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Central Air Conditioner Options: What are the Different Types of Cooling Systems?

Central air conditioning makes your home a welcome reprieve from the heat during the summer months. The purpose of any air conditioner is to keep your home cool, but there are several different types of units available. Different air conditioners employ different methods to get the job done, and the type that you need largely depends on the location and setup your home.

How Does an Air Conditioner Work?

An HVAC includes a thermostat that registers temperature, ductwork to draw and expel air, the air handling unit, an evaporator coil filled with refrigerant, a compressor, and a blower. The basic cycle includes:

  • The thermostat registers temperatures above the level you set and sends a signal to the air handling unit
  • The air handler draws in air through the ductwork
  • The air passes over the evaporator coil
  • The refrigerant within the coil cools the air
  • The unit sends the cooled air back through the ductwork
  • The blower sends the air through the vents into the home
  • The evaporator coil sends the refrigerant back through the compressor to be re-cooled so it's ready for the next cycle

Types of Cooling Systems

There is more than one type of cooling system. The ideal type depends on your home but also the climate where you live. Some houses may be suitable for multiple options, but some may not have the proper setup required by different cooling systems.

Central Air Options

  • Standard central air: To truly be a central air system, there must be ducts in place to distribute cooled air throughout the come. The most common type of system is referred to as a split system, wherein the refrigerant circulates between an indoor evaporator coil and an outdoor compressor and condenser. Standard central air systems follow the model of operation described above.
  • Packaged units: Unlike a split system central air conditioner, packaged units have a single piece of equipment that houses the compressor, condenser, and evaporator. They work similarly to split system units, with the exception that the refrigerant does not have to travel to a secondary unit. Packaged units also often contain a furnace.
  • Split ductless systems: While not technically a central air system, split ductless systems provide cooling effects similar to central air. These systems feature an outdoor compressor and condenser and multiple air handlers. There is a conduit that connects the indoor and outdoor sections, which also houses a condensate drain, the power cable, and refrigerant tubing. The system is controlled via a remote and each air handler cools the room it is installed in.

Additional Cooling Options

  • Room air conditioners: These are designed specifically to cool an individual room. Typically mounted in windows or other wall openings, they are cheaper than central air systems but do not offer the same cooling power; multiple units would be needed to match a central air system.
  • Evaporative coolers: Also known as swamp coolers, these cooling systems are more common in dryer areas. They pull in outside air through moist pads which cool the air, releasing it back into the home. It may not seem very effective, but evaporative coolers can create inside air that's 30 degrees lower than the temperature outside.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Central Air Unit

Multiple factors determine the type of air conditioning unit you should get. First, you consider the energy efficiency and seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) rating of the unit. If you are replacing an old unit, newer units with higher SEER rating are considerably more affordable than they used to be. Remember, the higher the SEER value and the better the energy efficiency, the higher the savings.

Also, have a professional provide estimates as to proper unit size. An under- or oversized unit renders the process of installing or replacing air conditioning essentially useless. A heat load calculation is the only surefire way to get the the right size AC unit.

How Much Do Cooling Systems Cost?

Pricing varies widely based on SEER rating, the size of the home, size of the unit, and type of unit. The following is a general pricing guide to provide an idea of what you can expect to pay for your cooling system.

  • Central air: The average home uses a central air unit with a 13 SEER value, which costs between $3,000 and $4,000 for an 1,800 square foot home.
  • Central air Installation has an average cost of $2,000, with any required ductwork costing around $10 per linear foot.
  • Split ductless units: A single ductless unit has an average cost of $1,800, but keep in mind that is for a single air handler. An 1,800 square foot home typically requires a system with at least four blowers, which costs around $3,800.
  • Split ductless Installation averages between $10 and $40 per hour, with additional service fees starting around $50.
  • Room air conditioners: A window-mounted room air conditioner designed to cool a room between 150 and 400 square feet typically costs between $100 and $300. Units to cool a larger space may cost between $300 and $800.
  • Evaporative cooler: Portable swamp coolers have an average cost of $400, with units for the entire home coming in around $2,000. Including installation and service fees, the average cost of installing an evaporative cooler in a 1,500 square foot home is $3,900.