Central air conditioners circulate cool air through a system of supply and return ducts. Supply ducts and registers (i.e., openings in the walls, floors, or ceilings covered by grills) carry cooled air from the air conditioner to the home. This cooled air becomes warmer as it circulates through the home; then it flows back to the central air conditioner through return ducts and registers. To learn how central air conditioners compare to other cooling systems, check out our Energy Saver 101 Infographic: Home Cooling.
Air conditioners help to dehumidify the incoming air, but in extremely humid climates or in cases where the air conditioner is oversized, it may not achieve a low humidity. Running a dehumidifier in your air conditioned home will increase your energy use, both for the dehumidifier itself and because the air conditioner will require more energy to cool your house. A preferable alternative is a dehumidifying heat pipe, which can be added as a retrofit to most existing systems.
If you have a central air system in your home, set the fan to shut off at the same time as the compressor, which is usually done by setting the "auto" mode on the fan setting. In other words, don't use the system's central fan to provide air circulation - use circulating fans in individual rooms.
Types of Central Air Conditioners
A central air conditioner is either a split-system unit or a packaged unit.
In a split-system central air conditioner, an outdoor metal cabinet contains the condenser and compressor, and an indoor cabinet contains the evaporator. In many split-system air conditioners, this indoor cabinet also contains a furnace or the indoor part of a heat pump. The air conditioner's evaporator coil is installed in the cabinet or main supply duct of this furnace or heat pump. If your home already has a furnace but no air conditioner, a split-system is the most economical central air conditioner to install.
In a packaged central air conditioner, the evaporator, condenser, and compressor are all located in one cabinet, which usually is placed on a roof or on a concrete slab next to the house's foundation. This type of air conditioner also is used in small commercial buildings. Air supply and return ducts come from indoors through the home's exterior wall or roof to connect with the packaged air conditioner, which is usually located outdoors. Packaged air conditioners often include electric heating coils or a natural gas furnace. This combination of air conditioner and central heater eliminates the need for a separate furnace indoors.
Choosing or Upgrading Your Central Air Conditioner
Central air conditioners are more efficient than room air conditioners. In addition, they are out of the way, quiet, and convenient to operate. To save energy and money, you should try to buy an energy-efficient air conditioner and reduce your central air conditioner's energy use. In an average air-conditioned home, air conditioning consumes more than 2, 000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, causing power plants to emit about 3, 500 pounds of carbon dioxide and 31 pounds of sulfur dioxide.
If you are considering adding central air conditioning to your home, the deciding factor may be the need for ductwork.
If you have an older central air conditioner, you might choose to replace the outdoor compressor with a modern, high-efficiency unit. If you do so, consult a local heating and cooling contractor to assure that the new compressor is properly matched to the indoor unit. However, considering recent changes in refrigerants and air conditioning designs, it might be wiser to replace the entire system.
Today's best air conditioners use 30% to 50% less energy to produce the same amount of cooling as air conditioners made in the mid 1970s. Even if your air conditioner is only 10 years old, you may save 20% to 40% of your cooling energy costs by replacing it with a newer, more efficient model.
Proper sizing and installation are key elements in determining air conditioner efficiency. Too large a unit will not adequately remove humidity. Too small a unit will not be able to attain a comfortable temperature on the hottest days. Improper unit location, lack of insulation, and improper duct installation can greatly diminish efficiency.