Choose Your Cool: Which Air Conditioner Is Best for You?

aerial view of air conditioner

July 28, 2017

As global temperatures warm, more property owners recognize the importance of installing air conditioning. However, different climates call for various cooling systems. In regions with hot summers, a central air conditioner may seem preferable to a small window unit, but even those who opt for a whole-house system will be confronted with choices.

Central air conditioners come in several varieties. Almost all are “split systems,” meaning the evaporator coil and blower are located inside the house, while the condenser coil and compressor are located outside—typically in a circular or square metal case. Some types of air conditioning systems offer zone control, enabling the homeowner to set different temperatures throughout the house.

Houses without ductwork can benefit from mini-split systems. These systems combine an outdoor compressor and condenser with multiple indoor heads that are meant to cool only a single room—much like stand-alone window units. Tubing connects the main compressor with each indoor unit, and these outlets each have their own evaporator coil and blower.

Finally, packaged terminal air conditioners (PTACs) feature an external condenser, evaporator, and compressor in a single casing. The refrigerant attracts heat and moisture from the outdoors and transfers it inside, removing the heat and humidity with a cool indoor coil.

Higher-end models that contain heating coils then work in reverse, transferring air over the coil before bringing it inside—offering year-round climate control.

Define Your Needs

For homes with already-existing cooling systems, the obvious upgrade is to replace the current model with a newer, inherently more efficient appliance. An air conditioner’s performance is measured by a figure called the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating, or SEER. The SEER number rates how much cooling is provided per watt of energy. States have requirements for minimum SEER ratings for modern air conditioners.

Most modern air conditioners have a SEER rating between 13 and 14 (California’s minimum), with 21 to 25 being the maximum. Units with higher SEER numbers offer even greater efficiency. For homes without existing central air, a homeowner needs to consider his or her:

  • Cooling needs, including budget and square footage
  • Presence of existing ductwork (for a forced-air furnace)
  • Type of energy used in the home

A Closer Look at Ductless Mini-Split Systems

Ductless mini-split systems are a good option for multi-family dwellings or commercial buildings with more than one business. Since each indoor head has its own thermostat, the residents or tenants can control the temperature independent of all the other outlets connected to the main condenser and compressor.

In a single-family home, the individual thermostats make it possible to keep different parts of the house at different levels of coolness. If a room is not being used, its air conditioning unit can be turned off, thereby saving energy. A central system that relies on ducts lacks this flexibility.

Mini-split systems are also a logical choice for homes with radiant heating (and therefore do not have ducts). Rather than installing ductwork and a central air conditioning system, a homeowner may choose the less-intrusive mini-split option.

How Does Mini-Split Compare to Traditional Central Air Conditioning?

The system that delivers the best upfront value will depend on your home’s current cooling system. Mini-split systems are usually more expensive to install—up to 30 percent more than a standard air conditioner, reports the U.S. Department of Energy.

However, if the home does not have any existing ductwork, then the price of installing a standard central air system could double. Fortunately, these energy-saving systems often qualify for PACE financing, explained later in this article. In term of operating costs, standard central air and mini-split systems can vary widely.

Central air cools the whole house and is controlled by one thermostat, while mini-split systems have a thermostat at each air outlet. If you only need air conditioning in a portion of your home, then the mini-split option could be a better choice. However, if you cool the entire home, then central air will likely provide a better overall value.

One more issue to consider: up to 30 percent of the cool air produced by a central air conditioner is lost as it travels through the ductwork. A properly insulated duct system can help reduce this loss, but a mini-split system does not present this problem due to its ductless design.

PTACs: The Alternative to Central Air and Mini-Split Systems

Packaged terminal air conditioners or PTACs are a popular option for hotels and for homes that do not have existing ducts. Since all the necessary parts are contained in one casing, PTACs are easy to install. Placed on an exterior wall, PTACs can cool one room and, perhaps, adjoining rooms that are not completely enclosed. Higher-quality PTAC models can provide something that mini-split systems cannot. These units come with heating coils, so they can provide warmth as well as cool air.

How do PTACs compare to their larger, whole-house peers? Like mini-split air conditioners, PTACs make it possible to cool certain parts of the house and not others. This zonal cooling strategy may save on energy costs because energy is not being wasted cooling empty rooms. On the other hand, if the entire house requires cooling, PTAC units will prove too small.

For homeowners who want summertime comfort only in portions of their home, PTACs offer good value. A single air conditioner is relatively cheap, so an owner could hypothetically purchase several units and it would still cost less than installing any type of whole-house or zonal air conditioning system. This leads to one potential catch. PTACs are not as difficult to install as central air units, but they need to be placed in the wall, which could mean cutting through a section of the building’s exterior. This requirement elevates installation above the level of easy do-it-yourself projects. Professional help is usually required, so the cost of switching to PTAC will be higher than the price of the unit itself.

Stay Cool with PACE Financing

An air conditioning upgrade is a major project. However, programs such as PACE financing make it more realistic to either install a new energy-efficient system or upgrade your existing system to a more efficient one. For example, Ygrene’s PACE program covers duct replacement and duct sealing, in addition to PTACs, mini-split systems and central air conditioning.

PACE provides a means to finance residential or commercial upgrades that save water, save energy or offer protection against storms and other natural phenomena. By leveraging the equity in their property, a homeowner can eliminate the upfront cost of a qualifying home upgrade and spread the payments out over decades, making annual payments on their property tax bills.

There is no universal answer to the question, “Which air conditioning system is best for my home?” However, the wide range of options means that every homeowner should be able to find the type of efficient air conditioner that best fits their needs—and the right financing programs help make the project more affordable.

If you're in the market for a new air conditioning system, find out if PACE financing is available in your area – call Ygrene at (855) 901-3999 or email