Maytag M1200 PSA4BI iQ Drive
Maytag M1200 PSA4BI iQ Drive

Maytag Central Air Conditioner

The Maytag M1200 PSA4BI iQ Drive stands out in terms of efficiency and quietness. The SEER rating of this Energy Star Qualified air conditioner can reach 25.5, and its noise level is similar to conversation level at 59 decibels. The iQ Drive system assures that all the components in the system work together for peak performance. The thermostat is not Internet capable, but has versatile programming features and can notify you about required maintenance and provide diagnostic information if something out of the ordinary has occurred. Although this air conditioner is pricey, its 12-year warranty is also longer than most others.
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Dave Lennox Signature XC25
Dave Lennox Signature XC25

Lennox Central Air Conditioner

The Dave Lennox Signature XC25 offers impressive performance and impressive efficiency, reviews say. Highlights including a modulating compressor that raises and lowers cooling by as little as 1 percent, letting it hold temperatures to within a half degree of the thermostat setting. That capability lowers energy costs by as much as 60 percent, helping the XC25 to earn Energy Star Most Efficient status. Energy costs can be lowered even more by powering the XC25 using an optional solar-energy module. The reliability of this Dave Lenox Signature model is considered to be high, and its noise low.
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Carrier Infinity 21 24ANB1
Carrier Infinity 21 24ANB1

Carrier Central Air Conditioner

The Energy Star Qualified Carrier Infinity 21 24ANB1 has a SEER of up to 21 and runs very quietly at 65 decibels. It lacks a modulating compressor, but earns kudos nonetheless for its ability to maintain thermostat temperatures while keeping humidity in check. Experts also praise its build quality, including construction features that help it better withstand harsh weather conditions. Carrier's reliability record is strong, but the warranty is merely average, covering all parts for 10 years, and requires registration. An optional thermostat that can be controlled from an Apple or Android smartphone or tablet is also available.
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Trane XV20i
Trane XV20i

Trane Central Air Conditioner

The Trane XV20i has a SEER as high as 21 and is Energy Star qualified in all sizes. Though not quite as efficient as the Dave Lenox Signature XC25, this Trane central air system also has a modulating compressor for rock-steady temperature control. Allergy sufferers can add an air-cleaner module that removes 99.8 percent of particles, exceeding HEPA standards. Other options include an Internet-capable smart thermostat. The Trane XV20i also boasts a strong compressor warranty, 12 years, though other parts are only covered for the more-standard 10 years. Trane air conditioners in general have a reputation for reliability and fare well in consumer-satisfaction surveys.
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Amana ASXC18
Amana ASXC18

Amana Central Air Conditioner

The Amana ASXC18 is both less efficient and less expensive than our other top models, but it can also cost less. Its maximum SEER rating is 18, and it runs at a fairly quiet 71 decibels. The two-stage compressor allows for good humidity control, especially when matched with a variable-speed blower. It can use standard or smart thermostats, though the latter don't connect to the Internet. The warranty is a highlight: Along with the standard 10-year guaranty on parts, Amana offers a limited lifetime warranty on the compressor and will replace the whole condensing unit if the compressor ever fails.
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See a side-by-side comparison of key features, product specs, and prices.

The basics of air conditioning

With the start of summer and the onset of warmer weather, a central air conditioner could start to look like more of a necessity than a luxury. All air conditioners -- including portable air conditioners, room air conditioners and central air conditioners -- work basically the same way as your refrigerator: They pump heat from one area (in this case, your home's interior) and transfer it to another (the outdoors). An air conditioning system contains several parts:

  • The evaporator is a winding coil, usually made of copper, which draws out warm air from indoors.
  • The condenser is a separate coil that releases the collected heat outside. This coil is surrounded by aluminum fins to disperse the heat.
  • The refrigerant is a liquid that transfers heat from the evaporator to the condenser. It evaporates in the indoor coil, pulling heat out of the air, and turns back to a liquid in the condenser, releasing its heat outdoors.
  • The compressor is a pump that forces the refrigerant through this network of tubing and fins. This is the part of the system that uses electricity.

In a room air conditioner or a portable air conditioner (which we cover in separate reports), all these parts are contained in one compact unit that sits in a window; can be installed permanently in a wall; or, in the case of portable air conditioners, sits on the floor and is vented to the outside via flexible connecting hoses. Individually, these units are much cheaper than a central air conditioning system and are easy to install. However, they only have enough power to cool a single room and if you want to cool multiple areas, costs can mount up. We cover room and portable air conditioners in their own reports.

If you need to cool an entire home, a central air conditioner is much more efficient than having a window or portable air conditioner in each room. And even though room-sized air conditioners are quieter than ever, a central air unit is quieter still (at least as far as occupants inside your house are concerned). Central air conditioners are also easy to use, but they are much larger and more complicated to install.

Unlike a room air conditioner, which is an easy do-it-yourself task, a central air conditioner must be installed professionally -- and as we'll discuss in the Buying Guide section of this report, the quality of that installation can go a long way toward determining how satisfied you are with your choice of central air systems. However, a quality installation can add thousands of dollars to the sticker price of the system itself, though how much can vary greatly. Among the factors to consider is whether or not your home already has forced-air heat. If it does, the ductwork needed to distribute cold air from a central air conditioner is almost certainly already in place; if not, it will have to be added -- and that, of course, increases the cost and complexity of the project. If you're also thinking of replacing your furnace, we cover those in a separate report, recommending the top choices in that category as well.

Finding the best central air conditioners

In general, consumer publications do not test central air conditioners. Experts generally agree that proper installation and maintenance are at least as important to the performance of an air conditioning system as the unit itself, so testing in a lab would provide little useful information about real-world performance. However, we did find a few sites run by HVAC professionals, such as WebHVAC.com and Hvac-for-beginners.com, that recommend specific air conditioning brands based on factors such as features, efficiency and warranty. ConsumerReports.org doesn't rate central air conditioners, but does rate the reliability of the top brands based on a large survey of its members. FurnaceCompare.com has the largest selection of user reviews that we spotted. Together, these and other sources enabled us to choose top central air conditioners that combine efficiency, durability, strong warranties and quiet operation.

Elsewhere in this report:

Types of Air Conditioners: The differences between split systems, mini split systems, heat pumps and more are discussed. Energy ratings and why they matter are discussed as well.

Brands vs. Brands: Which central air conditioner brands are most likely to please, and which are most like to disappoint -- and why -- are discussed. Top brands and series are named.

Central Air Conditioner Maintenance and Repair: Finding the right central air conditioner is just the first step to enjoying summertime cooling. Keeping it maintained is just as important to make sure your system delivers the comfort you expect for years to come.

Buying Guide: These are the things to consider when selecting a central air-conditioning system -- and central air-conditioning installer -- for your home.

Our Sources: These are the reviews, experts and surveys we relied on to find the best central air-conditioner brands. They are arranged in the order of their helpfulness.

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