A woman turning on a wall-mounted air conditioner type

If you think of summer and immediately conjure images of damp armpits, salty kids or steamy dog breath, it might be time to invest in a new air conditioner. The good news? Sifting through air conditioner types doesn’t have to make you break a sweat. Finding the right unit to cool your home is fairly simple once you factor in budget, room size and basic comfort needs. Read on to find the optimal air conditioner for your home and family.

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1Central air vs. room air conditioner: What’s the difference?

Central air conditioners sit outside the home and tie into the HVAC system to distribute cooled, filtered air through the home’s existing ductwork. Room air conditioners live up to their names by only cooling the room they’re in, generally by using a fan to suck heat and humidity out of the room, cooling the air and pushing it back into the room, then venting extra heat and moisture to the outdoors. Some models collect moisture in a reservoir that you have to empty.[1]

  • When to choose central air: If you need to cool three or more rooms, have a budget for the unit plus installation fees (totalling upwards of $3,500[2]) or plan on selling your home soon (prospective homebuyers love central air[3]), then you might want to consider central a/c.
  • When to go for a room air conditioner: If you have just one or two rooms to cool, don’t have a duct system in your home or want to keep electricity costs low throughout the summer months, go for room a/c.

2What are the main room air conditioner types?

Not all room air conditioners must be perched in a window. There are four common types to choose from:

Window Air Conditioners

Window air conditioner type

The most widely available model on the market, you can find window air conditioners to securely fit horizontal sliding windows, single- or double-hung windows and even casement windows.[4] They draw in warm, humid air from the room, circulate this air over an evaporator coil to cool and remove moisture and then return the cooled air back into the room while expelling heat and humidity outside.[5]

Pros Cons
The upfront cost is low: usually around $200.[5] They take up a lot of window space.
They’re easy to install with two people. They can be heavy and awkward.
They can cool a range of room sizes. They need to be stored in winter.
They’re often noisy.

Shop Window Air Conditioners

Wall-Mounted Air Conditioners

Wall-mounted air conditioner type

Like their windowed cousins, wall-mounted air conditioners work by circulating warm room air over an evaporator coil and returning cooled air back into the room while expelling hot air outside. There are two subtypes of wall-mounted:

  • Through-the-wall: A through-the-wall system is basically the same as a window unit except that it’s installed through a hole in the wall.
  • Ductless (or mini-split): Ductless or mini-split air conditioners have two components: a slim, wall-mounted indoor unit and an outdoor unit, each connected together via specialized tubing.
Pros Cons
Through-the-wall air conditioners are relatively affordable to purchase: $450 and up.[5] Ductless units are expensive at over $1500.
They’re ideal if needed for year-round use; some units double as a heater. Both through-the-wall and ductless air conditioners require a contractor or licensed professional to install, driving up cost.
They take up minimal space. They may require an electrical upgrade, depending on their voltage draw.
They’re energy efficient, keeping long-term costs lower. You may need to ask permission from landlord or condominium board before installing.[6]

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Portable Air Conditioners

Portable air conditioner type

Typically built on wheels, a portable unit can be moved from room to room. The hot air from its compressor is routed to a window via external hose (like how a clothes dryer functions), while an internal water reservoir captures room humidity.

Pros Cons
The upfront cost is low: $250 and up.[5] Running a hose out a window can be difficult or awkward.
You can relatively easily move them from room to room and store them away in the winter. The water reservoir needs to be emptied and cleaned periodically, especially in humid weather.[7]
They’re easy to install. Just fit the hose inside a window using the included window kit. They take up floor space and are often noisy.

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Evaporative Coolers

Evaporative cooler

Though not air conditioners in the traditional sense, evaporative coolers may effectively cool rooms in hot, dry climates. They pull hot air over a wet, absorbent material in their interior, then their fan blows the cooled air (and some moisture) your way.[8] Evaporative coolers do not expel hot air outdoors.

Pros Cons
They’re affordable—sometimes under $100. They only work for very small spaces.
They tend to be small and easy to move around. They’re basically useless in humid climates (higher than 60-per-cent humidity).
They don’t require a window or access to the outdoors. The reservoir needs to be filled and cleaned.

Shop Evaporative Coolers

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3What size of air conditioner do you need?

When it comes to choosing your unit, it’s more about cooling capacity than it is about physical size—and it needs to be just right. An overly powerful unit will turn off frequently and fail to remove humidity, while an underpowered air conditioner will run continuously without cooling down the room.[4]

The cooling capacity of an air conditioner is measured in BTUs, or British Thermal Units. Here’s a basic breakdown of BTUs needed by room size:[9]

Room Size (square feet) Required Cooling Capacity (BTUs)
100 to 150 5,000
150 to 250 6,000
250 to 300 7,000
300 to 350 8,000
350 to 400 9,000
400 to 450 10,000
450 to 550 12,000
550 to 700 14,000
700 to 1,000 18,000
1,000 to 1,200 21,000
1,200 to 1,400 23,000
1,400 to 1,500 24,000

Add 10 per cent more BTUs to your calculations if the room you’re cooling gets a lot of sunlight, is in a high-traffic zone or generally has more than two people in it. If you’re cooling a kitchen, add 4,000 BTUs on top of the above chart.

4How do you make sure your air conditioner is energy efficient?

Like most other home appliances sold in Canada, air conditioners have a mandatory EnerGuide label.[4] Here’s what the numbers mean:

  • EER (energy efficiency ratio): The higher the EER number, the more energy efficient the unit, which also comes with a higher upfront price tag but lower energy costs overall.
  • SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio): Based on climate, the SEER rating measures the cooling efficiency of the air conditioner over the entire season, based on a 28˚C average summer temperature. Numbers range from a minimum of 10.0 to a maximum of around 17.0. A higher number means better energy efficiency.
  • Energy Star: The international Energy Star symbol on an EnerGuide label means the unit exceeded the Government of Canada’s minimum standard of energy efficiency by at least 10 per cent.

5What is a “smart” air conditioner?

A smart air conditioner is connected to Wi-Fi so you can control the unit with a smartphone or tablet. It provides a convenient way to turn the air conditioner on or off from anywhere, potentially saving electricity costs. Some smart air conditioners can also connect to existing smart home devices, such as lights or blinds, to collectively cool the home.[10]

6How long do air conditioners last?

Airflow is essential for any air conditioner to work properly. Periodically changing filters and cleaning away debris from the exterior, straightening condenser fins and softly brushing dust from the evaporator coil will help keep your system ticking along for years. Here’s how long you can expect the different units to last with proper maintenance:[5]

  • Ductless (semi-split) air conditioner: 20 years
  • Central air conditioner: 15 years
  • Through-the-wall air conditioner: 10 years
  • Window air conditioner: 10 years
  • Portable air conditioner: 5 to 10 years

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