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Commercial Installations, Residential Installations

12 Things That Affect the Cost to Install Central Air

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Last Updated on January 28, 2019


cost to install central air

When you’re thinking about adding central air or replacing an existing system, of course you want to get an idea of what the cost looks like.

If central air was a one-size-fits-all commodity, it would be simple to provide the exact cost to install central air, or even to give a price range for AC installation in NYC, for example. Some companies do publish this type of information, but those numbers are so general as to be pretty useless. The range is so wide that it’s not helpful, and can’t possibly take into account your specific situation.

In reality, there are many factors that affect AC install cost… it’s not only the price of the contractor’s labor. Keep reading to learn how simple or complex your AC installation might be, AND ways you can save.

What goes into the cost to install central air?

A word about installation quality

Before we examine the cost to install central air, it’s important to understand that installation quality is critical to your satisfaction with the new system. Most problems with newer (and even older) AC equipment happen because of installation mistakes. It’s a tricky business, so be sure you’re working with an experienced and reputable contractor. At the end of this article, we’ll provide some resources to help you make a good choice.

Now let’s talk about all the factors that ensure your AC installation works well for you, and also impact your overall cost.


1. Type of air conditioning system

There are quite a few different types of air conditioning technology available, and the installation complexity (as well as the cost of the equipment) varies. That’s why the type you choose will have a big impact on your cost to install central air. Some of the most commonly used types include:

  • Ducted split system (the standard if you already have ducts)
  • Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) systems (great for quiet operation and flexible, zoned comfort)
  • Heat pumps (common in warmer climates)
  • Ductless mini-splits (often used for supplemental cooling or add-on spaces)
  • Water-cooled systems (often found in city highrise buildings)

Your contractor should help you select the right one for your space and your needs.

You can also refer to our helpful guides to NYC residential AC and light commercial AC guides for more information about choosing the right type of equipment for your requirements.

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2. Equipment sizing or capacity

What does size mean for an air conditioner? It’s not about the physical size of the unit… although that’s often an issue as well, especially here in NYC where space is tight and expensive.

The size of an AC unit refers to its cooling capacity. The larger the size, the higher the cost for the equipment. It’s absolutely essential that you get the right sized unit for your space and its usage!

If your unit is undersized (or has a capacity that’s too small), it will run constantly. The space will never be cool enough and your electricity bills will be sky-high.

If your unit is oversized (or has a capacity that’s too large), it will cool too fast to remove humidity. Your space will be cool but clammy. Also, the unit will be constantly turning on and off, causing increased wear and tear that leads to breakdowns.

Your contractor should ask you a lot of questions about your space’s occupancy and usage (and do some measuring) to get your sizing right. When replacing an existing system, you can’t just go by the size of the old unit. It might have been wrong to begin with, the space might have a different use (if you’re a new tenant with a different business), or it may have been renovated.

3. Energy-efficiency rating (SEER)

You’ve probably seen all kinds of acronyms and numbers associated with air conditioning systems, and they can be confusing. Here’s what’s important and factors heavily into the cost to install central air.

SEER ratings measures the seasonal energy efficiency of an air conditioning system. The more efficient it is, the more the unit costs.

However, keep in mind that more efficient systems can cost considerably less to operate. That means your lower electric bills pay for the added cost of the equipment over time.

In 2018, SEER ratings range from 13 (low efficiency) to 28 or more (super high efficiency).

Learn more:

4. Heating replacement?

When you’re adding or replacing air conditioning, it can be smart to replace your heating equipment at the same time. This will, of course, add to the initial cost to install central air. However, if your heating system is old or incompatible with your new AC, it can save you money in the long run.

5. Add-ons

Adding extras to your HVAC system, such as UV air purifiers or humidification systems, can enhance comfort, especially for people with health issues. However, they also add to the cost.


6. New or replacement AC?

Are you replacing an old AC unit or installing central air for the first time? Central air replacement cost is usually less than the cost of adding central air to a space.

Why? With an existing system, the infrastructure needed to house and operate the equipment is in place, such as ductwork, drains, and wiring for controls. These may need some repair, but this often costs less than starting from scratch.

7. Ductwork

If you need to add or replace ductwork for your new AC system, this can add considerably to the cost to install central air.

Just like the overall cost to install central air, the cost for installing ductwork can vary because of:

  • The size of your space and the length and diameter of ductwork needed to reach every area within it
  • The simplicity or complexity of ductwork design (bends and routing of ducts)
  • Ducting material to be used (ranging from plain sheet metal to fiberboard, flexible or fiberglass insulated material)
  • How difficult it is to access the space where ducts need to be installed (tight crawl spaces or closed walls)

TIP: If you do have existing ducts, make sure your AC installer checks the condition of the ducts before giving you an estimate! Not doing so can lead to an unpleasant surprise during the install… and a much higher installation cost than you planned on.

8. Number of vents and returns

When you install ductwork, you also need to add the supply and return vents that feed cool air into your space and pull warm air back into your AC system. The more rooms or areas to be cooled, the more supply and return vents you will need, which adds to your installation cost.

9. Zones and controls

Do you need a multiple-zone air conditioning system? If you have different conditions in different areas of your space, this helps keep everyone comfortable.

For example, a commercial kitchen needs more cooling than the dining room. Or, a conference room for 50 may need to be controlled separately from the rest of the office.

Even a luxury home may benefit from variable cooling. Bedrooms for children may need to be kept warm while a living area needs more cooling for a party.

You might also want state-of-the-art programmable controls that give you the ability to adjust your AC from your mobile device.

The more zones and cooling controls you need, the higher your cost to install central air.

10. Permits

In some areas, building permits from your city or town are required when installing a new central air conditioning system or replacing an existing one. Your installer should take care of the paperwork and getting any required permits. However, you should be aware that there are permit costs that will be added to the total cost to install central air.

Savings opportunities for installing central air

When tallying up your total cost to install central air, remember that there may be savings opportunities that can bring the cost down.

11. Tax break for commercial replacements

For businesses looking to install new AC equipment, you’re in luck! If you install by the end of this year, you can take advantage of the best tax breaks in recent memory.

Here’s the short version: you can write off the ENTIRE COST of both equipment and installation on your tax return, rather than having to depreciate over the life of the equipment. That means you save thousands at the very least!

12. Rebates

When you purchase new equipment, you can get rebates from the equipment manufacturer, your state government, or other sources. A little research and filling out a few forms can lower your overall AC installation cost.

How to find out YOUR true cost to install central air

The best way to figure out your true cost to install central air is to get estimates from several reputable contractors in your area.

The tricky part is making sure the installers you choose are going to do the job right. Remember our tip about installation quality? Here are a couple of articles that can help you identify knowledgeable experts.