How to Replace Your Whole House Air Conditioner

If you have a whole house air conditioner that is over 10 years old you may want to start thinking about replacing it. Even if your air conditioner has been working properly chances are the efficiency is much lower then today’s units. With the rising cost of electricity you may find a replacement air conditioner will pay for itself in a matter of a few years so it is something to consider.

SEER Standard

The SEER Standard is a measure of the efficiency of the air conditioner. SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. Starting in 2006 the United States Department of Energy mandated that the minimum efficiency of HVAC units would be increased from 10 to 13 SEER. Systems built prior to the early 1990’s likely have a SEER of 10 or below. A system 20 years old might have a SEER of 8.

Air Conditioner Energy Savings

As an example of the annual energy savings that can be achieved by a higher SEER replacement whole house air conditioner consider a case where your present air conditioner has a SEER of 8. If you chose a replacement whole house air conditioner of 14, one step above the minimum of 13, your average annual energy savings would be 43%. Choosing a 16 SEER the savings might be 50% and the high end 19.5 air conditioner could get up to 59% savings (Trane Co. Tyler, TX).

Choosing an Whole House Air Conditioner

Prior to selecting a contractor it is suggested that you study what brands of air conditioners have favorable repair histories and features you may want to evaluate further. Various online resources are available (see reference links) as well as printed materials. In the latter category Consumer Reports periodically has a listing of popular manufacturers along with their relative frequency of repairs. The manufacturers have websites that have details on the particular features of their air conditioner models.

As you read these develop a list of features that you want to consider and what SEER range you want to focus on. Since the higher SEER numbers reflect higher efficiency units these will be the most expensive ones. It is recommended that you select two brands and several models of each that you want to talk to a contractor about. You will find that there are a number of different parameters to consider in each brand such as the type of air conditioner compressor, the compressor warranty, the number of stages the compressor has, and whether the air handler has a variable motor.

In many cases it is ultimately less expensive to purchase and install a whole house furnace at the same time you replace the air conditioner since the evaporator coil is installed in the output plenum of a forced hot air furnace. In parts of the country where a whole house furnace is not required or some other form of heat is used an air handler is used along with the air conditioner compressor. The compressor is situated outside the house since it gives off heat and the air conditioner evaporator coil is located in the air handler or furnace plenum attached to the ductwork.

Selecting a HVAC Contractor

Since most of the major brands of whole house air conditioners are similar the selection of a HVAC contractor that you have confidence in is a major step. It is possible to buy the hardware online less expensively but then you have to find an installer who will do this type of installation job. Sometimes HVAC contractors do not want to install air conditioners they have not sold. In most cases HVAC contractors for replacement air conditioners and furnaces have their own sales people who have a vested interest in having the installation go smoothly.

There are several ways to go about finding a reputable HVAC contractor. Talk to your neighbors and relatives who have had their air conditioner replaced to get their inputs. Follow-up by looking up the contractor businesses on the local Better Business Bureau web site. If the company is listed it should have the number of customer complaints over the last 36 months and how many were resolved. In addition it should indicate when they were established. A HVAC company in business for many years probably has a pretty good track record of pleasing customers.

Other online sources of information exist such as Angie’s List and contractor referral sites such as ServiceMagic. Angie’s list is a subscription-based service that lists contractors along with candid customer’s experiences of those contractors and ratings. Both one month and yearly subscriptions can be purchased. Do not rely on just one indicator but rather look for multiple indicators of good service and a reputable HVAC company.

Since you should have any idea of what brands you want to investigate take that into consideration when selecting an air conditioning contractor. You will be able to tell what brands they handle if they have a web site. If not, call them and ask.

Getting HVAC Contractor Bids

Getting bids from 3-4 HVAC contractors on a whole house replacement air conditioner will provide not only cost comparison data but also give you insight on the professionalism of the contractor. You should determine if the contractor’s sales person is really listening to you rather then having their own agenda of what they want to sell. You should expect that they offer suggestions on areas you may not have thought of.

The sales person should conduct an energy audit of your house by measuring the size of the rooms and calculating the cooling requirements. They will also look at your present air conditioner and determine its capacity. They will ask if you experience temperature variations room to room and whether your air conditioner runs nearly continuously during the hottest part of the summer. Be prepared to tell them if you have replaced the windows in the house, resided it, added insulation in the attic, and other energy saving improvements. These may indicate you do not require as much capacity in your air conditioner as you previously had.

Based on your earlier study of the brand offerings you should be prepared to specify two or three air conditioner units that you want them to quote on. This would include the SEER rating you want as well as the capacity in tons, which can be modified, based on their calculation. By requesting bids on fixed configurations it will help you compare one contractors prices to the next. Type out a checklist of things you want to cover which would include items such as warranty information, whether the contractor will replace the refrigerant supply line, will a new electric disconnect box be installed, will they use a concrete or ridged PVC pad to set the compressor on, and what refrigerant will be used. Keep in mind the air conditioner industry is phasing out R-22 air conditioner refrigerant in favor of a more eco-friendly R-410A. You may want to read up on this prior to talking to the HVAC contractor to be better informed on what you want to choose.

Negotiating for Price of a Whole House Air Conditioner

Quite often the HVAC sales person will calculate their bid on the spot using a laptop computer. At this time you may want to question them as to whether they offer any discounts such as senior citizen, slow time of the year, etc. Do not do any detailed negotiating at this time however confirm with them that they accept credit cards.

Once you have all the bids in hand make up a comparison spread sheet that provides a side by side comparison not only of the prices but also the similarity and differences between the contractors offerings. Select the two leading HVAC candidates based on price, what they offer, the repair history of their brand, professionalism of the contractor and other parameters that you deem important. Putting price aside ask the contractor with the air conditioner you would most like to have and the one you would like to do business with, to pay you a visit. If their price is higher then your second choice point out that you would like to do business with them but that their competition is offering basically equivalent equipment at a lower price and ask what they can do to lower their price. Be prepared to show them the other bid.

If they are hesitant to lower the price offer suggestions. You can suggest they give you 5 years parts and labor warranty instead of the 2 years labor/5 years parts they normally offer. Suggest with a smile, that if their equipment is as good as they claim this won’t cost them anything since it won’t be failing! Also ask for a free seasonal maintenance visit for the first 5 years, or 3 years, etc. Any concessions are effectively money in your pocket. Finally tell them that you will pay by cash/check instead of credit card if they give you a price reduction of 3% since they won’t have the processing fee for the credit card transaction. It also may be appropriate to indicate many of the houses in your subdivision are near the same age as yours and people are considering replacing their whole house air conditioner. Tell the HVAC sales person that for some price consideration you would consider being a reference. Use as many or as few of these approaches as you feel comfortable with.

By doing some research ahead of time you can increase your chances getting a good replacement whole house air conditioner at a reasonable price from a HVAC contractor you will be happy with.

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