of your home. For example, in my home, lineset and electric wire are installed in a crawl space that has no access at all.
  3. HVAC technicians are usually not licensed to do electrical work (beyond the scope of installing your HVAC system), and it is illegal for them to touch electrical wiring.
  4. Sealing, insulating or installing new ducts are not included, as these items are expensive and labor-intensive.

Bottom line: if you have a working or even a broken central AC system already, in most cases, HVAC contractors can just come in and swap out the old system with a new high-efficiency unit. However, if you have issues with any of the “not-included” items, your costs will be higher.

New AC Unit Cost Based On Size

When it comes to the cost of the central AC unit itself, the math is simple: a bigger unit costs more. Roughly, you can expect to spend an extra $1,000 for every additional 800-1,000 sq.ft. of space. The capacity or power of an AC unit is measured in BTU’s (the amount of heat it can remove from a space in one hour). The most popular central air unit size is 2.5 tons, which is about 30,000 BTU’s. It can cool 1,600-2,000 sq.ft. and costs $3,500-4,300 (includes installation).

Here is a rundown of the most popular AC unit sizes, the approximate area it can cool, and estimated installation costs:

Area (sq.ft) Unit Capacity (BTU) Unit Size Installation Cost
700 - 1,000 18,000 1.5 Tons $2,200 - 3,300
1,200 - 1,400 21,000 2 Tons $3,000 - 3,800
1,500 - 2,000 30,000 2.5 Tons $3,500 - 4,300
2,000 - 2,500 34,000 3 Tons $4,500 - 5,000
3,000 - 4,000 48,000 4 Tons $5,200 - 5,800
5,000+ 60,000 5 Tons $6,000+

Cost Of Top Central Air Unit Brands

Here are our picks for the 5 best central air brands. By best, we mean a combination of quality, reliability, and a nice reasonable price. For example, a top brand is Carrier, and while it offers superb quality, it’s also very expensive. Their AC units typically cost at least $800-1,000 more than comparable products from different brands. The average cost of a 16 SEER Carrier AC Unit is $2,295. So while Carrier is a great product and we do recommend it, it’s not on this list.

  1. Day and Night Heating and Cooling Products - Its equipment is actually made by the same manufacturer as Carrier, United Technologies. So you are getting top-notch quality for much less. (Average price: $1,290)
  2. Bryant - Has been in business for over 68 years and offers high quality, reliable AC units at a price that will not break your bank. (Average price: $1,360)
  3. York - Makes great quality air conditioning units, but they don’t have some of the fancier features of the more expensive brands. On the upside, they also cost less. (Average price: $1,400)
  4. Goodman Air Conditioning - Another well-respected and recognized brand, which also makes more upscale and expensive AC equipment under the brand name Amana. However, with Goodman, you get similar quality, fewer features, and a cheaper price. (Average price: $1,100)
  5. American Standard - This manufacturer has a long-standing reputation, reliable products, good customer service, and a decent price. (Average price: $1,500)

Central Air Enhancement And Improvement Costs

When you install a new central air conditioning system, you may discover that there are additional upgrades you need to make. Here are the most common ones.

Upgrade the circuit breaker box

If you live in an older home, you may discover that your existing circuit breaker cannot handle the additional load of the central air. In this case, you will want an upgrade to at least 200 amps. A licensed electrician will need to perform this work. Expect to spend $1,200-1,800 to upgrade a 100 amp electrical panel to 200 amps. If there are complications, the cost can go up to as much as $3,000.

To avoid unexpected spending, make sure that your electric panel can handle the load of the central AC. If it cannot, you will need to re-evaluate your budget and decide if you want to move forward.

Replace the air filter

To ensure that the air inside your home is dust and pollen-free, it’s important to install a high-quality filter. A system with a “media” filter will tack on an extra $500-1,000 to the total. However, in addition to clean air, this filter will ensure that the AC equipment is clean and works efficiently. This can reduce your annual maintenance costs by about $200-250.

Install proper insulation

It is key to make sure that your home has good insulation. Having poor insulation will have a direct impact on both the short and long term cost of your central AC. First, because so much air escapes, you will need a bigger, more powerful AC unit, which will cost a lot more. Second, you will waste money on operating it more to keep up with the cooling demand. Over the years, this will add up to thousands of dollars. Instead, if your house has poor insulation, tackle this project first. Then, move on to AC. This way you will be able to get a smaller, less expensive central air system and will spend a lot less on your monthly electric bill.

Cost Of Central Air vs Central Heat Pump

A Conventional central AC system can only work in one mode - cooling. In the last decade, a new type of Central AC system is becoming increasingly popular - a Central Heat Pump (also known as Reversed Cycle Air Conditioner). A central heat pump is essentially an air conditioner that can also work as a heating system when outside ambient temperatures are above 32-36°F. This “heating mode” is enabled via using a Reversing Valve which changes the direction of refrigerant (freon) flow.

COSTS: Central heat pumps are about 30-40% more expensive to install compared to conventional AC, but as mentioned above - extra upfront costs will be covered by energy savings as well as substantial subsidies available in many states! Learn more about different Central Heat Pump models.

A typical 3 TON (36,000 BTUs), 16 SEER heat pump, which is appropriate for a home size of about 1500-1850 sq.ft will cost about $6,750 to install, compared to $4,990 for the same size 14 SEER regular Central AC. A more efficient 18 SEER heat pump unit will cost about $8,800 to install.

Single-Stage vs. 2-Stage Central Air Cost

When selecting a system, it’s important to consider whether you want it to be single stage or 2 stage. A single-stage cooling system will turn on at full capacity when the temperature inside your home rises above what you have preset on the thermostat. Once this happens, it will turn itself off completely, and the process will repeat itself again when it gets too warm. This system is ideal for mild climates that don’t get severe temperature fluctuations throughout the day.

However, if you live in an area with more intense heat, this type of system will have to turn on and off repeatedly to maintain the desired temperature. A two-stage unit works differently. It always functions at 2/3 of its capacity. When the temperature rises above what has been preset, the system works up to full capacity and stays on until it reaches the desired temperature. It then goes back to functioning at 2/3 capacity and then shuts down. This helps save on energy costs and reduces noise that you hear if the system has to come on and shut down many times. A two-stage central air system is also known to emit cleaner air, which is very beneficial for people with asthma.

Central Air System Load Estimation - Manual J

There is no reason to overspend on a big central air unit if you actually don’t need one. That’s why the first step in installing central air should be to get a professional pre-installation evaluation or an energy audit.

PRO TIP: Use our simplified Manual J HVAC Load Calculator to get a quick estimate of how many TONs or BTUs your system needs to be, based on house size, Climate Zone, and wall/windows insulation rating. We will also suggest the most appropriate HVAC system for your home.

Usually, every 500-600 sq.ft. in your house will call for 1 ton of cooling. However, there are many factors that can impact this general rule. Mainly the “Climate Zone” in which you live and the insulation rating of your walls, attic/roof, and doors/windows.

If you live in the south (Region/Zone 5 on the map below), you will need a lot more cooling capacity because there is more heat which you need to remove, than if you lived in the north (Region/Zone 1 on the map below), where ambient temperatures are lower, and you need to remove less heat.

Climate Zone Map

Find your approximate location on the map above to see which climate zone/region you live in.

PRO TIP: The table below will help you estimate the size of a central AC that you need, based on Climate Zone & your home size.

An HVAC contractor should do a Manual J calculation to determine the appropriate system size, based on the particular conditions in your home. These include:

  • House size and layout
  • Geographic location
  • Presence of direct sunlight
  • Number of windows and doors
  • Height of your ceilings
  • Insulation quality
  • Air drafts and leaks

Unfortunately, most HVAC contractors DO NOT spend the time needed to perform Manual J calculations and just to be “safe,” oversize your Central Air system, which costs you a lot more in both installation and operating costs. It is critical that before you get a new heating/cooling system installed, a proper heat load calculation is performed, and equipment is appropriately sized! Otherwise, you will be paying too much to run the equipment for many years to come. Also, house insulation plays a big role in the size of your Central AC - the better your house is insulated, the smaller the system you will need, which will, in turn, result in a smaller electric bill.

PRO TIP: You should never hire an HVAC contractor who doesn’t do the full manual J calculation and instead proposes to estimate your system size based on his “vast experience”. It’s simply not possible to accurately determine proper air conditioning size based on doing a walk-through in your home. This only speaks to the contractor’s lack of professionalism and vastly increases the chances of a poor install.

Accounting For Leaky Ducts When Sizing Central Air

As mentioned above, uninsulated leaky ducts can result in as much as 40% losses. Insulating and sealing your ductwork can reduce that number to about 20-25%. As a result, you will now need a 15-20% smaller size central AC. For example, if you needed a 4-ton unit, after upgrading, sealing, and insulating the ducts, you can scale back to 3.5 tons. While it may seem marginal, that is a 12.5% reduction in compressor power consumption.

EXAMPLE: If your AC is a 4-ton (48,000 BTUs) and it runs 12 hours/day, consuming 3.429 KW/h, and a national average electric cost of $0.1376 / kWh (data from US DOE), your cost to run the AC is $0.472 / hr, or $5.66/day, or $849 per season, which is about 150 days of running 12 hours per day. The reduction in duct waste should yield a 15-20% overall reduction in energy costs or $127-170 per season.

Now this is only if your electric cost is $0.1376/kWh. However, most folks in CA, mid-Atlantic, and New England pay well over $0.20/kWh, which is at least 50% higher than the national average. The above savings take into account power savings of the compressor only. However, insulating and sealing ducts will also likely reduce blower motor runtime and overall AC runtime. So actual savings are likely to be 10-20% higher than mentioned above!

Bottom line - by upgrading the ducts, you can reduce your system size by about 15% and thus save on electricity between $120 to $300 per cooling season. Winter heating savings can double that!

How To Save Money On Installing Central Air

After doing all the calculations, you may wonder if there is any way to save a few bucks on installing central AC. In fact, if you go about this retrofit in a smart way, you can save a few thousand dollars. Here are some tips to consider:

Get a properly sized AC unit: One way to avoid overspending is to get the right unit size. Many people tend to err on the side of caution and want to get a bigger unit, just in case… This is not smart because in addition to spending more money upfront, you will also be wasting money and energy on running the AC that is too large for your house. Moreover, when the unit is too big for the square footage of your house, it starts to switch on and off in order to maintain the set temperature. This wears out the system, shortens its service life, and increases the risk of malfunctions.

Go for high efficiency: Buying an energy-efficient AC unit may be more expensive upfront, but it will save money in the long run. First, if you purchase a unit that is 16 SEER or higher, you may qualify for a Federal Tax Credit of $300. These units offer 30% savings on electric bills compared to 13 SEER units and 60% savings compared to older 10 SEER units.

Did you know? SEER is the seasonal energy efficiency ratio, which shows how efficient the unit is throughout all four seasons. For example, it compares the cooling output during the summer vs. the electric input during the summer. Since 2006, the 13 SEER has been a minimal federal standard for all central AC units. If you have an older system, you may want to consider replacing it. Our pros recommend installing at least a 14 SEER unit, and 16 SEER is BEST. It is possible to get a unit with a very high SEER Rating like 20-24 (24 SEER is the highest). Some HVAC contractors may push you into getting one of these extra high-efficiency units; however, this may not be advisable. First, because most homes, unless they are located in a region where it's never below 95-100+ degrees F will not need a unit with such high efficiency. It’s simply a waste of money. Second, these high-efficiency units are known to break more frequently and require expensive repairs - why would you want that? Simpler, lower SEER models are actually more reliable and cause fewer problems.

Get 3 or more estimates: While you may not want to spend time interviewing different contractors, doing this will pay off! HVAC guys charge different rates for their labor and will judge your project based on a number of factors. Many of these have to do with THEIR personal cost of doing business, rather than your house. If you get quotes from 3 or 4 contractors, you will see a 15-25% difference in their quotes.

Schedule the install during the cool season: Once the hot weather sets in, HVAC contractors will have a ton of work. This means that many companies will even jack up their prices a little just because they can. On the other hand, during the cold months, many companies are a lot less busy and may be willing to give you a discount of as much as 10%.

Alternatives To Central Air

Depending on the size and construction of your house, you may realize that central air is too expensive. If you live in a very old house, installing new ducts may simply not be feasible. One alternative is to go for a ductless air conditioning system, also known as a mini-split. These systems can cool and heat your house without any ductwork. Thus, this is a great option when central air is not viable.

Ductless air conditioning has been very popular in both Europe and Japan for many years. However, it is a fairly new option in the US. It has only been around for about two decades. An estimated 4% of homes in the states use ductless heating and cooling. On average, homeowners report spending $3,500-8,000 to install this system, depending on the size of their house and the number of cooling zones they want to have. Mini-split systems are far more energy-efficient than central AC systems and deliver comfort where you need it instead of cooling your entire home. The only “drawback” to mini-splits is that they are limited to where cool/warm air is delivered by the location of the indoor air handler. However, there is a wide selection of multi-zone ductless systems with up to 8 zones in a residential application!

Finding The RIGHT HVAC Pro

Installing central air is one of the most expensive whole-house updates. When you are spending this much money, you want to make sure that the job will be done correctly and will last for many years. Unfortunately, because professional HVAC labor is so expensive ($75-100/per hour), many homeowners are tempted to cut corners and hire a contractor who is willing to offer a discount. However, doing this is a really bad idea that will surely backfire. The numbers speak for themselves: according to the data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, almost 50% of all HVAC installs are done incorrectly! This results in costly repairs and even complete system replacements, thousands of your dollars down the drain. Moreover, a poorly installed system is 30-40% less efficient, more money down the drain every month.

Tips on finding the right HVAC contractor:

  • Only work with someone who is licensed, bonded, and insured.
  • Compare quotes from at least 3-4 contractors, and go for the middle-of-the-road estimate.
  • Ask for 3 references of recently completed central air installs in your area.
  • Hire someone who is willing to answer all your questions and doesn’t cut corners, such as failing to do a manual J calculation.
  • Your contractor should pull all the appropriate permits - if he doesn’t, it means something may be wrong with his license.
  • Ask for a written contract that includes a complete scope of work, including all prices, tasks, and estimated project completion date.

Is A Central Air System Right For My Home?

Many people are worried about the potential challenges as well as the high costs of this upgrade. There is a common misconception that central air can only be put into new construction projects or homes that have been recently built. In reality, it is possible to install central air in the majority of homes, even old ones, that don’t have any ductwork. While installing central air is not a cheap project, it costs the same or less than many other remodels. Most importantly, cooling your home this way will provide tangible benefits your whole family will feel right away.

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