When is it smarter and cheaper to install whole-house central air conditioning instead of buying several room or window air conditioners? These expert tips outline the advantages of both central AC and room or window air conditioners to help you decide.

Is it time to opt for a central air conditioning system, or will room air conditioners or window AC units handle the summer heat? Window air conditioners can do a very good job of cooling down a room or two, and they cost only a fraction of what a central AC unit would cost. But they aren’t central AC. How do you decide when its time to switch from window AC units to central air conditioning?

Light green living room with a sofa set and window-type air conditioner.

For homeowners who plan to live in the house for several years, central air conditioners are a more popular option, particularly for a home that is equipped with a forced-air heating system. Central air conditioning costs a lot more to install than a couple of window or room AC units. But, unlike window or room units, central AC cools the entire house. It is also more energy-efficient than running several window air conditioners or portable units, is quieter than room air conditioners, is hidden from view, and is an investment that ads to the home’s value. For more about how a central system works, see How Central Air Conditioning Works.

Another option that is midway between room air conditioners and central air conditioning is the ductless mini-split air conditioner. Though it is considerably more expensive than a window, wall, or portable AC unit, it does an exceptionally good job of cooling—and heating—a single room or several rooms. Please see Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioner Buying & Installing.

Before making a decision, also be sure to check out HomeTips’s information on Heat Pumps, which can be a more affordable means of cooling many homes than central air conditioners.

Find Rated A/C Installers Near You

How Much Does Central AC Cost?

This is the central question. The answer depends upon many factors, including the size, layout, and complexity of your house as well as the going rate for air conditioning contractors in your area.

Of course, you can look at averages, but even these air conditioning cost numbers will vary depending upon who you talk to.

ImproveNet currently (2020) states the average national cost is $4828, but this is the same figure they estimated in 2018, so we suspect that it is low. HomeAdvisor places the national average at $5603.

The only way to get an accurate idea of what it might cost to install AC in YOUR home is to get a few competitive bids from AC contractors. You can get free bids from AC contractors at HomeAdvisor: air conditioning contractors.

Questions to Ask When Deciding Between Window or Central AC

So, when deciding between buying one or more room or window air conditioners or a central air conditioning system, ask yourself the following:

Do you own your house? If you don’t, you’re stuck with room air conditioners unless you can talk your landlord into installing central AC.

Will one or two room AC units do the job? If so, this is probably your best answer because you can get AC working quickly and relatively inexpensively, and your energy bills will be lower than they would be if you were running central air conditioning.

Will it take more than two room or window AC units to meet your cooling needs? If so, you’re at the tipping point. The cost of three or more room AC units would make a good down-payment on central air conditioning. And operating three or more room AC units can boost your electric bills to more than the cost of running central AC.

Can you budget for central air conditioning?  As stated above, bids are free and are necessary to make an informed decision.

If your cooling needs call for central AC, you intend to stay in your home for several years, and you can afford the initial cost, it usually makes sense to opt for central AC.


Buying the Best Window Air Conditioner or Room AC Unit
Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioner: Buying & Installing
Evaporative Air Coolers (Swamp Coolers) Buying Guide
Central AC Overview

Sizing a Central Air Conditioner
• How a Central Air Conditioner Works

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About Don Vandervort
Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years as a remodeler and builder, Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort