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Air Conditioning > Leading Brands
  Industry Background
  Central System Manufacturers
  Portable Unit Manufacturers
The air conditioning space is crowded with many different brands, including both HVAC-focused manufacturers and industrial conglomerates for whom air conditioners represent one category within a diverse portfolio of consumer products. Our goal is to help you narrow down your product search by identifying the top brands - those with an established track record of success and customer satisfaction.
Industry Background
Believe it or not, the modern air conditioner is an appliance that has been nearly two thousand years in the making. All the way back in the 2nd Century, a Chinese inventor named Ding Huane created the first rotary fan for the purpose of cooling the air in an interior space. The fan was manually powered by individuals working a set of cranks.

Over the subsequent centuries, as the Han Dynasty was replaced by the Jin, Tang, and Song Dynasties, rotary fans came into increasingly wider usage by the nobility. In the 8th Century, Emperor Xuanzong had erected the Liang Tian, or Cool Hall, which featured rotary fans for cooling the air that were powered by water currents.

In the West, air conditioning took longer to appear. It was not until the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin teamed up with John Hadley to conduct an experiment which conclusively demonstrated that evaporation could be used to rapidly cool an object, even when the ambient temperature was much higher. Franklin famously, albeit darkly, concluded from the experiment: “one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”

In the 19th century, a Florida doctor named John Gorrie utilized an early compressor to create ice which was then used to cool the air at his hospital. Proving to be somewhat of a visionary, Gorrie imagined his invention expanded to cool multiple buildings and even entire cities. However, he proved unable to raise the capital to mass produce his cooling machines.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that an American engineer named Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first modern air conditioner. In essence, Carrier took the process of heating with steam and reversed the process, turning it into cooling with condensation. The invention proved successful and gave rise to the Carrier Air Conditioning Company, which became an HVAC giant that continues to be a leader in the industry to this day.

The actual term “air conditioning” was actually coined by Stuart Cramer, a textile mill owner from Charlotte, North Carolina who was looking for technologies that could add moisture to the air in his facility. Carrier then picked up this term and used it in naming his company. Subsequently, air conditioning caught on as the term used to describe almost any type of air cooling, whether in a commercial or residential setting.

In the early days of air conditioning, manufacturers experimented with different substances for refrigerant. Ammonia, methyl chloride, and propane were all used at some point as the substance whose phase changes were used to transport heat out of one area and into another. The problem is that all of these refrigerants were highly flammable and, in a number of instances, led to fatal accidents when leakage occurred.

As the 1920s were drawing to a close, Thomas Midgley, Jr. created the first chlorofluorocarbon gas, which was marketed under the commercial name “Freon” by the DuPont Company. Freon and its various permutations were rapidly adopted as the refrigerant of choice by the budding air conditioning and refrigeration industry due to its effectiveness with respect to the refrigeration cycle and its non-flammability.

Unfortunately, Freon had a profoundly negative impact on the environment, depleting ozone levels in the atmosphere, which was not discovered until the substance was in widespread use. A number of substitutes have been created over the past several decades and Freon has been largely phased out in new equipment. Instead, non-ozone depleting refrigerants such as Puron are being used in modern air conditioning and refrigeration systems. Still, consumers would do well to verify and be certain that the model of air conditioner which they may be buying does not utilize Freon.

Modern air conditioners are far more powerful, compact, and efficient than their precursors. Still, innovation is continuing as companies try to create units whose environmental imprint is progressively smaller while their effectiveness is incrementally greater. Work on improving both the machinery and the refrigerant substance is on-going.
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Central System Manufacturers
Given that a central air conditioning system represents a significant monetary investment, and that it plays a critically important role in maintaining a comfortable and safe residence, it is essential to identify a trusted manufacturer. Although there are many companies which manufacture residential air conditioning systems, only a handful can be considered as uniformly adhering to a superior standard of quality.

Over time, there has been significant consolidation within the HVAC industry, and a number of major companies have either merged or acquired other manufacturers. However, even post-merger or acquisition many companies continued to maintain their separate brand identities. As a result, consumers can find themselves today choosing between two brands, not realizing that both are actually made by the same company.

HVAC is a relatively old industry, pre-dating computers, microwaves, and televisions. Consequently, a number of the leading manufacturers of residential heating systems trace their history all the way back to the late 1800s or early 1900s. While experience in and of itself is not a guarantee of product quality, knowing that these companies have been able to satisfy consumers for such a long time is certainly a mark in their favor.

Over the course of the 20th century, certain companies have changed name or been bought and sold by either competitors or conglomerates. As mentioned, there has been significant consolidation within the industry. However, we will try to untangle that knot and provide a short history of the leading brands, beginning with two of the best known and most respected brands in residential air conditioning: Carrier and Trane.

In 1902, Willis Carrier, the American-born descendant of Welsh immigrants, was working as an engineer for the Buffalo Forge Company in Buffalo, New York. In response to a quality issue that was facing a client of the company, Willis Carrier presented blueprints for what would subsequently be recognized as the world’s first modern air conditioning system. Four years later, Carrier was granted a patent on his invention, which he dubbed the “Apparatus for Treating Air”. The very first sale of the apparatus was made to the LaCrosse National Bank, an interesting coincidence given that at the same time, on the other side of the Great Lakes, James Trane was running his plumbing shop in a town called La Crosse.

Up until the start of World War I, Willis Carrier continued to develop and refine his ideas for air conditioning. In 1914, along with six other engineers, he started the Carrier Engineering Corporation. The company did well as air conditioning became an increasingly popular method for cooling buildings. However, as a result of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Carrier ran into financial trouble and was forced to merge with the Brunswick-Kroeschell and York Heating & Ventilating firms. The combined company was called the Carrier Corporation, still keeping the Carrier name, and Willis Carrier was elected Chairman of the Board.

Seven years later, the headquarters of the Carrier Corporation were relocated to Syracuse, New York. In the 1950s, air conditioning began a tremendous growth in popularity, and the Carrier Corporation grew along with it. By that time, it had started the Toyo Carrier and Samsung Applications Company in Korea and Japan, which would eventually become the largest producer of air conditioning in the world.

In 1980, Carrier was acquired by United Technologies, an industrial and manufacturing giant that is one of the 50 largest companies in the United States and one of the 200 largest corporations in the world. As part of United Technologies, Carrier continued to grow, becoming a world leader in not only residential, but also commercial HVAC and refrigeration. Carrier today has worldwide sales of more than $15 billion and employs more than 40,000 people. It is without question one of the best producers of central air conditioning systems for the home. Carrier also owns the Bryant and Payne companies, although they continue to manufacture air conditioning products under their own brand names.

The history of Trane is nearly as remarkable as that of Carrier. In 1885, a Norwegian immigrant named James Trane opened his own plumbing store in the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. In the course of his work, James Trane invented a new type of low-pressure steam heating system. Some years later, James’ son, Reuben, received a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then, in 1913, father and son incorporated the Trane Company. By 1916, the Trane Company was focusing on a broad range of heating products. In 1925, Reuben invented the convector radiator, which was smaller, lighter, cheaper, and more efficient than the cast-iron radiators which had been in use until that time. In the 1930s, the Trane Company also became involved in the production of air conditioning and refrigeration systems.

Over the succeeding decades, the Trane Company grew extensively, becoming one of the undisputed powerhouses in the HVAC industry. In 1984, Trane was acquired by American Standard, a Fortune 500 conglomerate which was also a major player in bath and kitchen products and vehicle control systems. Subsequent to the acquisition, the company produced air conditioning systems under both the Trane and American Standard brand names.

In 2007, American Standard sold off both the bath and kitchen products division and the vehicle control systems division, retaining only the Trane Company. Given that it was now only focused on HVAC, American Standard renamed itself as Trane Inc., returning the Trane name back to the fore. Just months later, Trane was acquired by Ingersoll Rand, an international industrial giant that also owns such diversified brands as Schlage, Thermo King, Hussmann, and Club Car. Today, as a part of Ingersoll Rand, Trane continues to produce high quality residential air conditioning systems that have a long-standing reputation for quality, durability, and performance.

In addition to Trane and Carrier, several other companies make central air conditioning systems that are of comparable quality. These include York, Rheem, and Lennox. York is the oldest brand, tracing its roots back to 1874 when the company was founded in the eponymous town of York, Pennsylvania. Over the next century and a quarter, York grew rapidly. Today, York has more than 20 manufacturing facilities around the world and sales offices in more than 100 countries. York is a part of Johnson Controls, another gigantic industrial conglomerate with multiple business lines.

Over the years, York has provided HVAC systems to a number of landmark installations, including the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.; the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan; the Bank of America building in San Francisco, California; the British Houses of Parliament in London, England; the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, France; the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia; and the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Of course, the home systems produced by York are nothing as extensive, complex, or expensive as the commercial systems installed in these landmark buildings. Still, for many consumers it is confidence-building to know that the manufacturing know-how behind their air conditioning system is the same as behind those large-scale systems.

Compared to the York brand, Rheem is a relative upstart even though it was established nearly 90 years ago. Started by two brothers in San Francisco, the Rheem Manufacturing Company began with the manufacture of water heaters and by the 1940s was also making space heating systems.

In 1959, Rheem acquired the Ruud Manufacturing Company, which was another leader in the water heating industry. In the 1960s, Rheem entered the heating and air conditioning market and continued its rapid growth. In the 1980s, the company expanded further by acquiring Raypak, a producer of heating equipment for swimming pools and hydronic systems.

Today, Rheem sells air conditioning systems under both the Rheem and Ruud brands. The company has an outstanding reputation for quality and reliability in the industry, receiving consistently high marks from air conditioning experts and service professionals. Many consumers swear by Rheem/Ruud systems and would not even consider purchasing an air conditioning system from any other manufacturer.

Approximately three decades prior to the founding of Rheem, an American workman named David Lennox was exposed to the idea of using riveted steel instead of cast iron for furnaces. Riveted steel offered a number of advantages, including being a lighter and more durable material with a longer shelf life. David Lennox began to manufacture these new riveted steel furnaces and soon his business became a success. In 1904, he sold the business to a group of investors in his hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. Even though David Lennox sold the company, his name remained. The company was called the Lennox Furnace Company and it grew across the United States over the first half of the 20th century. As the company continued its expansion, it was renamed Lennox Industries and then Lennox International. After nearly a century of private ownership, the company was taken public and began to trade on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999.

Today, Lennox is an acknowledged leader in the HVAC space, producing a broad range of residential air conditioning products. The company offers a number of high-efficiency models under both its own brand name and also under the Aire-Flo brand name.
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Portable Unit Manufacturers
One might think that the same companies that produce central air conditioning systems would also manufacture room and portable air conditioners. As it turns out, this is not the case. There is very limited overlap between manufacturers of central AC systems and makers of room units. The only major players in both product types are Amana, Airwell, and Kenmore, with none of these making the top five manufacturer list in either product type from our perspective. This is in no small part due to the fact that central AC systems are a much larger, more complex, and inherently different type of technology from room air conditioners.

Many experts would agree that the triumvirate of leading room AC manufacturers is comprised of GE, LG, and Friedrich. The next two spots are much more up for debate, although Haier and Frigidaire both make excellent choices. Other manufacturers of note include Sharp, DeLonghi, and, as mentioned, Airwell, Kenmore, and Amana.
GE, which is the abbreviation for General Electric, is a multinational conglomerate that traces its roots back to Thomas Edison and his inventions. GE was one of the original 12 companies which comprised the Dow Jones Index in 1896. Nearly a century and a quarter later, it is the only company in the original 12 that remains a part of the Dow Jones Index. GE is one of the most recognized brands in the world today and produces a dizzying array of products for the government, commercial, and retail markets.

Over the years, GE has earned a reputation for adherence to the highest standards of quality with respect to consumer products. The company places great emphasis on the engineering behind its technologies. As a result, many of GE’s products provide reliable and effective service for years and years. With respect to room air conditioners specifically, GE offers not only quality products, but also a broad selection of portable, window, and through-the-wall models.

The LG Corporation is also a major international conglomerate, but unlike GE, it is based in South Korea. Founded in 1947, LG was originally a chemical company. It diversified into electronics in the late 1950s. Over the subsequent years, the majority of the household and electronic consumer products in the Korean market were manufactured by LG. With the globalization of the 1980s and 1990s, LG expanded into many international markets, becoming a major transnational conglomerate, on par with GE.

LG places emphasis on innovative products which provide high efficiency at a reasonable price. A major part of the reason why LG has been able to capture market share and expand rapidly into new areas has been an emphasis on making the consumer’s experience as positive and enjoyable as possible. The company makes a number of excellent room air conditioners which are roundly praised by consumers for their user-friendly controls, sleek designs, quiet operation, and effective cooling.

Unlike GE and LG, Friedrich is neither a conglomerate nor a public corporation. Rather, Friedrich is a privately held company based out of San Antonio, Texas, which focuses exclusively on air conditioning and cooling products. However, the company’s history goes back further than either of the two industrial giants. It was founded in 1883 by Ed Friedrich who began his professional life as a maker of custom furniture before turning his focus to refrigeration. By the 1950s, Friedrich was a major manufacturer of refrigerators and coolers. Just as the air conditioning industry was starting to take off, the company began to manufacture its first window air conditioners in 1952.

Although Friedrich air conditioners tend to cost somewhat more than many competitive units, they are arguably the most dependable on the market. In fact, a number of the company’s original models manufactured in the 1950s remain in operation to this day. Of course, Friedrich has also evolved with the times. The company’s current offerings provide energy efficiency, top-of-the-line performance, and the latest in air conditioning technology, coupled with an unparalleled level of reliability.

Unlike Friedrich, GE, and LG, Haier is a relative newcomer to the top tier of air conditioning brands. The company’s rapid ascendance is made all the more incredible given its rather humble beginnings. Haier traces its origins to an old refrigerator factory in the Chinese city of Qingdao. In the 1980s, after years under the planned economy system, the factory was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then, a young manager named Zhang Ruimin took over and instituted a number of Western business practices, including a rigorous quality control process. To show he meant business, Zhang personally went through every single refrigerator in the factory’s inventory and had each one that had any sort of defect brought out onto the factory floor and destroyed with sledgehammers right in front of the startled employees’ eyes. This had a profound impact on the Chinese workers, particularly considering that a new refrigerator was worth about two years of wages for the average worker.

In the next several years, the factory partnered with a German company and began to modernize its manufacturing. Seeing how well the factory was doing, the local Chinese government asked its management to take over other household product factories in the area. By the 1990s, the company has grown into a consumer products juggernaut that was called the Haier Group. By the 2000s, Haier had expanded globally, becoming an international powerhouse. Today, Haier is a leading appliance manufacturer that has a well-deserved reputation for quality. The company’s room air conditioners are excellent and its prices are competitive.

A direct competitor of Haier, in both refrigerators and portable air conditioners, is the Frigidaire Company. Founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1916, Frigidaire was the first to develop the self-contained electric-powered refrigerator, the first to innovate the home food freezer, and the first to come out with the room air conditioner. Ironically, despite its long list of industry “firsts”, Frigidaire has been owned by other companies through most of its existence. From 1919 until 1979, Frigidaire was a subsidiary of General Motors. It was then sold to White Consolidated Industries which, in turn, was acquired by Electrolux in 1986.

Frigidaire continues to be a leader in both home refrigeration and air conditioning, producing high quality products that are known for their effectiveness, energy efficiency, cooling power, and dependability. Most consumers could not do much better than a Frigidaire air conditioning unit.
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