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Best bets in central air-conditioner systems

According to experts, a central air conditioner's performance depends at least as much on how well it's installed and maintained as on the equipment itself. "Furnaces and air conditioners don't just snap together and plug in, unfortunately," says Bill Brown, an Ohio HVAC contractor in an article at Angie's List. "So, we really are the guys at the end of the manufacturing line, it just so happens to be in your backyard, attic or basement."

Because every house and every installation is unique, there really is no uniform way to compare how well central air conditioners perform in the home. Even user reviews are of limited help as poor performance could be due to poor installation rather than any fault in the equipment. That said, we did find some solid feedback in the form of expert opinions regarding the technology, reliability, and warranty/customer service of specific brands and lines of central air-conditioners, as well as one large survey that takes into account owner satisfaction with brands as a whole.

First things first, however. While there are many brands of central air conditioners, digging deeper reveals that the majority of central air conditioners are made by a handful of companies, marketing merely makes it looks as if you have a wider range of choices. The major manufacturers are:

  • Trane, which also makes American Standard
  • Carrier, which owns Bryant, Payne and Tempstar
  • Lennox, which owns Ducane, Armstrong, Concord, Allied and AirEase
  • Rheem, which owns Ruud
  • Goodman, which makes Amana and Janitrol
  • York, which makes Coleman and Luxaire
  • Nortek Global HVAC, which makes Maytag, Westinghouse, Frigidaire, Kelvinator and others

Among central air conditioners, the Maytag M1200 PSA4BI iQ Drive gets some solid recommendations. This split-system central-air system has two major selling points: efficiency and quietness. With SEER ratings of up to 25.5 and EER ratings of up to 15 (depending on cooling capacity), this model is Energy Star qualified and meets the latest CEE Tier 3 standards. WebHVAC.com puts it in second place on its list of top 10 central air conditioners for 2015, noting that the company has "pushed the envelope" with "cutting edge" central air systems such as this one. Hvac-for-beginners.com gives it a 5-star rating compared to other top end ("Ultimate") systems. Sound levels are kept in check by a high density compressor blanket, notes Richard Reed, who adds that the 12-year warranty is very good. The stainless-steel cabinet draws kudos for its durability and appearance, plus bonus points from WebHAVC.com for rounded rather than sharp corners "to make it safer for installation where children play." However, neither Maytag nor other Nortek Global HVAC brands get enough feedback to be included in the large survey of central air-conditioner brands that we spotted.

Among brands that are included in that survey, Lennox is fairly well regarded, scoring among the better brands with just 13 percent saying that their units required service. That's in line with the company's reputation and policies regarding qualified installers. Brown says that the biggest reason why brands like Lennox, Carrier and Trane are considered to be better than others is that those companies are "selective about who they let install their products."

The Dave Lennox Signature Collection sits atop the Lennox brand's offerings. The Dave Lennox Signature XC25 earns the top spot at WebHVAC.com. "This unit was our top pick last year, and nothing came out in 2014 to push it out of the top spot," the editors say. Benefits start with its efficiency rating of up 26 SEER (depending on unit size) -- that's high enough to cut energy costs by as much 60 percent when replacing an older unit, and high enough to be designated as one of the Most Efficient Energy Star qualified products in 2015. Want to save even more money? The XC25 is SunSource solar-power ready, meaning that in sunny climes and locations, it can directly accept solar panels that can be used to power the air-conditioner, and to supply power to your home when your air-conditioner is off. That feature helps the XC25 earn a perfect 10 score in efficiency from TopTenReviews.com, where it's the highest rated air conditioner for 2015. The brand has a good reputation for reliability, as noted above, but at 10 years, its warranty is a little shorter than the Maytag's.

According to reviews, the Carrier Infinity 21 24ANB1 is another good choice. It draws good feedback even though it's been eclipsed by other models in terms of absolute efficiency with its 21 SEER rating -- still good enough to be Energy Star qualified, of course, but not high enough to be among the most efficient models for 2015. Like Lennox, this Carrier air conditioner is covered by a 10-year warranty, and like Lennox, it has a good track record for reliability -- again, a below-average 13 percent of Carrier units required service in the one large reliability study we spotted. TopTenReviews.com says this model's two-stage compressor excels at removing humidity from indoor air. Reviewer Grant Morgan loves the durability, noting that "Carrier designed the Infinity Series with protectants to ensure that nothing can get in and destroy it."

When it comes to reliability, Trane is another brand with above average feedback from owners and experts. The Trane XV20i is a modulating central air-conditioner model that runs at low capacity most of the time, increasing in steps as low as one percent as needed to meet demand and to keep temperatures to within a half degree of the thermostat setting. That reduces noise and improves efficiency -- though at 21 SEER you can get central-air systems that are more efficient still. Trane's ComfortLink II communications technology connects the system's components and configures them for best performance, and it allows for remote control of the system via a smartphone app. The warranty is 10 years on everything except the compressor, which is covered for 12 years. WebHVAC.com notes that this is the same system as the American Standard AccuComfort Variable Speed Platinum 20 central air conditioner; not surprising as Trane also makes American Standard central air conditioners. Both brands fall in the top half of that site's top 10 choices for 2015. Both brands also land at the top of the large reliability study we found, with American Standard capturing first place with just 10 percent of owners reporting their units required repair.

Although Amana gets poor ratings for reliability in the customer-satisfaction survey cited above, one particular model gets some recommendations. The Amana ASXC18 is a mid-level model that stands out from the crowd by offering a very good warranty -- lifetime on the compressor, 10 years on the balance of the system. Richard Reed at Hvac-for-beginners.com grants it a 5-star rating among air-conditioner systems of similar ("Premium") quality. It also lands on the top 10 lists at TopTenReviews.com and WebHVAC.com. With a maximum efficiency rating of 19 SEER, it falls toward the bottom of the high-efficiency central air systems we recommend, but most configurations reach the threshold needed to be Energy Star qualified. Features include ComfortNet communications compatibility with optional controllers and thermostats to improve efficiency and ease of use.

Brands to avoid?

In the major survey cited above, feedback shows that most brands are about equally reliable. Between 10 and 13 percent of homeowners reported that their air conditioners broke down during a five-year period for most brands. However, three brands -- Goodman, Amana and York -- had significantly worse ratings, with 17 to 19 percent needing repairs.

Goodman and York also get poor overall ratings at FurnaceCompare.com, an independent site for user reviews of central air conditioners. Interestingly, however, Amana is actually one of the highest-rated brands on the site. In a review of the Goodman DSXC18 central air system, the editors of FurnaceCompare.com suggest that Goodman's low ratings have less to do with the company's products than with the quality of the contractors who install them. As the editors explain, "Despite the negative reviews around the Goodman name, contractors note that with quality installation this unit should provide consistent performance." That meshes well with some user feedback and with opinions of some experts, such as Angie's List's Brown. Notably, the Goodman DSXC18 carries the same lifetime warranty on the compressor as the Amana ASXC18.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Reviewed Central Air Conditioners: Editors look at how central air conditioners can help you keep your home cool in the summer and name the top brands based on reviews and expert feedback.

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.

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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