What started in 1902 with one man’s need to control the humidity in a newspaper printing press, the HVAC industry in the US has grown to account for more than $16.5 billion in 2021. Emerging technologies and environmental concerns are two of the three main reasons the HVAC industry can top its revenue year after year, regardless of other poor economic indicators. The third reason is the weather, as no one wants to be unnecessarily hot or cold.
Why Are There So Many Different AC Systems?
Every home is different, and as such, the heating and air conditioning needs of each house will vary greatly. You and your neighbor may have the same floorplan, but if they opted for the cheaper windows and doors, single-pane windows, or skimped on attic insulation, they probably have higher energy bills than you. Their HVAC system must work harder to keep up with the demand and is more likely to have a shorter lifespan as a consequence.
Whether you currently have a window unit or two or a whole-house central HVAC system, you can always improve upon your indoor comfort. Recent innovations in HVAC technology have brought many energy-saving and performance enhancing features to the market.
To fulfill the comfort requirements for many indoor spaces, whether residential or commercial, HVAC makers offer a vast array of models in a broad price range. In this blog, we’re going to break down what each type of air conditioner is, what makes them different, and the average cost of each one.
What Are the Different Types of Air Conditioners?
1. Window Units
Between the late 1930s and until the mid-1960s, window air conditioning units were the only option for folks that wanted to combat the heat and humidity of southern summers. When window AC units were introduced to the market, they were priced way out of range of the average American homeowner. With a price range in 1932 of $10,000 to $50,000 (that’s $120,000 – $600,000 in today’s currency), the price air of conditioners would soon drop considerably and become affordable to the masses by the start of the 1950s.
Fun fact, window air conditioners are directly responsible for the huge population boom in the south as northerners began a steady migration here. You’re welcome.
Even today, window AC units remain popular in homes that lack a central air conditioning system or to supplement weak HVAC delivery in distant rooms. Window AC units have evolved a great deal since the 1950s, with built-in thermostats, dehumidifiers, and even wi-fi capabilities for remote operation.
Average Cost: Ranges from $199 for a unit sized for a small bedroom up to $2,499 for a premium window unit offering 35,000 BTUs of cooling power and a built-in heating element for use in the winter.
2. “Portable” AC Units
In case you’re wondering, yes, there is a reason portable is in quotes in the headline. These loud, inefficient, high-maintenance air conditioning units are great in a bind if your HVAC system checks out during a week of 100° temperatures. Aside from an emergency, there really is no advantage to having a portable AC unit in your home for year-round cooling needs.
Most often seen on sizeable indoor construction jobs where a building’s HVAC system may not yet be installed, setting up a portable AC unit as a temporary solution makes sense. Portable AC units are not recommended for any permanent installation. They take up a large amount of floor space, and they aren’t effective at cooling large areas or multiple rooms unless you invest in the high-end models.
Portable air conditioners require a large window or wall opening to accommodate the large air intake and venting ducts, so you’ll want to uninstall them during the winter months. Your portable unit will also need someplace to drain any accumulated condensation; otherwise, you’ll have to empty an internal collection tank a few times a day.
Average Cost: $329 for an 8,000 BTU unit with a built-in dehumidifier, up to $3,000 for a portable AC capable of cooling several larger rooms simultaneously.
3. Ducted Central HVAC Systems
Almost every home built since the late 1960s has a central HVAC system installed. Central HVAC systems are still a standard installation for new home construction nearly sixty years later. Only central HVAC systems are powerful enough to heat and cool every room in the house and, hopefully, do that without breaking the bank with high energy bills.
In most cases, central HVAC refers to either a split-system air conditioner or a heat pump, which both have an outdoor and indoor unit. The indoor and outdoor units work together to distribute cool air through a system of ducts in your home.
Together, they are composed of five main parts:
- A thermostat.
- An outdoor unit (which holds a fan, condenser, and condenser coil).
- An indoor unit (which contains a fan and evaporator coil).
- Copper tubes that connect the outdoor and indoor units.
- Ductwork throughout the home.
Average Cost: $3,500 for an entry-level HVAC system in a home with pre-existing ductwork, with top-of-the-line entries running upwards of $15,000.
4. Ductless Mini-Splits
Many older homes in the Houston area, particularly inside 610 Loop, weren’t built with central HVAC in mind. Without the necessary ductwork installed in walls and attics, these homes have long had to rely on window AC units, ceiling fans, and space heaters to achieve indoor comfort. The perfect fit for smaller or older homes that have never had HVAC ductwork installed, ductless mini-splits are an economical alternative to bulky, noisy, and energy-hungry central units
Ductless mini-split systems are like central HVAC systems in that they both utilize indoor and outdoor components. The fan, heat exchanger, blower motor, thermostat, and climate control panels are part of the indoor cassette unit. Mini-splits place the compressor, condenser, condenser fan, and other noisy bits outside the home, connected via a single 3” round opening in the exterior wall.
Ductless mini-split air conditioners are incredibly efficient, often allowing some homeowners to enjoy significant savings on their energy bills. Each outdoor compressor unit is powerful enough to supply enough cold air for up to 4 attached air handlers in different rooms.
Average Cost: Low-end, builder’s grade mini-split AC-only units can be found for as little as $400, with name brands running between $750 and $2,500. Installation costs, options, additional parts, and additional air handlers can all send the price of a whole-house mini-split conversion into the tens of thousands of dollars.
5. Ground Source AC & Heat
Imagine using only minimal electricity and the earth’s heat to reduce your energy costs by up to 90%, with almost zero emissions. Ground-source or geothermal systems harness the heat stored just a few feet below the earth to assist with the heating and cooling of your home without having to burn any fossil fuels locally.
An above-ground heat pump moves a liquid refrigerant out of the unit through a series of underground loops of pipe. As the fluid passes along, it absorbs the heat stored underground and returns that heat to the pump, where it is turned into energy. That energy is then used to either add warmth to the living space or to draw heat out of the living space.
Average Cost: The hardware required above the ground for a geothermal heat pump installation is relatively cheap, often less than $1,500 total. Ground-source heat pumps require the recirculation pipe loops to be located at least 6 feet below the surface, with colder US climates requiring a depth of 8 – 10 feet. This means you’re going to need to excavate a good portion of your yard, install the underground grid of pipes, and put it all back. Expect to lay out an extra $10,000 cost for the excavation.
While geothermal heating and air conditioning is probably the direction the market will head in, the infrastructure required makes it impractical to retrofit a home for it. As home builders become more environmentally aware –and when potential customers demand it—geothermal heat pumps will likely become the new standard.
What Type of Air Conditioner is Best for My Home?
The only way to get an accurate idea of your home’s specific cooling and heating requirements is to perform an in-home energy assessment. Nick’s Air Conditioning can help by having one of our expert HVAC technicians evaluate your current system, the size of your home, the number of rooms, and your expectations. Give us a call today to set up an appointment to discuss the best heating and air conditioning solutions for your family.