Central air conditioning (AC) is one component of the ever-popular central air system. The central air system fully encompasses the three elements of HVAC: heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Central AC units, also referred to as compressors, handle one of those three components for an entire home. By simply pressing a few buttons on a home’s thermostat, you can cool (or heat) your entire living space down to a specific degree.

To be clear, central AC units only offer cooling potential and need to be installed professionally alongside an indoor component to work effectively in a central air system configuration. Still, if your home is already equipped with a central air system or offers ductwork, you can replace or purchase a central AC unit to keep your home cool for years to come.

This article reviews the best central AC units for homeowners, discussing cooling potential, BTU ratings, categories, and more. We’ll also be explaining our terminology and going over exactly what you need to know before committing to a Central AC unit in our Buyer’s Guide before crowning the best central AC unit overall.

  • Quiet operation at 65 decibels
  • Non-ozone depleting refrigerant
  • 60,000 BTU
  • Energy Star Rated
  • Warranty: 10-year Parts & Compressor

  • Brass liquid & suction line valves
  • Factory-installed liquid line filter drier
  • Single stage compressor
  • 16 SEER
  • Warranty: 10-year Parts & Compressor

  • All-aluminum coil
  • Integrated fan system
  • Up to 23 SEER
  • Simple two-wire connection
  • Warranty: 12-year Compressor, 10-year Parts


Carrier’s Infinity 21 Central AC unit the only two-stage unit on our list that manages to balance productive SEER efficiency with the highest BTU rating. Coming in a small package and boasting quiet operation and a two-stage compressor, this unit is effective for most homes across North America.

The Infinity 21 Central Air Conditioner 24ANB1 is Carrier’s starter offering, but with premium features like quiet operation and a high BTU rating built right into the unit this unit outperforms others on this list to offer the most cooling potential.

However, the big selling point—quiet operation—is only somewhat accurate. Because the two stages are set to relatively low and full blast, you’ll hear your compressor kick into full power again and again if your environment is especially variable. Generally speaking, and much like the Goodman unit, you’ll want to consider this unit only in particular climate zones.

Unlike the Goodman unit, however, you’re going to get more consistent air conditioning and an overall more efficient package. Just be prepared to register your central AC unit before the grace period ends if you’re looking to avoid a hassle with customer service.

Pros

  • Effective cooling at introductory price
  • Energy-saving in low-stage mode
  • Quiet compressor
  • High BTU rating

Cons

  • Can struggle in varied weather conditions
  • Limited warranty with short grace period
  • Quiet only in low-stage mode


Goodman’s R410A line of central AC units maintains a high BTU rating considering the cost and single stage operation. For homes in temperate climates and budget hunters, it’s hard to get below the cost of this Goodman product without losing serious quality.

Goodman works to produce the most affordable end unit possible, which is why they are one of the most popular brands on the market.

The Goodman R410A GSZ140361 central AC unit won’t win any awards in efficiency. While the 16 SEER rating is relatively good, this unit can only work with a single stage, meaning it operates at 100% capacity or not at all. Still, the single stage operation was clearly chosen in the interest of cost. This Goodman unit is more affordable, by itself or with installation than other central AC units on our list. Rated at 54,000 BTU, this unit is also mighty and can hold its own against other units even in the two-stage and variable speed categories.

We recommend the Goodman unit for temperate climates and those who need a replacement AC unit that won’t break the bank.

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Great BTU rating given the category
  • High-efficiency scroll compressors
  • Sturdy build quality

Cons

  • Single stage operation is limited
  • Won’t work for high-demand locations
  • Not very precise

Trane’s TruComfort offers effective variable speed operation and high efficiency to tackle any of North America’s climate zones. The cost is less than desirable, but better energy efficiency and premium build quality on the unit itself prove its worth.

The Trane XV20i TruComfort is a large, monolithic unit that can be an impressive but intimidating presence in any backyard or garden. You’ll pay more to own the unit and install it, but once it’s active, the variable speed motor and great efficiency promise to pay for themselves.

We do like the included extra features, like the ComfortLink communication capacity and WeatherGuard features to keep fins clean, but it’s hard to get over the brash nature of the unit and manufacturer. Trane products tend to require special attention and use proprietary materials, so repairs and maintenance can be more of a hassle than with other products. Still, a well-reviewed warranty and powerful cooling capacity make this product worth considering.

Pros

  • Highly efficient and very powerful
  • Premium build quality
  • Provides great savings in energy

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Larger unit is more of an eyesore
  • More costly installation fees

Comparison Chart

Carrier Infinity 21 Central Air Conditioner 24ANB1Goodman GSX16 0601FTrane XV20i TruComfort 4TTV0060A
BTU60,000 max54,00060,000 max
SEERS21 max1623 max
CategoryTwo-stageSingle stageVariable speed
Energy star
CFC free
Capacity2.5-ton5 tons max5 tons max
Decibels65dB73 dB max61 dB
Dimensions35 x 47 x 2835 x 35 x 3854 x 37 x 34
Warranty10-year parts and compressor10-year parts and compressor12-year compressor + 10-year parts

Buyer’s Guide:

Central AC

There is a lot of terminology and special considerations to make before committing to a specific central AC unit, so if you’re struggling to make a choice, consider the following:

We’ve mentioned several times that the SEER and BTU ratings of central AC units are especially important. This is because each of these metrics presents an opportunity for homeowners to quickly get a sense of what sort of central AC unit they are purchasing.

British Thermal Units, or BTUs, are a measure of cooling potential. Most residential AC units will cap at about 60,000 BTU, and larger homes may require more than one AC unit to meet the home’s cooling needs.

The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, or SEER number on the device, states the product’s energy efficiency in an easy-to-understand way. SEER also plays a direct role in the air conditioning functionality, so you’ll see a higher SEER rating associated with a higher cooling capacity.

Generally speaking, you need a unit of at least 13 to 15 SEER to legally function in the United States. The more efficient your unit is, the more you can expect to save at the end of the month. That’s why the highest SEER and BTU rating possible is preferable, but it may not be the most affordable.

You’ll need to balance cost with efficiency and power to best match up with your budget and climate. Keep in mind that the more varied your climate is with temperature, the more important your BTU rating is.

While central AC units remain the most popular way to cool homes utilizing a central air system, there is another option: the heat pump. Heat pumps can look virtually identical to central AC units but offer different functionality. While central AC units can only cool a home, heat pumps can both cool and heat living spaces. This is done by moving the outdoor heat inside, or vice versa.

Whether or not you’ll need a heat pump or would prefer a heat pump is entirely dependent upon your climate and desires. Generally speaking, heat pumps work best for homes that do not get very cold or warm, as the heat pump will need a furnace to aid in heating in cold temperatures. Likewise, heat pumps are generally not as efficient as AC units when it comes to air conditioning. If you live in a mild climate, though, we’d be remiss not to recommend talking to a licensed technician about whether or not a heat pump is right for you.

PROSCONS
Heat Pump
  • Work better in milder climates
  • Dual functions of heat and cool air
  • Doesn’t burn fossil fuels
  • Not as potent as a furnace
  • Not as efficient as AC units
  • Not good for the environment
Air Conditioner
  • Cheaper to install
  • Compatible with existing furnace
  • More compact
  • Only cools
  • Louder than heat pumps
  • Needs constant maintenance

Finally, if you’re in the market for a central AC device, you may be sitting on a broken AC unit or one that’s struggling to cool your home down. While we think these central AC units are some of the best on the market, we should note that it may be better to repair your current system than to replace it outright.

Many factors can influence cooling performance in a central air system and not all of them stem from the compressor. Because of this, we recommend hiring a technician to service your AC unit at the first sign of trouble.

In some cases, repairing and replacing ductwork, re-sealing the system, and cleaning out debris could be more cost effective than replacing the AC unit entirely. Likewise, replacing your AC unit with an inefficient central air system and ductwork will only weaken the capabilities of your new unit.

  • How often should I service my air conditioning unit?
  • Depending on the system you have, you should have your air conditioning serviced at least once a year, ideally with four periodic inspections throughout the year. Many installers will offer you a service contract for an additional sum, and it is worth taking up the offer if you want peace of mind.

  • Why do my coolant levels need topping up every year?
  • If you find that you are losing refrigerants from your system, it could mean you have a leak. You will notice if the efficiency and performance of your air conditioning system start to diminish, as the refrigerant escapes.

    While not pleasant for the environment, all air conditioning units are filled with non-CFC gases that won’t deplete the ozone layer, unlike the older systems. You will be notified if there is a problem as part of your periodic or annual inspections.

Final Thoughts

While simple metrics like SEER and BTU help homeowners limit their choices down to only the best products for the job, the minute details like warranty information and unit aesthetics may push homeowners from one brand to another. The lack of a distinct variation between AC units both helps and hurts brands; however, we can see a few distinctions in our chosen AC units here.

If you’re looking for the most efficient unit with a great warranty and plenty of power, then the Trane VX20i TruComfort is a great choice. It gives homeowners the efficiency of a variable speed motor with 5-ton capacity and a 61 dB level.

If your climate doesn’t require variable speed, then the Carrier Infinity 21 Central Air Conditioner brings a lot to the table with a quiet low-stage operation. Likewise, the Goodman GSX16 unit is cost-effective and outperforms most AC units in its price point.

In any case, choosing the right central AC unit may not seem valuable in the short term, but if you pick correctly, the right central AC unit can last for several years to decades.

Further Reading

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