Types of central air conditioning systems and how to choose

Kate Webb

July 6, 2021

Summer’s in full swing and you may be thinking about upgrading or installing a central air conditioning system. Installing or replacing central ac can be costly, so you'll want to have all the information before you choose. Let’s take a look at the types of central air systems, the cost, and other important factors. 

Types of central air conditioning systems

Central Air Conditioning

A typical central air conditioning system is a two-part, or split system that includes an outdoor component and an indoor component, connected by a series of refrigeration lines. A central ac system requires the installation of ducting to distribute cool air throughout your home, so you’ll need to open up some walls to put the system in place. While the cost of installing a central air unit is an investment, it offers many benefits such as reduced humidity and cleaner air. And because the compressor-bearing unit is located outdoors, central AC is the quietest option for cooling your home.


Split Ductless Systems

A ductless mini split is a smart way to cool your home without having to install ductwork, or install and remove window units each year. Ductless mini splits also have an indoor and outdoor component, but the indoor component goes directly in the room or area you want to cool. One outdoor unit can support up to 8 indoor units, depending on how many areas you want to cool. The installation cost goes up with every indoor unit added. One of the biggest advantages of a ductless mini split system is customization—cool as many or as few rooms as you like, and enjoy separate settings for each indoor unit. 

Heat Pump

A heat pump uses refrigeration technology and electricity to provide both heating and cooling for your home. In heating mode, the heat pump extracts heat from the air outside your home, and in cooling mode, it does the opposite—it transfers heat out of your home and returns cool air inside. Heat pumps can be ducted, like central ac, or ductless like a mini-split. Heat pumps offer the highest efficiency rates (as high as 300%) of any heating/cooling appliance. Heat pumps are best suited to mild climates without harsh winters.

Cost of a new central air conditioning system

Central Air Conditioning

The cost for installing central AC ranges from $5,000 to $12,000, with most homeowners paying about $7,000 to install a new system with mid-range BTU, an average SEER rating and new ductwork. The cost varies depending on the system type, the efficiency rating (SEER rating), and whether or not you need new ductwork. You will pay more for a central air unit as the size and the SEER rating go up. 

Ductless Mini Split Systems

The cost for installing central AC ranges from $3,000 to $10,000, with most homeowners paying about $5,000 to install a new, single-zone system unit with an average SEER rating. The cost varies depending on the BTU size, the efficiency rating (SEER rating) and mount type. Each additional mini split zone costs from $500 to $2000.

Heat Pump

The cost for installing a heat pump ranges from $4,000 to $10,000+, with most homeowners paying about $5,700. The cost varies depending on the type of heat pump, BTU size, the efficiency rating (SEER rating). There are many different types of heat pumps, but Air-source (ducted) heat pumps typically range from $4,500 to $8000, and ductless mini split heat pumps typically range from $2,000 to $14,000 depending on the number of zones.

Other factors when choosing a home central air conditioner  

Size of central air system

Choosing the right size central air unit for your home is critical. An air conditioner that’s too small will struggle to cool your space. If your air conditioner is too large, it cools your space too quickly and doesn’t have time to remove enough moisture from the air. This makes for a cold, clammy home. The best way to determine the correct air conditioner size for your home is to choose a reputable installer. An expert will be able to calculate your home’s cooling needs based on industry standards. 

Efficiency rating

Central air conditioning systems must have a minimum SEER rating of 13, but experts recommend units with at least 15 SEER. If it’s within the budget, always go for the highest efficiency you can. While the upfront cost of installing high-efficiency ac may be high, you will recoup the additional cost through lower monthly bills over the life of the new air conditioner—especially in warmer regions, or areas with hot, humid summers.