As Ontarians, we live for summer and the joys it brings — warm weather, fresh air, camping, barbeques, and more. But nothing dampens the summer spirit faster than a broken air conditioner during a hot, humid day. 

Replacing an air conditioner is a big decision for a homeowner. So when something goes wrong with your AC unit, we know how fast you need to collect accurate, unbiased information about your AC repair or replacement options. That’s why we’ve pulled together this air conditioner buying guide to help you navigate every step in the journey.

In this guide, you’ll learn about:

Air Conditioner Basics

In the following section, we discuss the common subjects and terms you will encounter while researching and purchasing an air conditioner, when to replace your AC unit, what size air conditioner you need, and efficiency ratings.

How an Air Conditioner Works

Air conditioners draw in warm air from the home and passes it over an evaporator coil that absorbs heat and removes humidity, which cools the air. The AC unit then expels the heat outside and pushes the cold air back into the room to make the temperature more comfortable.

A diagram showing how an air conditioner works to remove warm air from a home. The air conditioner diagram discusses the evaporator coil, compressor, condenser fan, and expansion valve

To achieve this procedure, most air conditioners contain the following parts:

  • Condenser coil
  • Compressor
  • Metering Device, such as an expansion valve
  • Condenser Fan
  • Blower
  • Electrical components
  • Evaporator coil or “A” coil
  • Furnace or Air Handler (central air conditioners only)

If any of these parts break or work inefficiently, your AC unit may need repairs or replacement

When to Replace Your Air Conditioner

  • Your AC equipment is 15+ years old 
  • After turning on your AC unit, it takes too long for your house to cool down
  • Any part of the air conditioning system is loud or making unusual noises, like bangs, squeaks and scrapes
  • You’ve had previous equipment breakdowns

Later in the guide, we’ll dive deeper into AC maintenance, repairs and replacement. Skip ahead to that section if you want to learn more diagnostic tips. And if you want a more in-depth explanation about how each type of air conditioner works, visit the types of air conditioners section.

Air Conditioner Efficiency and SEER Ratings

Among the most important decisions you’ll make when buying a new AC unit is how efficient you want the equipment to be, a factor known as SEER.

Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) measures how efficient your air conditioning equipment is, similar to the kilometers-per-litre rating in a car. The greater the system’s SEER rating, the more energy-efficient the AC unit is and the more comfort you will get from each energy dollar.

You may also see air conditioners rated with EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio), which is similar to SEER, but calculated using a steady outside temperature of 35℃ (95℉). In comparison, SEER is calculated using outside temperatures that range from 18℃ (65℉) to 40℃ (104℉).

How to Determine Air Conditioner Efficiency

Ideally, you want to buy the most energy-efficient air conditioner that you can afford. But higher SEER models typically cost more money, so you may want to calculate the annual electricity cost for an air conditioner to see if the payoff meets your needs. If you have an HVAC Energy Management Consultant evaluate your home, they’ll do these calculations for you. 

To start, you’ll need to identify four factors. 

1. The BTU output of your chosen air conditioner

British Thermal Units (BTUs)  measures the rate of heat transfer needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit or freeze one short ton (907 kg; 2,000 lb) of water into ice in 24 hours. The AC unit specifications will tell you its BTU output. 

2. The unit size (in tons) 

AC units are sized by tons, which instead of weight, describes the rate of heat transfer that results in the freezing or melting of 1 short ton of pure water at 0 °C (32 °F) in 24 hours. 1 ton of cooling is equivalent to 12,000 BTU.

3. An estimate of how many hours you have the AC unit turned on each year

4. How much your electricity costs per kilowatt-hour

After you have this information, use the following formula to calculate how much money running an AC unit will cost you each year:

Unit size × BTU/h × operational hours per year × $/kWh ÷ SEER ÷ 1000W/kW = annual energy cost

Let’s break the formula down so it’s easier to understand. A house in Ontario has a central air conditioner with a cooling capacity of 5 tons and a SEER rating of 20. The unit operates 100 days each year for 8 hours per day. The cost for electricity is $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. 

The first step is to convert the unit’s size (tons) to BTU-per hour. For reference: A one-ton AC unit is rated for 12,000 BTU-per hour. 

(5 tons) × (12,000 BTU/h/ton) = 60,000 BTU/h.

The next step is to determine how much you pay in kilowatt-per-hours compared to the unit efficiency rating.

(60,000 Btu/h) × (800 h/year) × ($0.10/kWh) ÷ (20 SEER rating) ÷ (1000 W/kW) = $240/year

This energy-to-cost rating helps determine what size of AC unit you should buy. The average Ontario home will range from 1.5 to 2.5 tons with a SEER of 13-16.

How to Determine the Right Air Conditioner Size for Your Home

There are nearly a dozen factors that go into choosing the right size AC unit for your home, including the size and age of your home, air flow, how many windows you have, insulation, and how much sun your house gets. We encourage you to consult with an HVAC expert during your shopping process to make sure you don’t miss any factors.

However, you can do rough estimates on your own to help narrow what types of AC units are the best for your needs. 

As we talk about in our blog post, How Do I Know What Size Air Conditioner I Need?, home air conditioners generally start at 1.5 tons and go up in half-ton increments. 

A one-ton AC unit can cover roughly 750-1000 square feet. So if you have a 2,000 square foot home, you might be looking at a 2.0 – 2.5-ton unit. It’s unlikely any residential home will need more than a 5-ton unit. 

You should also consider duct sizing, which is key to ensuring there is adequate air flow for the requirements of the air conditioning system. New units may require more air flow and sometimes the duct work that exists is not set up for the new units.

If you want an accurate size and unit recommendation, you can also schedule a free consultation with Enercare’s HVAC experts. 

How Much Does an Air Conditioner Cost?

The average price of a new, high-efficiency air conditioner ranges from $3,000-$6,000 and includes standard installation from a fully-insured, licensed company, with at least a one year warranty, and all required licenses for installation.

For a more narrow scope, there are five factors that determine the cost of a new AC unit:

  • Air conditioner type: central, ductless, window, wall-mounted, or portable
  • Environmental choices: energy efficiency, sound output, air filtration options (which depend on allergies or other sensitivities), and comfort-enhancing options
  • Personal choices: extended warranties, maintenance plans, and service guarantees
  • Technical requirement: the size of your home, floor plan, number of stories, existing ductwork, and BTU load
  • Code requirements: safety, licensing, and building code requirements

The following table breaks down the average costs for new air conditioners in Ontario. 

Air Conditioner Type Average Cost
(Including Installation)
 
Average Unit Lifespan
Central Air Conditioner $3,500-$6,000 15 years
Ductless Air Conditioner $3,000-$6,000 20 years
Window Air Conditioner $200-$1,000 8-10 years
Wall-Mounted Air Conditioner $450-$700 10 years
Portable Air Conditioner $250-$700 5-10 years

If you want to avoid the upfront costs of buying and installing an AC unit, then air conditioner rental is an alternative to consider. Our HVAC rental solution is the Enercare Advantage program, which offers you zero up-front costs, affordable monthly payments, and free bi-annual maintenance and repairs by our licensed technicians.

The Types of Home Air Conditioners

The type of air conditioner that’s best for your home depends on your cooling needs and price range. The following section discusses the five types of air conditioners that are common in Canada.

Central Air Conditioner
Ductless Air Conditioner
Window-mounted Air Conditioner
Wall-mounted Air Conditioner
Portable Air Conditioner

Central Home Air Conditioner

A central air conditioner is amongst the most popular choices in Canada and works great for a mid-to-large size family home, and for homes with multiple stories.

Including installation, the average central air conditioner costs between $3,500-$6,000. The equipment offers a good balance between cost, efficiency and longevity. 

The Three Types of Central Air Conditioners

The common types of compressors used in central air conditioners are single-stage, dual-stage and variable speed.

  1. Single-stage units operate in an on-and-off mode which makes it the least efficient.   These are typically seen in entry-level units.
  2. Dual-stage units run at a lower rate when the weather is cooler and a higher rate when the weather is hotter. This means better efficiency and comfort. These are usually mid-range units.
  3. Variable speed units are the most efficient scroll compressor available. These offer consumers better energy efficiency than the other two types.

Central Air Conditioner Installations

Due to the laws governing the sale and handling of refrigerants and the required furnace modifications, installing a central air conditioner is not a do-it-yourself project. A licensed technician is required to do the installation safely.  A typical installation takes about a day and it can’t be entirely completed in the winter.

All major air conditioner brands have models ranging from entry-level to more advanced models. The advanced models include higher efficiency ratings and additional features like smart thermostat and temperature sensor integration

We recommend that you don’t get too caught up on researching air conditioner brands. Instead, focus on proper sizing and installation quality to ensure optimized operation for years to come.

When you contact an HVAC company to inquire about purchasing a new air conditioner, you should expect them to send an expert to your home for a consultation before giving you a price quote or beginning installation. 

In the consultation, the company’s Energy Management Consultant (EMC) collects information to give you a customized solution. They’ll typically ask (or look at):

  • How old your home is
  • How insulated your walls and ceilings are
  • How many windows and doors there are
  • If you have any concerns about your existing AC unit or notice hot areas around your house

Afterward, the EMC will calculate the square footage in the most important rooms, determine the correct AC unit size and BTU usage, and then recommend the equipment you need.

Regardless of who you choose to install your central air conditioner, for your safety, we encourage you to work with companies that have liability insurance and licenses with Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) and Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA). 

Advantages of a Central Air Conditioner

  • Cools your entire house
  • Connects to your home’s thermostat, including smart thermostats
  • Air is filtered through the furnace filter
  • Low maintenance
  • Easy to use
  • Life span averages 15 years
  • Financing or rental available
  • Quiet inside home
  • With Enercare’s Smarter Home system, the HVAC unit will be monitored to watch for potential issues before problems arise.

Central Air Conditioner Cons

  • Expensive to replace, but easy financing and rental options are available
  • Takes up space outside of the house
  • Makes some outside noise
  • Requires furnace filter to be replaced

How do Central Air Conditioners Work?

A diagram showing how a central air conditioner works to remove warm air from a home. The air conditioner diagram discusses the evaporator coil, compressor, condenser fan, and expansion valve

Most central air conditioning systems are made up of two parts, which is also known as a split system. The outdoor unit contains a condenser coil, compressor, fan and electrical components. The indoor portion sits on top of the natural gas, electric, oil or propane furnace or air handler and is called the evaporator coil or “A” coil.

A central air conditioning system will start up when the attached thermostat senses that the temperature has increased greater than a preset level.

The liquid refrigerant inside the evaporator coil converts to gas. As the warm, humid indoor air passes over the coil, it absorbs the heat and removes the humidity, which cools the air.

The furnace’s blower fan then circulates the chilled air up through the home’s ductwork and out into the various living areas. Since the system uses the furnace to transfer air throughout the house, the air will be filtered by the furnace filter. That’s why it’s important to change your furnace filters throughout the year.

Meanwhile, the refrigerant gas travels outside the house through a copper pipe (line set) to the compressor. The compressor pressurizes the gas and moves the refrigerant through the condenser coil. As the condenser fan pulls cool air through the condenser coil, it changes the refrigerant back to liquid form and continues the refrigeration cycle.

The humidity that was pulled from the air then turns into condensation, which is removed from the evaporator coil via the condensate drain line. After, the heated air in the home circulates outside, and the cold air returns and back into the system to be cooled down and dehumidified again.

Ductless Air Conditioner

Ductless air conditioners are perfect for homes without furnace ductwork, and for homes with hot spots that can’t be solved with an existing HVAC system. Homeowners who add home renovations, such as an in-law suite, also tend to use a ductless system. 

In Canada, you may want to consider a ductless split system that uses a heat pump, so that you can heat and cool your home year-round.

The cost of a quality ductless air conditioner ranges between $3,000 to $6,000 after installation.

Ductless Air Conditioner Installation

A licensed professional is required to install a ductless split unit because the unit uses refrigerants and is wired into the home’s electrical panel. Depending on how many indoor units are required and how difficult the installation is, it could take 1-2 days for the installation. The unit must be tested, so you can’t completely install a ductless system during the winter. 

Ductless AC units are a common option among households, and most major HVAC brands have several models to choose from. Advanced models have higher efficiency and more features, such as using a remote to adjust the temperature. 

Much like a central air system, the critical part of buying a good split system, which affects performance and longevity, is buying the correct size and hiring a quality installer. We also suggest you request a free in-home consultation before considering a split system to make sure you accommodate your home’s unique cooling needs. 

Advantages of a Ductless Air Conditioner

  • No ducts or venting required
  • Can resolve hot room issues
  • Zoned cooling by installing multiple heads on a single outdoor unit

Ductless Air Conditioner Cons

  • More expensive than some AC options, but easy financing and rental options are available
  • Indoor units take up wall space
  • Only cools the room where the indoor units is installed
  • Takes up some space outside of the house
  • Makes some outside noise

How Ductless Air Conditioners Work

A diagram showing how a ductless air conditioner works to remove warm air from a home. The air conditioner diagram discusses the evaporator coil, compressor, condenser fan, and expansion valve

Like central systems, a ductless split has two main components: an outdoor unit that houses the compressor, condenser coil and fan, and an indoor unit that houses the evaporator coil and the blower fan. The two units are connected with a copper conduit that links the indoor and outdoor units. The conduit also houses the power cable, refrigerant tubing, suction tubing, and a condensate drain.

Ductless splits are available as single or multi-zone systems, meaning they can cool one room or many. Depending on the size of your home and how many rooms you want to cool, you may have multiple indoor units. There are also a number of options for indoor units to fit your needs, including wall units, floor consoles and ceiling cassettes.

Window-Mounted Air Conditioner

Window-mounted air conditioners are meant to cool a small space like an individual room or a small one-story, one-room building. They’re great for studio apartments, workshops and in-law suites.

Typical window units range from 5,000 to 25,000 BTUs. To determine the right size for your room, you will need to measure the square footage of your room and refer to the manufacturer to see what size they recommend.

In Canada, a window air conditioner costs $200-$1,000, depending on the size and unit-specific features.

Window-Mounted Air Conditioner Installation

Window mounted air conditioners can be installed into a double-hung window, or in some cases, a casement window.  Egress and fire-safety need to be kept in mind when choosing where to put the unit, especially if the room only has one window.

We recommend explicitly following the manufacturer’s installation instructions. And when you install a window unit, we also suggest you have at least one other person to help you because the units are bulky and often weigh up to 54 kg (120 pounds). 

Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind about window AC units. This advice also applies to wall-mounted AC units. 

  • Increase BTU levels if your ceilings are taller than 2.4 meters (8 feet).  
  • Sunny rooms may need a 10 percent BTU-level increase
  • Conversely, shaded rooms can decrease BTU output by 10 percent
  • If your room commonly has more than two people, you should increase BTU output by an additional 600 BTU per extra person

Advantages of a Window Air Conditioner

  • Great for small spaces
  • Can be installed without professional help by following the instructions carefully
  • Cost-effective for cooling efficiency
  • Models are available that offer heating and cooling
  • Doesn’t require air ducts

Window Air Conditioner Cons

  • Need a window to put the unit into
  • The unit will need to be removed in winter
  • The unit will drip water
  • Awkward and challenging to install
  • Only cools one room
  • Noisy

Wall-Mounted Air Conditioner

Wall-mounted air conditioners are almost the same as window air conditioners, except they are installed into a wall and don’t need to be removed in winter. These air conditioners work well for studio apartments, small offices, workshops, or open floor plan one-bedroom apartments. 

To calculate the best size for your space, you will need to measure the square footage of your room and refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to see what size they recommend.  
An average wall-mounted air conditioner costs $450-$700, depending on the size and features. 

Installing a Wall-Mounted Air Conditioner

We strongly recommend hiring an HVAC, plumbing or construction expert to install wall-mounted air conditioners. The process requires you to cut a hole through your wall, which means you need to pay attention to studs, pipes, and wiring. Plus, you have to be sure the wall won’t collapse during or after the installation and the spot you choose needs to provide 
adequate airflow to the room. 

Advantages of a Wall-mounted Air Conditioner

  • Great for small spaces
  • Cost-effective 
  • Better cooling capacity and longevity than window AC systems
  • Doesn’t require air ducts

Wall-mounted Air Conditioner Cons

  • Need to remove part of your wall for installation
  • Only cools one room
  • Noisy

Portable Air Conditioner

If a central air conditioner or ductless system doesn't work for your space, and you can’t install a window or wall unit, then you could consider a portable air conditioner.

These units vary in size, BTU output and features. On average, portable air conditioners cost $250-$700. 

To calculate the best size for your space, you will need to measure the square footage of your room and refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to see what size they recommend.  

Installing a Portable Air Conditioner

Portable air conditioners are, as the name implies, portable, so there is little-to-no installation. However, when you set up the system, the warm air being compressed does need to be vented outside, which is typically done out a window. 

When you choose a spot to place the unit, make sure it sits away from a wall so the airflow isn’t restricted. To maximize efficiency, the exhaust hose also needs to be straight with no kinks.

Another catch about portable AC units to pay attention to: Condensation collected during the cooling process will either be evaporated into the hot air exhaust or collected inside the unit in a bucket, depending on the model you choose. If it has a bucket, that water will need to be emptied often.

The last thing to note is noise. Portable ACs have noise decibel levels that typically range from 50 to 60 dB, which is louder than a refrigerator but usually quieter than a vacuum. If the unit is underpowered for the size of the room, it will constantly run while a unit too big will cycle too quickly and not properly remove the humidity. 

For the sake of your ears, double-check manufacturer recommendations when purchasing a portable air conditioner to make sure you get the right size for your space.

Advantages of a Portable Air Conditioner

  • Portable
  • Easier to store away in the off-season
  • Many have remotes and/or can be controlled by smartphones
  • Installation only requires exhaust out of the window

Portable Air Cconditioner Cons

  • Noisy
  • Take up floor space
  • More expensive than window and wall units
  • Awkward to move

Air Conditioner Maintenance and Repair Basics 

A broken, underperforming or malfunctioning air conditioner in the peak heat of summer is frustrating. Before you call a service technician about your unit, there are several basic maintenance and diagnostic steps you can perform. 

For general AC maintenance and troubleshooting, read our blog post Easy Troubleshooting for Common AC Problems. If you want advice on specific problems, the following section is for you. 

Before we dive in, important to note that fiddling with an air conditioner or furnace is dangerous, so we strongly encourage you to consult a licensed HVAC technician for any maintenance work you’re not comfortable with or are unsure about. 

Common Problems with Air Conditioners 

Knowing what’s wrong with your air conditioner is half the battle. If you notice any of the following issues, your unit likely needs to be repaired or replaced. 

Old Age

The average central air conditioner lasts about 15 years. If your unit is showing signs of old age, like poor performance or unusual noises, it’s likely time for a replacement.

Frozen Coils

If your evaporator coils don't get adequate airflow or they are clogged they can freeze and your AC unit may stop working. Dirt and other types of debris can clog the air filters and ducts, which restricts warm air from reaching the coils. Without the warm air, the coils can’t cool the air being pushed through your AC unit efficiently and may eventually freeze.

If your coils are frozen, you may notice: 

  • Warm air coming out of the vents, despite the AC unit being on
  • Condensation or ice on the AC unit or the outdoor refrigerant line
  • Obvious signs of ice on the coil after opening the air handler

If you discover a frozen coil, don’t try to clear the ice by hand because you may damage the unit. Instead, you can use a do-it-yourself remedy to thaw the ice before consulting with an HVAC technician. If the following steps don’t resolve your problem, we suggest you contact an AC expert. You may have a more serious malfunction, like a refrigerant leak, which must be handled by a licensed professional. 

  1. Turn off the AC system using the external (wall) thermostat and make sure to turn off the unit using the furnace switch.
  2. Replace any dirty air filters.
  3. Open the furnace or air handler’s panel.
  4. Let the ice thaw naturally. Having the fan run can cause damage to the blower motor and the circuit board.
  5. After the coil has thawed (this may take 24 hours or more depending on how much ice buildup there is), reseal your unit.
  6. Turn on the power by turning on the furnace switch and adjusting the thermostat to come on and wait for your home to cool. If the home reaches the desired temperature and the AC unit turns off, you’ve probably solved the problem. If this doesn’t happen, consult an HVAC technician. 

Refrigerant Leak

Refrigerant is the chemical found within the coils that helps cool the air, and without it your air conditioner won’t work. Refrigerant exposure can be dangerous, so if you have a leak (or suspect one) it’s crucial to contact an expert. 

If you have a refrigerant leak you may notice: 

  • A loss in cooling power
  • Air vents not blowing cold air
  • Hissing sounds coming from your AC unit
  • Frozen evaporator or condenser coils
  • Unusually high AC-related electric bills 

Overworked Capacitors and Contactors
If your AC unit isn’t blowing air, you may have a capacitor or contractor issue. Capacitors and contactors work to keep essential motors running in the unit, such as the fan motor and blower motor. The parts require a significant amount of electricity to run, so they tend to get overheated and overworked during hot summer months — especially on older AC units.

Defective Thermostat

Sometimes the unit is not working due to other parts of the HVAC system, like a faulty thermostat. If the thermostat is not working properly, it may give the AC unit wrong information, which causes it to run when it shouldn’t or not turn on when it should.

If you want to read more AC troubleshooting insights then check out our blog post, What You Need to Know About Air Conditioning Replacement. 

Have Any Questions?

We hope this air conditioner buyer’s guide helps make your purchase decision easier. If you have any additional questions about what type of home cooling solution best fits your needs, please feel free to get in touch with our sales team. 

You can reach our sales team at 1-855-255-5458 or fill out the following form to request a free in-home assessment and price quote. 

If you have any quick questions but don’t want to call us, you can also reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter.