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The complete central air installation guide.

Updated

Don’t want to melt this summer? Find something else to tinker with. Here’s what you actually need to know about your central AC, according to experts at Thumbtack. 



The most common central air conditioning systems. 

From packaged air conditioners to ductless mini-split systems, there are various types of air conditioning systems to choose from. Learn more about the different types of systems before you make your final choice.

Type 1: Packaged air conditioners. 

Packaged air conditioners are an all-in-one cool-air dream. Unlike most other central air systems that require scrambling through basements and crawl spaces to get to, packaged systems are contained to one outdoor unit behind your home or on your roof.

Generally, packaged air conditioners run on electricity alone, which pumps cooled air from the outdoor unit through vents and into your home. Most packaged systems also include electric heating strips, which attach to the air handler to warm the air coming out of your blower — turning your AC into a decently efficient heating system in the flip of a switch.

Remember that replacing your electric heating strip isn’t as easy as it looks. Don’t risk electric shock. Bring in a specialist to check things out for you.  

>>See: The Best Air Conditioning Professionals Near You

Type 2: Heat pumps. 

Think of heat pumps as the attractive cousin to traditional furnaces and air conditioners.

Heat pumps are sleek and efficient. They use electricity to transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, balancing out hot and cold pockets throughout your house without any added energy.

Rather than generating hot or cool air, heat pumps merely move that air around. By moving heat (rather than generating it), heat pumps work really well to maintain a comfortable temperature in your home without skimping on seasonal energy efficiency — and running up utility bills.

A high-efficiency heat pump generally costs around a quarter of the cost of operating traditional heating and cooling systems like furnaces and baseboard heaters.  

Type 3: Split cooling units. 

This is more of an umbrella category than a specific type of air conditioning system. Split systems are in fact split (yes, very clever) into two pieces: an outdoor air compressor/condenser unit and an indoor air handler. For those of us that don’t speak fluent HVAC: that’s a big metal box outside that condenses, cools and dehumidifies air, and a wall unit or vent that blows that air into your home.

If your home is outfitted with a split system, it’s probably also got a furnace. Split cooling units just cool — when winter comes, it’s back to your boiler.  

Type 4: Ductless mini-split AC systems. 

No ducts? Your central air conditioning options are limited.

If it’s winter in your ductless home and you’re not freezing (or surrounded by mini-heaters), odds are your place is being warmed using a mini-split system. Mini-splits, which are popular in Europe, are similar to heating pumps in that the compressor is outside the home, and the handling unit (the thing that the air blows through) are indoors.

But unlike most old-style central AC systems, every air handling unit in the house connects back to the outdoor compressor — making it easier to control your home’s temperature from room to room. Which is all to say, having no ducts might just be a blessing.  

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AC units in apartment/shared housing

The best air conditioner installation tips. 

Now that you know more about the different types of systems, it's time to start the process of getting a system installed in your home. But if you want the job done right, read these tips first:

Tip #1: Hire a specialist to install your air conditioning system for you. 

This should be obvious: Don’t handle your own central AC and ductwork. Your cooling system is delicate, and you’re likely to cause more damage than good.

Even if you do complete the installation yourself (without injuring yourself or breaking anything), there’s a high chance that small kinks could result in reduced efficiency and expensive energy bills.

Let cooler heads prevail — hire an air conditioning contractor to install your new central air system for you. 

Tip #2: Have your ducts checked before you begin the install.

Before you even bring up a new AC installation with your HVAC technician, have them over to check out your ducts.

If your duct system needs to be replaced, it will change the scope (and cost) of your project in a big way. It might even change how you think about solving the problem.

When in doubt, start with the ducts. 

>>Hire a Pro: Here Are the Best Duct Work Professionals Near You

Tip #3: Three HVAC terms to know when dealing with your AC unit. 

Be your heating system’s best advocate by learning a few lines of the technical lingo. Here’s a brief primer on how to speak HVAC: 

  • Load calculation: This calculation determines how much heating or cooling your home needs based on the size of your home, your system and how much heat is gained or lost. 
  • Register: This is the grated metal vent that covers the inlets and outlets of your ductwork. You can change the size of the slots to increase or decrease airflow.   
  • SEER: Stands for ‘Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio,’ which measures the efficiency of the air conditioner. It’s calculated by dividing the hours of cooling by the electricity (in watts) that it took to keep the home cool. The minimum SEER rating a system should have is 13. 
  • Air handler: The unit inside your home that contains a blower and circulates air through the duct system in your home. 

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How much does air conditioning installation cost? 

A heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) expert can troubleshoot or repair your home’s heating and air conditioning systems. The national average cost of air conditioning maintenance and repair is $50 to $100, though it’s rare for a site visit to cost less than $100 in parts and labor. Most companies charge a flat rate to cover the repairs needed after inspecting a system in person — and as a rule, the older the unit, the more expensive a repair is likely to be. 

The average lifespan of an AC unit is 15 years, and most HVAC specialists can perform a routine system check and tuneup for $125 to $200 on average.

The best way to keep your AC and heating system working efficiently is to change the air filter once a month (the manufacturer will suggest the same thing). Keeping your air filter and condenser coils clean and free of debris can help lower utility bills. 

For more on costs, see “How much does air conditioning installation cost?

installing an AC unit

Who to hire to install a new AC system. 

Kicking your outdoor AC won’t fix it. Hire a pro to inspect your system, diagnose the problem and change out the right parts.  

Here are a few examples of pros who can help you fix your central air problem: 

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