Need new A/C? Here’s when to replace your air conditioner

Should you repair or replace your AC? Don’t sweat. Here’s what you need to know.

Should you repair or replace your AC? Don’t sweat. Here’s what you need to know.

Considering an AC repair vs replace?

Every home appliance has an expiration date, but when your AC gets close to the end of its lifespan… you can end up really uncomfortable—and with a consistently too humid and too stuffy house.

Whether you’re considering new AC for the very first time or if this isn’t your first HVAC replacement rodeo, in this guide you’ll learn what you need to know.

Plus, depending on where you live, there are programs that can help you get a super-efficient heat pump HVAC system—eligible rebates included—at no upfront cost. Tap here to see if your house qualifies.

Here’s what you’ll cover:

Let’s jump right in. But first things first, how long is an air conditioner supposed to last in the first place?

How long do AC units last?

Central air conditioning systems can last anywhere between 10 to 30 years, with most averaging around 10 to 15 years total (1). Keep in mind, the lifespan of your air conditioner depends on how much you use it, your local climate, what type of AC it is, and if your house is well insulated and air sealed.

Here’s how long some of the most common types of AC last:

  • Window Unit AC — 10 years
  • Portable AC — 5-10 years
  • Residential single whole-home AC unit — 15 years
  • Central air-source heat pumps — 15 years (and up to 20–25 years if well-maintained and in a well insulated home)
  • Ductless mini-split AC systems (heat pumps) — 20 years

Depending where you live, central AC can last as little as 5–7 years, so consulting with a home performance contractor or HVAC pro on what type is best for your local climate is a smart idea.

To lengthen the lifespan of your air conditioning system, making important insulation and air sealing upgrades to your home can help!

7 signs you need to replace your air conditioner

  1. It isn’t cooling your home well.
  2. Your AC runs too long each time it turns on.
  3. It makes unpleasant noises.
  4. Your AC is leaking water regularly, despite repairs.
  5. Your utility bills keep going up.
  6. You have concerns about air quality.
  7. It’s kicking off and on repeatedly (aka short-cycling)

Let’s look at the specifics of each one, so you’ll know exactly what to look for. 

It isn’t cooling your home well

We’ll start with the obvious. If your air conditioner is running but not cooling your home, something’s gone wrong. Another common problem: Your air conditioner is kicking on, but it’s not blowing cold air. Either way, your home is uncomfortable—and there’s clearly an issue to address.

Your AC runs too long each time it turns on

When your AC turns on, it should only run about 15–20 minutes before shutting off again.  If it’s running any longer than that—or if it seems to run constantly on hot summer days—then something isn’t working correctly.

It makes unpleasant noises

If your air conditioning unit begins making strange noises, such as squeaking, grinding, or screeching, you shouldn’t ignore it.

While some unpleasant noises are the signs of easily fixable (and relatively harmless) problems, other sounds—such as a high-pitched screeching sound—can be the sign of a potentially dangerous malfunction.

Read to find out: Does homeowners insurance cover AC?

Your unit is leaking water or moisture

Some air conditioners (especially window units) drip water here and there. It’s normal. But if you begin to see significantly more water, it’s time to call a technician.

If the dripping is coming from a significant accumulation of ice on your AC coils, it could be a sign of leaking refrigerant—which is a health and environmental hazard and nothing to mess around with. Check out our AC leaking water troubleshooting guide for more info.

If your air conditioner seems to be fine but your electric bill gets more expensive every summer, you may need to call a technician out to assess your unit.

Your electricity bills keep going up

If your air conditioner seems to be fine but your electric use gets higher every summer, it you may need to call a technician out to assess your unit. (Yes, energy prices are rising, but if your use is going up, you need to get it checked out!)

Air conditioners can lose efficiency without any obvious signs, and there may be hidden problems affecting your system.

You have concerns about air quality

If you’ve been coughing a lot lately, you may want to check out your HVAC system. Dust particles and mold spores can get inside your ductwork and circulate inside your home whenever air is flowing.

(And if you haven’t been regularly replacing your unit’s air filters, the problem could be an even greater concern.)

Not only can this cause indoor air quality issues, but it can leave you with a too humid house or stale, stuffy air.

Your AC is short-cycling

If your AC system is turning off and on in short spurts, called short-cycling, without making your home feel more comfortable—well, it shouldn’t be. When AC systems are getting older, this is often a sign you’re due for a replacement.

Get this assessed by an HVAC technician, because this is an indicator something isn’t right.

Find out how to pay for a new AC unit.

AC repair vs replace: What to consider

If you’re on the fence about whether or not to repair your AC or take the leap to fully replacing it, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • What’s the cost of the repair? Would putting those funds into a new AC be a better investment? If it’s an expensive fix (and you have an aging system) a replacement could be the best choice.
  • How old is your current AC system? If it’s getting close to 10 years old or if your system is in its teens, it’s definitely time to consider a replacement.
  • Does your house have sufficient insulation? If upgrading your home’s insulation is also on your house project list, consider replacing your HVAC appliances at the same time. A well-insulated house can extend the life of your new AC system replacement.
  • Is your heating system aging? If both your heating and cooling systems are aging, sometimes you can get better pricing to replace your HVAC appliances at once or upgrade to the all-in-one heat pump. 
  • Do you have poor indoor air quality? Poor indoor air quality is a symptom of a larger whole-house issue, but your AC system does work to filter and circulate the air in your house. If you have respiratory concerns, it may be best to upgrade.

Depending on where you live, you could get energy efficient home upgrades like a new heat pump AC, high-performance insulation, and professional air sealing at no upfront cost. See if your house qualifies.

clean, bright bedroom with natural light and new heat pump mini split AC
A wall air conditioner, powered by heat pump technology, can be 3x more efficient than traditional HVAC—and much quieter.

What are the alternatives to replacing your air conditioner?

Before we talk about replacement options, let’s talk about a few steps you might take before deciding to replace your air conditioning unit altogether.

But you should know that regular maintenance and a well-insulated, well-sealed home can keep your air conditioner running for a long time.

If you suspect that something is wrong with your air conditioner and you haven’t had a pro take a look, definitely do that before deciding to replace it. The issue could be a simple fix. (Troubleshoot why your AC isn’t working correctly here.)

HVAC experts also recommend that you get your air conditioner checked out by a professional at least once a year—right before summer starts is the perfect time.

If your air conditioner system is working properly but your home still isn’t comfortable, you have a couple of options:

  1. Supplement your main air conditioning system with smaller units

    We don’t recommend this option—it isn’t efficient.
  2. Fix your house’s uneven temperatures to help your current AC unit perform better

    This is a smart choice long-term. If you decide replace your AC soon, fixing temperature issues will help extend the life and increase the efficiency of your new HVAC.

Supplement your main air conditioning system with smaller air conditioners in “hot spots”

It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes two air conditioners can be more energy-efficient than one—especially if your main AC is struggling to cool the entire house.

Supporting your main AC system with additional portable or window units works well if there are just one or two stuffy rooms in your house (or if you have a multi-story home with only one thermostat).

But we need to add an important disclaimer here: If you have hot spots in your house, this is usually due to needing insulation and air sealing upgrades. 

Adding in additional window AC units can help reduce overworking your current HVAC system, but it won’t resolve the underlying problem caused by a poorly insulated house. And additional systems cost extra to run.

With that in mind, instead of replacing your current AC system, you could…

Fix your house instead of your air conditioning

It doesn’t matter how hard your air conditioner works if your home is letting all the cold air out, so professionally air sealing and properly insulating your home can make a huge difference in the efficiency of your air conditioning system.

(And if you live in an eligible area, you may be able to get this work done for no upfront cost.)

air sealing attic ducts

Most U.S. houses—about 8/10 in fact—were built before energy efficiency was kept in mind.

That being said, most homes are under-insulated and have plenty of open gaps, seams, and holes (called air leaks) that let all that paid-for, conditioned air escape. Discover how to find air leaks in your home here.

90% of US homes are under-insulated.

AC replacement options

If you’ve decided that your plan includes a new AC unit, which kind is best for your home?

Let’s look at your options and how they compare with each other. Feel free to use this quick index below to jump ahead.

Window units

Window units are small air conditioners that you install—you guessed it—in a window. They’re self-contained units; you won’t need to hook them up to any larger system, which means installation is pretty simple and some people even choose to do it on their own.

Don’t hesitate to hire a pro, though. Window units are heavy and installing them is a two-person job. (Also, be sure to get accurate measurements of your window before you purchase your unit.)

Wondering how many window units you’d need to make your home comfortable?That’s a good sign that window units aren’t the right solution for your home at all.

Pros and cons of window air conditioning units

Window AC units are inexpensive and relatively simple to install, so they’re a popular choice for those for whom installing a more comprehensive cooling system doesn’t make sense (such as renters or those who own a unit in an older building). They’re also useful as a supplement to your central AC (or if you just need to cool a smaller corner of your house).

But window units are only designed to be effective in smaller spaces and definitely aren’t a good comprehensive cooling solution for an entire house.

In short, if you find yourself wondering how many window units you’d need to make your home comfortable, there’s a good chance that window units aren’t the right solution for your home at all.

Cost of window air conditioning units

Window-mounted air conditioning units generally cost between $150–500 each, depending on the features and brand you select.

You should also plan for the costs of additional mounting hardware (to ensure your unit fits properly in your window) and professional installation (if screwdrivers aren’t your thing).

Portable air conditioning units

Portable air conditioners are stand-alone cooling units that don’t require a window installation, so they’re popular for people who have a small area to cool and don’t want to install an appliance in their window.

To run one, you’ll need a power source and a place to vent the moisture via a hose (usually a slightly-opened window).

Advantages and disadvantages of portable air conditioning units

The biggest benefit of these units is their flexibility—they’re easy to install in any room that has a power source and a place to vent the liquid condensation. You can even move the same unit from room to room, if absolutely necessary (although they’re pretty heavy and you’ll have to re-install the condensation hose every time you change location).

However, portable air conditioning units provide the least cooling power for your dollar. They’ll provide better cooling than a fan, but they won’t get your space as comfortable as any of the other options on our list. They’re also pretty cumbersome and tend to get in the way of daily activities.

In other words, they’re usually a last-resort option. 

Cost of portable air conditioning units

Plan to spend at least $200–300 for a portable air conditioner (though high-end units can cost thousands of dollars).

Traditional central air conditioning

This is the option most people think of when they think of air conditioning. A traditional air conditioning system comes in two major varieties: a split-system and a packaged unit.

A split-system air conditioning system has two main components: an outdoor condensing unit and an indoor evaporator unit (which is often combined with a heating solution, such as a furnace or the indoor part of a heat pump).

A packaged unit bundles all the components—condenser, compressor and evaporator—together in one outdoor cabinet (which can also include a heating system).

Both systems distribute air throughout your home via ductwork.

outdoor central AC condenser unit

Advantages and disadvantages of traditional air conditioning

Compared to window and portable units, central air conditioning is quieter, more convenient and more efficient—not to mention more comfortable. 

The new central air systems don’t need much maintenance and many people prefer a cooling system with a low visual profile—you won’t need to install any bulky wall or window units. All told, traditional central air conditioning is well-loved by many Americans and it’s certainly a viable cooling option—especially if your home is well insulated and sealed.

However, when compared to greener, smarter technologies like the heat pump, traditional central AC can fall a bit short.

For one thing, it requires ductwork—if you don’t have ductwork already, it’s usually an expensive, intrusive installation. And if you do have older ductwork, it may need duct sealing or repairs to get back into good shape.

And traditional central AC is not nearly as energy-efficient as a heat pump. And it only does one job: cooling. If you also need a heating option, you’ll need to purchase and maintain a separate system.

Cost of installing a central air conditioning system

The cost of a traditional air condition system varies widely—it depends on the size and structure of your home, where you are in the country, and whether you need to install or repair ductwork. In general, though, you’ll need to set aside between $5,000–15,000, typically paid upfront and out-of-pocket.

The most energy-efficient AC: Heat pumps (also known as ductless air conditioners or mini-split AC)

Heat pumps are the smartest, most efficient cooling option currently on the market.

Don’t let the word “heat” fool you—they earned the name because of how they work: Heat pumps cool your home by removing heat from your indoor environment and transferring it outside your home.

(And, conveniently, they also heat your home by reversing the process: taking heat from the outside air and moving it inside your home. So they’re an air conditioner and a heating system—a complete two-in-one solution.)

heat pump condenser outdoors on exterior wall of grey house
Heat pumps take hot air out of your house in the summer, leaving cool, fresh air behind, without using as much energy as traditional HVAC to operate.

Heat pumps are flexible technology. They come in several varieties, and you can get them in both ducted and ductless versions—so if you’re looking for an efficient ductless air conditioner, this is your best option.

  • Ducted heat pumps or central heat pumps use a similar configuration as a traditional central air conditioning unit (so you can use your existing ductwork, if you have it).
  • Ductless heat pumps—also sometimes called ductless air conditioners or mini-split air conditioners—use small, wall-mounted units called mini-splits to condition and distribute the air. The mini-split units are directly connected to an outdoor unit via refrigerant lines—so no ducts are required.

Heat pumps cool, heat, filter, and dehumidify your home’s air. No need to purchase a separate home heating system.

Advantages and disadvantages of air conditioning with a heat pump

Heat pumps are incredibly energy-efficient—they’re the greenest option currently on the market—and they’re quickly becoming the new standard in American HVAC.

They make your home feel great, with plenty of cool, filtered airflow at all times.

For most people, heat pumps provide the best comfort and lifetime value, so the biggest barrier to heat pumps is usually the upfront expense of installation. Since it can replace both your central cooling and heating systems, it can be a more expensive upgrade.

Can a heat pump replace your air conditioner?

Yes! For many households, a heat pump is the best option—whether you have existing ductwork or not. Heat pumps condition the air efficiently and, because they’re designed to provide continuous airflow, your house will feel fresh and cool 24/7. No more stuffiness.

Cost of installing a heat pump system

Costs vary by region, but installing a complete heat pump system can run you about the same amount of money as installing both a heating and central air system at the same time.

However, that isn’t unreasonable when you consider that you are, in fact, getting both a top-of-the-line, super-efficient heating and air conditioning system in one appliance.

And when you consider the superior comfort and energy-efficiency of a heat pump, it’s a technology with an excellent lifetime value.

Also, if you live in an eligible area, you can get a heat pump installed at no upfront cost.

Ready to make your house feel better year round—and at zero upfront cost? See if your house qualifies to work with Sealed with our quick, easy, 2-minute questionnaire.

FAQ: How long do AC units last?

Check out the FAQs below—if you still have unanswered questions, call us at 917-905-3788.

How long do AC evaporator and condenser coils last?

AC evaporator and condenser coils last about the lifespan of your air conditioner unit when well-maintained. If your evaporator or condenser coils need replacing, it’s usually a sign to invest in a new AC system.

Learn how to maintain and clean AC coils here.

What is the cost to replace a home air conditioning unit?

A replacement of your house’s AC unit could cost anywhere from just over $4,000 to more than $12,000 (2). And that’s if your ductwork is in good shape and doesn’t need replacement or repair. This cost doesn’t include the cost of replacing your heating system, which could be an additional $3,000 to over $8,000 in costs.

Your HVAC installer will also need to pay for any necessary permit fees and you’ll also have to factor in any labor costs or additional electrical work needed to support your new system.

With Sealed, you could get a custom, expertly installed heat pump HVAC system at no upfront cost… with local eligible rebates included. (And there are plenty of heat pump tax credits and rebates!) Tap here to see if your house qualifies for Sealed.

Ready to see if your home qualifies for the most energy-efficient HVAC system on the market, at no upfront cost?

And in case you forgot already, we’ll say it again: Sealed can help you get energy-efficient home upgrades with zero upfront cost with an energy-savings guarantee. It’s a pretty smart system if you ask us—see if you qualify today.

August 16, 2022