While 87 percent of U.S. households use some type of air conditioning, central AC systems are the most sought-after for both convenience and accessibility. If flipping a switch for whole-house cooling is what you’re after, you may wonder whether it’s possible to install your own. And the answer is, you definitely can. Here’s how to install central air conditioning yourself safely and properly.
How Does Central AC Work?
A central air conditioner relies on ducting and registers (openings) to carry cool air all over your home. Essentially, the system pulls air in from outside, cools it, and then pushes it throughout the house via the ductwork.
There are two types of central AC units: split-system and packaged. A split system involves an outdoor unit and an indoor cabinet, while the packaged type sits in a cabinet either outside or on the roof of your home. Packaged units are the ones which can also function as a heater with the addition of electric heating coils or a gas furnace.
If your home lacks ductwork to support your new system, you’ll have to look at some renovations to retrofit an AC to your house. However, if you’re replacing an older unit with an updated and energy-efficient one, you could see a significant difference in your energy bills.
Today’s units use up to 50 percent less energy to operate than those produced as little as ten years ago, making a new unit a great investment for most homeowners. Of course, choosing the right size system will also impact your energy costs, so picking the appropriate system is crucial.
Professionally Installed Central AC Systems
Here’s more about having a professionally installed central AC system, including the pros and cons.
Perks to a Professionally Installed Central AC System
While there are many projects you can DIY satisfactorily, there are times when it’s better to hire a professional to do the job. Here are a few perks to having a certified HVAC professional install and maintain your new AC system.
No Manual Labor for the Homeowner
If you’re DIYing the job, you may be crawling under your home, lifting heavy parts, preparing an installation site, pouring concrete, climbing on the roof, or any number of other physical tasks. Hiring a professional eliminates the need for you to do anything other than sign off on the work and pay the bill.
No Legwork Required
In addition to the physical aspects of installing a new AC unit, many homeowners hire a professional so that they don’t have to worry about the paperwork aspect. In most places, the local government requires permits for many home improvement projects, including replacing or installing large-scale appliances like home heating and cooling systems.
Contractors and HVAC professionals can obtain the proper permits for you, making the job smoother concerning timelines and getting things done quickly.
With most new installs, HVAC pros offer maintenance plans for these systems. If a company installs your new unit, they’re already familiar with it and can come back and check in on things whenever the homeowner requests it. Also, many installation packages include a specific maintenance plan to ensure your unit’s longevity and safety.
Drawbacks of a Professionally Installed AC System
There are a few drawbacks to hiring out the AC installation job.
Although your contractor may negotiate a lower rate for your AC unit based on their brand and manufacturer relationships, you will still pay labor costs for the unit’s installation. You may also need to finance the pre-installation work, potentially including pouring a concrete slab or making modifications to fit the new assembly on your roof. However, the professional installer will handle the details of the job.
It’s Hard to Find a Reputable Company
For those homeowners who live in more rural areas, it can be challenging to find a professional that’s willing and able to travel to install a new central AC system. While rural living has many perks, getting items delivered and installed is not one of them!
DIY Central AC Systems
Here we’ll look at the perks and drawbacks to going the DIY route with your central AC system. It’s important to keep these things in mind when learning how to install central air conditioning yourself.
Perks to a DIY AC Install
For those itching to do a DIY job, there are a handful of perks to going it alone. Here are the top positive benefits of installing your new AC unit on your own.
Perk #1: Lower Costs
While the cost of the AC unit is likely higher when you purchase it on your own (many companies enjoy significant discounts with AC unit manufacturers when they buy directly from the brand), you will save on installation costs when doing the job yourself.
Of course, it may take longer for you to complete the job, but as far as billable hours go, you’re not paying anyone out of pocket.
Perk #2: Learning Something New
Many homeowners enjoy completing projects on their own because it requires them to learn more about the materials and processes used. If you plan to maintain your own AC unit, it makes sense that you will want to install it from the ground up.
Plus, developing those technical skills may result in you being able to recognize when there’s a problem with your system and potentially fixing it yourself.
Perk #3: Consumer Choice
While most HVAC companies will recommend a specific brand or type of AC unit, homeowners who source and install their own have the ultimate control over the process. If you find a brand that you like but your local HVAC place does not carry it, you can go DIY and still get the specific product that you want.
Drawbacks to a DIY AC Install
Here are the drawbacks to doing the air conditioning unit installation yourself:
Drawback #1: Paperwork Processes Take Time
Especially for homeowners who are unfamiliar with working on their home and its electrical systems, it can be challenging to navigate the permit system for a new AC unit. Most areas require permits for both the units themselves and any housings or platforms you need to install to put them in.
You’ll have to talk to the county or city officials in your area to find out what permits you need, what the cost is, and what requirements you’ll have to fulfill.
Drawback #2: Length of the Job
When you’re working on a project alone, it can take a lot longer than if an experienced team handled the details. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with HVAC work, it could take a lot longer for you to install a new AC unit than it would for a contractor and a team to do it.
Also, you won’t be earning a wage for your hours, meaning your time investment could wind up costing more than if you paid someone else to handle it.
Drawback #3: Certification Requirements
If you’re dealing with removing an old AC unit or installing a new one that needs refrigerant added, you will need to have a specific certification to handle this yourself. You can earn an EPA certification, but you’ll have to study for and take an exam, plus pay a fee.
You also must have the same certification card to purchase additional refrigerant for a new unit that may be improperly charged.
Where to Find a Central Air Conditioning Unit
The easiest place to find a central air conditioning unit to buy is by going online. However, that’s not always the best option because of potential shipping costs. Some AC systems may require additional freight costs, depending on where they are shipping from and to, and you may need to have some people on hand to help you unload the unit if the delivery company doesn’t assist with that.
Beyond shopping online, here are a few other ways to buy a central AC unit:
- Visit your local heating and cooling company. They may be able to help you find and order a unit (and maybe even arrange delivery) that fits your needs and your home.
- Check your local hardware store for products or referrals
- Order via the local home improvement store. They might even special order the unit you want.
- Contact local contractors for recommendations. There may be a local source for AC units that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to as a homeowner.
Wherever you find your unit, you will want to make sure it’s in good operating condition or that it’s brand-new. It’s acceptable to buy and install a used AC unit, but then you run the risk of it malfunctioning or being less energy efficient than a newly purchased model.
How to Install Central Air Conditioning Yourself
Once you’ve purchased and had your new AC unit delivered, it’s time for the installation. At this point, you need to decide where to install it, start the assembly process, and add refrigerant. Here are the next steps.
Where to Install the Unit
Clearly, your central air conditioning unit should be installed outside, then connected to your home’s ductwork. But there are two choices when installing your new system. You can either pour a concrete pad to place it on, or you can install the unit on the roof.
Wherever you choose to place the system, the location needs to have adequate airflow, be out of the way so as not to create excess noise but also be accessible for maintenance, and allow the unit to be positioned and connected properly.
Ensuring an Energy-Efficient Install
Even if your home already has existing ductwork to support your new air conditioner, it’s important to check that the ductwork is properly sealed. After all, cool air leaking out of the ducts means less fresh air traveling into your home, plus higher energy costs as you’re cooling underneath the house too!
You also don’t want sagging or bends in the ductwork, as that can affect the performance of the system. Checking the ductwork can involve going in the crawl space under your home or even removing flooring to verify that everything is connected properly.
Safety Considerations for a DIY Central Air Installation
If you already have an existing AC unit that you want to replace, there are some unique considerations. First, you need to recover any remaining refrigerant from your old unit. To do this, you must have an EPA refrigerant handling certification or find someone who does to safely remove the old material.
Of course, if you purchase a new unit that already has refrigerant, you may not need to buy more. However, an improperly charged unit will require additional refrigerant, potentially leaving you in a bind right when you’re about to install it.
Attempting to remove refrigerant without the proper training is dangerous, and we don’t recommend that any homeowner attempt to DIY this part of an AC installation or removal.
Caring for Your AC Unit Over Time
Over time, your new AC unit will require regular upkeep and even some repairs. You should replace (or clean) your air filters often, check the evaporator coil yearly (and clean it as needed), cleaning debris from the system, and check for refrigerant leaks.
Other common issues that can arise with AC units include thermostat issues, drainage problems, clogged filters, and low or leaking refrigerant. Taking care of those issues is beyond the scope of this article, but in many cases, hiring a professional can be both cost-effective and less stressful, particularly if you’re not knowledgeable about HVAC yourself.
Connecting the AC System
Connecting the system involves positioning the unit itself in the proper location and securing it, whether that’s to the ground-level pad or a rooftop support arrangement. You may also have indoor components to install, depending on the configuration of the AC unit and if you choose to upgrade ductwork or the thermostat.
You will need also need to:
- Configure the right length of the refrigerant line
- Ensure the right length of drain piping
- Connect the electrical lines
- Connect the thermostat
- Remove contaminants from the refrigerant lines
- Charge the new AC unit with refrigerant (if it’s not already charged)
- Run a test to make sure everything is functioning properly
While this guide is a bit vague for most DIYers, your new air conditioning unit will come with both an installation manual and diagrams which note where and which pieces to connect. However, some electrical and general HVAC knowledge is helpful for ensuring the installation goes as planned.
After Installing: Checking the System
Once the system is installed, you should be able to set the thermostat and turn it on. Both the blower and the compressor should be working effectively; this means the air is blowing through the ductwork and it feels adequately cool.
Even if the unit appears to be operating correctly, common problems like refrigerant leaks, inadequate maintenance, and electronic control failure can crop up at any point. That’s why we recommend having a professional help with the installation of your new unit—or at least check your handiwork—to ensure a long-lasting, energy efficient, and safe home AC unit install.
Well, there you have it. You now know how to install central air conditioning yourself. Now pat yourself on the back and get to work!