By Mark Williams -- AP Energy Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Let's face it: Buying a new central air conditioning system is an expensive task with little of the payoff of a sexier purchase, like a surround-sound system for your flat-screen.
But there's a lot of new technology that you should know about to find the best fit for your lifestyle, and your home.
First off, those clunky, chunky systems of the past are gone.
Depending on how much money you want to spend, there are new systems that can cut your electricity consumption in half, that make very little noise, and even allow you to set different humidity and temperatures levels throughout the house.
PRICE VS. ENVIRONMENT
Your new air conditioner will be more efficient. The big question is whether buying the most efficient system, because you are worried about your carbon footprint, is worth it financially.
"If you can't earn your money back in five years, it's not cost effective," said Karen Schneider, a spokeswoman for Energy Star, an energy efficiency program run by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.
The government has established an energy efficient ratings system for central air conditioners. The minimum since 2006 is 13. Systems 15 years old or older probably have a rating of 10 or lower.
A family in central Ohio might spend $250 to $350 on electricity for the four months or so that air conditioning is desired. A new air conditioner with a 13 rating could save about $75 a summer and drive down electricity consumption by about 25 percent. A family in Texas or some other warm-weather state, obviously, would save a lot more.
Most of the bids my wife and I received to replace our cranky 3-ton, 15-year-old air conditioner with a 13-rated system, plus some minor duct work, ranged from about $2,300 to $3,000.
To move up to a 14-rated system likely would add $600 to $1,000 to the cost. The downside: It would cut our cooling costs by only about an extra $25 for a summer, not even close to meeting the five-year rule. A 21-rated system, the most efficient system, would cut consumption in half, but the estimates we received topped $6,000.
If cutting electricity consumption is important, but you can't see paying the higher cost for a more efficient system, there are other steps that can be taken at minimal or no expense, such as setting the thermostat higher, replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, turning off the heated dry on the dishwasher or doing laundry with cold water.
PRICE VS. COMFORT
Though it may not be worth the price from an energy perspective, higher rated systems have additional features that are worth the extra cost for some people.
Air conditioning still is about cooling the home, but higher priced systems do a better job of managing humidity, keeping temperatures more steady, allowing different temperature settings throughout the house and even can tell you when it is time to service your system.
Also, new systems are moving to Puron refrigerant instead of Freon, which cannot be produced past 2020 because of ozone damaging emissions.
A host of factors — size of the house, level of insulation and the number of windows — go into determining what size air conditioner is best. An undersized air conditioner can make it hard to cool your house; too big and you waste money along with running the risk of moisture-related problems down the road, according to the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.
The government is offering up to a $1,500 tax credit to help defer the cost of new cooling and heating systems, but only the most efficient — read expensive — systems are eligible. For us to be eligible under one bid we received, we would need to replace our furnace along with our air conditioner for $7,500, not including the tax credit.
The idea behind replacing both at the same time is that if you are having age-related problems with one of your systems, the other may not be far behind.
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