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Air Conditioning > Services & Costs
  Average Costs
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Installation & Maintenance
While a portable air conditioner can be had for a few hundred dollars, the expenses associated with a central air conditioning systems are quite a bit higher. Having an idea for the average price range associated with different product types will not only help you plan ahead, but also provide an early warning system if the price you are being quoted is either too high to be reasonable or too low to be credible.
Average Costs
As mentioned, in terms of price, a central AC system is going to be far more expensive than a space heater. A small portable floor or window air conditioner can be picked up for as little as $100. A quality portable air conditioner from a brand manufacturer will run anywhere from $300 to $700, depending on the model and cooling capacity. A window air conditioner will cost $200 to $400 for a smaller capacity unit and $400 to $800 for a larger capacity unit. A through-the-wall air conditioner will run $250 to $500 for a smaller unit and up to $1,500 for a high-powered model.

Most portable and window air conditioners do not require any special assembly or installation, so once the purchase price is paid, the only other additional costs are the electricity expenses associated with providing power to the air conditioner. In case of a through-the-wall air conditioner, the installation costs will be on the order of $150 to $250. Consequently, a room air conditioner is far and away the least expensive cooling option for an individual space. However, as mentioned before, the unit’s small size and limited range make it ineffective as a solution for the entire home.

Once the discussion moves to central AC systems, both the price range and the installation costs step up considerably. Assuming there is a forced-air furnace already in place and the existing ductwork does not require modification, adding an air conditioner will cost on the order of $3,500 to $4,500 for the average home, with price varying further depending on brand, type, model, and cooling capacity. If there is no ductwork, the price can double to $7,000 to $8,000. In this case, installing a ductless mini split system may be significantly less expensive for a smaller home.

In cases where an old system is being replaced, there may be additional costs depending on the specific situation. Older ductwork should be inspected carefully to check for leaks and areas of poor insulation. Ductwork problems can result in major inefficiencies and significantly higher utility bills. If the cooled air is not able to make it to the rooms without leaking out of the ducts, then the air conditioner will have to work much harder to provide the required temperature in the home.

Although the purchase and installation of a new, high quality central air conditioning system may seem like a significant expense, it should be viewed in context. First, a state-of-the-art temperature control system increases the value of the home. Thus, if selling the residence in the future is a likely possibility, much of the investment can be recouped. Second, a quality air conditioning system can substantially enhance the comfort of a home, particularly during the summer season and over the warmer months of the spring and fall. Third, a more efficient air conditioning system can reduce utility bills by 20% or more, meaning hundreds of dollars in savings each summer, which, in turn, reduces the effective cost of the system. It also reduces your environmental footprint. Finally, a new central AC system is simpler to maintain, easier to operate, and causes fewer safety issues and other problems.
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Purchase Options
Buying a portable air conditioner is far easier than purchasing a central AC system. Since there is either no or limited installation, room air conditioners are a one-stop purchase. As a result, they are widely available and may be found at a broad range of retail and online sources. Not every supplier will carry every type and every brand, however.

Most of the large hardware store chains carry room air conditioners, including Home Depot, Lowe’s, Orchard Supply Hardware, and Menard’s. Many big box stores have them as well, including Wal-mart, Sears, Target, and Costco. In addition, a number of electronics retailers carry portable air conditioners, including Best Buy and P.C. Richard. However, the sales personnel may not necessarily be knowledgeable about the specific products, so it is best to go in prepared and know the type and brand of air conditioner that is desired.

The benefit of buying at a physical store is the ability to see the product up close prior to purchase. In addition, returns are typically easier in case there is something wrong. On the other hand, the selection is more limited and the prices are often higher. Alternatively, room air conditioners can be purchased online through an incredibly wide range of appliance e-commerce sites, or through one of the major marketplace sites such as Amazon, Buy.com, LivingDirect, Overstock, and others. The benefit of buying online is that comparison shopping is easy and, generally, the best prices are available online. However, if buying online, consumers should make sure that they are purchasing from a reputable source with a proven track record of excellent customer service and a guaranteed return policy for defective products.

In the case of a central air conditioning system, the situation is more complicated. Most consumers purchase their central AC systems through an HVAC contractor or service provider who also handles the installation. The advantage of service contractors is that they have extensive expertise in the field of home cooling and can provide a lot of useful information.

However, many service contractors are loyal to a limited number of brands. In some cases, service providers are authorized dealers for only a single brand. Consequently, a service provider may pressure customers to buy a particular brand or type of product rather than offering truly objective information. For this reason, it is vitally important for consumers to do their own homework and develop an idea of the type of air conditioning system and brand name that they would prefer before they begin to have detailed conversations with local service providers.

Pricing also varies widely among different service providers, not only in terms of the labor and parts for installation, but also in terms of the sticker price for the air conditioning system itself. Once again, getting at least four quotes should be mandatory. Given the high costs of central AC systems and their corresponding installation, this is not that different from buying a car. Just as you would typically want to visit multiple car dealerships before making a purchase, so should you evaluate multiple HVAC service providers before making a final choice.

In recent years, it has become possible to also directly purchase central air conditioning units online from distributors and authorized resellers. However, there has to be a lot of research done before this avenue can be safely pursued. You should know exactly what type of system you want and need, whether it will require auxiliary components such as ductwork, and what types of guarantees the distributor is offering. Generally, you should not make any purchases without first finding a trustworthy local contractor and receiving an opinion regarding whether the system is appropriate for the residence, what the installation process will entail, how much it will cost, and whether there may be more cost-effective alternatives.

You should also be wary of deals that sound much too good to be true. If an online seller is offering a particular central air conditioner brand model for $1,000, but it costs $2,000 or more everywhere else, further investigation is necessary before making a purchase commitment. The seller may be trying to substitute a non-brand product for the brand name, or selling a different product than advertised altogether.

A high quality local service provider should be willing to work with and accommodate, to the extent possible your preferences as far as type, brand, and model of central air conditioning system. As part of the due diligence process, you should ask to see examples of prior work or, barring that, at the very least a list of recent customers who would be willing to give the service contractor a reference.

On the whole, the extra several hours of due diligence on your part can lead to 10, 15, or even 20 years of worry-free, high efficiency cooling for the home coupled with thousands of dollars in potential savings with respect to lower utility bills and minimized repairs. Home air conditioning is definitely one area in which putting in a bit of work as a consumer can yield significant long-term dividends.
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Installation & Maintenance
Virtually all portable air conditioners come ready to use straight out of the box, requiring little more than plugging in, turning on, and adjusting to the desired temperature level. Installing a window air conditioner is slightly more involved, but can typically be handled by the consumer. Putting in a through-the-wall air conditioner or a ductless mini split system into a new area is more complicated and will generally require a professional’s assistance. Finally, the installation process for central AC systems is quite complex and involved. In most cases, the services of a professional are not only recommended, but absolutely essential.

Even in cases where a central AC unit is simply being replaced, most consumers should contract an HVAC professional to perform the installation. In situations where a new type of central air conditioning system is being put in, or new ductwork is required, utilizing an HVAC professional is an absolute must. However, not all HVAC professionals are created equal. There is a broad range of issues that haved to be considered before awarding the contract. To start, you should identify all the contractors in the area who deal with air conditioning systems. There are several sources which may be used. In the past, you would turn to the local yellow pages. This still works, but now there are additional online resources which provide a greater range of information. Referral services such as “Quality Smith”, “Service Magic”, and “Mi Needs” pair consumers with pre-screened local service providers free of charge. Sites such as “Angie’s List” allow you to not only find local contractors, but also to see how other consumers have rated their services. In addition, certain hardware store chains provide their own installers and service contractors. Sears is a prime example.

Most contractors will offer free estimates on prospective jobs. Consumers would do well to receive quotes from at least four different contractors before making a final decision. Not only will this allow the consumer to find a competitive price and reduce his or her expense, but it will also provide a basis for comparing different contractors as far as consumer relations, expertise, and professionalism.

A quality HVAC contractor will understand all aspects of air conditioner operation, sizing, installation, and maintenance, including the auxiliary components associated with ductwork and insulation. In addition, a quality contractor will provide warranties on parts and guarantees on work performed.

It is important to also ask about the provision of emergency services in case of an unexpected breakdown or system failure. A good contractor will make available manuals and reference materials for the consumer’s personal use. Most importantly, it is necessary to ask for a complete breakdown of costs associated with the project. Some contractors will not include certain additional costs, such as the need to hire an electrician or to purchase parts. It is critical to have all of this information upfront, as this will avoid the cost of the project ballooning unexpectedly down the line.

Some of you may be major proponents of the “do-it-yourself” mentality and have confidence in your ability to independently install any home appliance or residential system, no matter how elaborate. While you may indeed possess the necessary know-how, it bears emphasizing that installing a central air conditioning system is a complicated process with many moving parts. A poorly or incorrectly installed system can not only result in a lack of operability, but also lead to serious hazards to health, property, and environment.

When a part of the existing system breaks down, it may at times be more cost-efficient to replace the entire central air conditioning unit than try to repair or replace the damaged part. For example, a damaged compressor may be the sort of major part breakdown that is best served by replacing the entire unit, particularly if it is an old and less efficient model.

However, most central air conditioning system malfunctions are not caused by a major part breaking down, but rather by a more minor and, oftentimes, easily correctable issue. Central AC operation can be hampered by thermostat malfunctions, low levels of refrigerant, clogged filters, or a range of electrical issues, such as tripped or defective circuit breakers, blown fuses, and burned or broken wires. These problems can be easily rectified or simply avoided by following a basic maintenance protocol.

On a periodic basis, the thermostat should be checked to ensure that the settings correspond to the residents’ preferences and that it is functioning properly. Electrical connections should be checked from time to time, to ensure they are properly tightened and in good working order.

To extend the lifetime of your central air conditioning system, as well as to keep it operating at peak efficiency, you should inspect, clean, and, when necessary, change the filters. This is fairly straightforward to do and a service contractor can quickly and easily illustrate how this task is done.
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