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Don’t buy a new air conditioner without reading this first

Jamie Clark
Jamie Clark

By Jamie Clark

2020 is predicted to be the first of several record years for air-conditioner replacements. With Freon being taken off the market, more than 50% of the systems in existing homes will become too expensive to repair, making replacement a wiser option. If you have a system over 10 years of age, it’s hard to justify a repair of more than $500. If the system is on the old Freon, it’s simply not a good idea to spend any money on repair, knowing that sooner rather than later it will need to be replaced.

We take our air conditioners for granted, but when they die, we realize how dependent upon them we have become, and we want them fixed quickly. Unfortunately, I regularly see customers in their haste to get cool again, often do not have the time to properly research a new system. They end up going with whatever is quickest, and then they end up stuck with the wrong fit for the next 12-15 years.

A lot has changed with air conditioning and how we cool our homes since you’ve bought your last system. The purpose of this article is to educate you as much as possible, so that when your existing system dies you can make a more informed decision. I’ll break down the different types and options in air-conditioning, how we size systems today, and some tips on picking the right contractor while avoiding the wrong ones. I’ll touch on the different brands of equipment, as well as warranties and what to expect.

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When we look at the options in different models of air conditioning, the biggest differences will be in efficiency and comfort features. In central Kentucky, our utility rates are pretty low, so efficiency alone is usually not the biggest motivator to upgrade your system. If you make your decision based on comfort features alone, you will automatically get a more efficient system — which ends up being icing on the cake. Most brands of air-conditioners have as many as 20 different models that would likely fit your needs, but we can easily narrow that down to three different categories to simplify your choices.

#1. Base model or builders’ grade single-stage system. Typically 14 SEER efficiency, this is the minimum efficiency system that the government will allow us to sell you. This is a single-stage AC with a single-stage indoor fan. It is the bare bones simple system, and it works on the same basic concept as the first air-conditioning systems designed in 1910. The disadvantage to this level of equipment is that it’s a very competitive price point for manufacturers, so it typically is made with cheaper components. This makes the system louder, more prone to breakdowns, and will have a shorter life expectancy. More than 80% of new air-conditioners sold in the last 10 years are this model mainly for two reasons. First, builders typically go for the least expensive options, and second, most HVAC contractors never educate homeowners on other choices, so they think this is their only option. When properly sized and installed, this system is a fine choice, but there are studies that show that over 90% of these systems installed in the last decade are the wrong size, are improperly installed, and many times both. I’ll write more about this issue later in the article when we discuss sizing. Bottom line — if you are looking for something simple and inexpensive, then this system is for you. Just keep in mind that it’s outdated technology, and you should ideally  be buying something you plan to keep for hopefully 15 years.

#2. Two-stage air-conditioning with variable speed indoor fan. Typically a 16 SEER system with a two-speed compressor. This is where Energy Star systems begin, and they are popular middle-of-the-road options for people who want to upgrade but may not want all the bells and whistles of a higher end system. Two-speed systems have been around since the early 80’s, so it’s hardly new technology, but it is a big step up from a single-stage system. The advantage to this system is that manufacturers start adding in upgrades to make it quieter, more comfortable, and longer lasting heartier components.

Because our air conditioners are also our home’s dehumidifiers, it’s important to understand the value in a two-stage air conditioner, and what sets it apart from the single-stage option listed above. We live in an area that needs dehumidifying more than it does cooling, especially in the last five years with all the wet weather we have had. The downside of the above 14 SEER single-stage system is that we have to size it for Kentucky’s worst-case summer temperatures — typically 90-93 degrees. The problem is a that a system sized for 90+ degrees is too big at 85 degrees, and does not run long enough to dehumidify your home. We call this short-cycling. Short-cycling will cause humidity issues like mold, mildew and dust mites. It increases electric bills because the unit is coming on and going off more often, similar to “stop-and-go driving in your car. It is also harder on the equipment, resulting in shorter life spans and more costly repairs. More often than not, a single-stage system is short cycling, which is the leading cause of air-conditioning complaints industry wide.

In contrast, the upgraded two-stage variable speed system gives you the advantage of basically two different sizes in one unit. The first stage is roughly 60% of the size of the second stage. So when it’s 80 degrees and 80% humidity, it runs for long periods, wringing three times the humidity out of your home than a single-speed. However, it still has the power to cool your home on those extra hot days. Much like highway driving gives you better fuel economy and is easier on your car, long run times for your AC are more efficient and easier on the equipment. So not only is a two-speed system much more comfortable, it will also save you money on your electric bill, will last longer with fewer repairs, and will result in a lower cost to own over its lifetime than a single-speed system. Also, two-speed systems are more forgiving when the contractor is sizing the system for your home, because of the low speed option it’s harder to oversize the equipment. Just make sure you work with a contractor that is experienced in installing two-speed systems because they do require extra knowledge to get them installed correctly and running at their most efficient.

#3. Variable volume air-conditioners. Typically 18 SEER to 20 SEER, this system is the latest, most advanced option most manufacturers have to offer. Japanese companies like Mitsubishi have offered these systems since the 90’s, but they did not get picked up by many of the mainstream American manufacturers until the late 2000’s. Comparing this system to the single-stage is like comparing a Model A Ford to a Tesla. Many of these systems can actually compete with geothermal in their efficiency, and with a heat pump, we can now size them to almost eliminate the need for the costly auxiliary heat. Exact operation will vary by manufacturer, but the basic concept is that the unit will start at 20% of its capacity and ramp up only as needed. This allows it to perfectly match the heating and cooling needs of your home. Whether it’s 75 degrees and 100% humidity, or 90 degrees, the system will speed up or slow down to perfectly match your home’s needs, delivering you perfect temperature and humidity all the time. Most brands actually have an advanced dehumidification feature built into the thermostat so that the system can run as a whole-house dehumidifier even when you don’t need cooling. This is a great feature in Central Kentucky because more than 50% of our summer needs dehumidification and not air-conditioning. Because of the longer run times at much lower capacity levels, it uses a fraction of the electricity of a single-stage system, and considerably less electricity than a two-stage system. This system is simply the most comfortable energy-efficient system available, and because it’s been around more than 20 years, the technology is proven. Actually, it’s proven enough that most manufacturers offer better warranties for it than they do for their lower end models. Because this level is higher end, most manufacturers use quieter parts and more robust components, resulting in fewer breakdowns and longer life span. With this option, it’s critical you use an experienced contractor that knows how to install and service these systems. Many contractors only install a few per year, so if you want to get your system installed properly, then this is one area where experience matters.

No matter which of the three basic options you decide is right for your home, make sure to go with a contractor that designs your new system and does not simply install the same size you had before. As noted earlier in the article, a lot has changed since your last system went in. Today’s systems use a different refrigerant and perform better at smaller sizes, so it’s often we downsize the equipment, saving you money both at install and on your electric bills. If you’ve remodeled, replaced your windows, or upgraded your insulation in your attic or crawlspace( if you have not you probably should and a quality HVAC contractor can help advise you on those energy upgrades), then you will almost definitely need a smaller system. Make sure you work with someone who sends out a professional to educate you and help you decide what system is right for your home. Service technicians should be mechanics who are paid to fix things–most are not trained in sizing systems and the features and benefits of the different models. Worse yet, there are several large companies in our area who pay large commissions to service techs to sell new systems instead of trying to fix anything. When you pay techs more to sell than to fix, human nature takes over and customers get taken advantage of. Never buy a new system from a service tech without at least getting a second opinion from a different company. Make sure to ask why the system is the right size and has the right features for your home’s needs.

Brands and warranties

It’s easy to get lost in all the different brands and confusing warranties. Most consumers are not aware that with over 100 brands of equipment, there are fewer than ten primary manufacturers. For example, Carrier’s parent company ICP makes several different brands that literally only have different stickers on the cabinets. In many cases, they even have the exact same model numbers. Most of the manufacturers share technology between the brands, and some even share technology with other manufacturers. In today’s HVAC market, most of the manufacturers are sourcing a great deal of their internal components from the same third-party sources, so we have gotten to a place where the quality from one brand to another is so similar that it is hard to make a decision based on brand alone. The installing contractor has dramatically more impact on the quality of the HVAC installation you choose.

In summary, many of us will need a new air-conditioner in the near future. Make sure to educate yourself and know your options and budget before you get caught in an emergency situation with a dead AC on a 90-degree day. Use a quality contractor that will make sure the AC they recommend is one that is sized right for your home, and takes your family’s needs into account with the different features that are available. Never purchase directly from a service tech without getting a second opinion from a different company. At Synergy, we offer free second opinions and close to 80% of the time we can give you a repair option that the other company failed to offer. Ask about indoor air quality options for your system; it’s always cheaper to add accessories when the system is being replaced. With advanced filters, you can go a year at a time between filter changes. Ultraviolet lights will prevent mold and kill viruses, and humidifiers will improve comfort during the heating season.

Getting a new air-conditioner is a time to fix all the comfort and air quality issues you have been living with since the last system was installed. Take advantage of the opportunity and educate yourself so that you can use this time to upgrade your home’s air quality, comfort and efficiency.

Jamie Clark is president of Synergy Home LLC in Lexington.