In the summer, pretty much every home needs an air conditioner.
In fact, more than 2/3 of homes in the US have some sort of residential type of air conditioner.
There are more than 10 types of air conditioners you can choose from:
The choice of a particular AC type depends on:
- Size of your home (square footage matters; use this BTU calculator to figure out the capacity needed). Example: For a 1,000 sq. ft. house, you can use a 20,000 BTU portable AC. For a 3,000 sq. ft. house, you will need a bigger 60,000 BTU 5-zone mini-split system.
- If you want to cool down the entire house or just 1-3 rooms.
- If you already have ductwork installed (central air is an option).
- Your budget.
We’ll go through all types of air conditioners for you to see which one would work best for you. We’ll see the average sizes (in BTU), and you’ll also get a price range for different types of AC units as well.
When deciding which type of air conditioner is the best for your house/flat/room, keep in mind the energy consumption. The strongest 60,000 BTU AC unit can skyrocket your energy bill, and the weakest 5,000 BTU unit can leave you sweating in the middle of the summer.
The last AC on the list – the mini-split air conditioner – is fast becoming the most popular type of aircon in recent times.
From all the different types of AC units, you want to choose the one that fits your needs the most.
Two Types Of Air Conditioners
The basic principle of an air conditioner is fairly simple to understand.
You have two sets of metal coils; the first one collects the heat from your house and the second one disperses the heat outside. The key part here is the refrigerant; this is a liquid mixture that transfers heat between the two sets of coils.
Based on this, we have two large groups of air conditioner types:
- Stand-Alone AC units (1 device). Examples: Portable air conditioners, window air conditioners, floor mounted air conditioners, thru-the-wall air conditioners.
- Split-System AC units (2 devices). Examples: Central air conditioners, mini-split air conditioners, wall-mounted air conditioners, ceiling air conditioners.
Stand-Alone AC Units (5 Different Types)
In stand-alone AC units, both coils are inside one device (usually located inside the house).
These types of AC units are:
- Easier to install and move around (especially portable AC units).
- Cheaper to buy.
- Can be noisier (compressor is located inside the house).
- Compared to split-system AC units, they have lower capacity.
- Always need an air vent that goes outside of a window or sliding door. The hot air has to go out somehow.
The stand-alone units are, above all else, convenient. This is a type of aircon that’s the easiest to install and cheapest to buy.
There are five different types of these monoblock air conditioners:
#1 Portable Air Conditioners (Price Range: $200 – $800)
Most Popular, Especially For Single-Room Cooling
Portable air conditioners are the most popular AC units you can find. It’s easy to see why; if you need some cooling, you need it quick, cheap, and without a lot of fuss; the portable AC units are just what you want.
You don’t have to mount them or install them in a particular room. They are very mobile, always have wheels, and you can move them around as easily as a vacuum cleaner.
They are quite small as well. The capacity ranges from 5,000 BTU to 14,000 BTU (biggest portable AC units).
The drawback is that you can move the AC unit around, but you’ll always need to move the air pipe as well. The hot air has to go outside the house. For that purpose, every portable AC unit comes with an air hose (4” to 6” diameter) that can be up to 10 feet long.
When you “park” the portable AC in a room, you have to attach the hose to the device and put the other end out of the window or a sliding door.
All in all, you have quite a bit of option when it comes to choosing the right type of portable air conditioner. You can get a really good one for less than $500. It’s the most versatile kind of air conditioner.
You can check out our top picks for the best portable air conditioner in 2021; we use specifications to determine which portable AC unit is the best. Based on those specs, we can also determine which portable AC units are the quietest; and you can even find a list of the cheapest portable air conditioners (based on EER rating and unit price), and quietest portable air conditioners (based on decibel levels).
#2 Window Air Conditioners (Price Range: $100 – $800)
The ‘Through-The-Wall’ European Air Conditioners
In Europe, these are quite popular. The whole unit is encapsulated in a single shell, and this shell is built-in a window or through the wall.
That’s quite an ingenious move if you think about it: one part of the AC unit is facing the indoors while the other part is facing the outdoors. You don’t need two devices or a single device with an air vent; the window air conditioner is quite unique in this way.
Obviously, it’s not all roses, even with the window AC units. If you want to build it in the wall, the wall must not be thicker than 9”. The thick walls usually prevent airflow, and the window AC unit becomes energy inefficient compared to other types of AC units.
Compared to split-system devices, window air conditioners are more affordable and easier to install. Some advanced models also offer heating in addition to the cooling effect. You can usually find one with remote control as well. You can check the current 2021 list of the best window air conditioner here.
- Casement or vertical air conditioners (for narrow windows).
- Low profile window air conditioners (with up to 80% less profile).
- Saddle over-the-sill window air conditioners (they sit on the windowsill but the bulk of the unit is located below the windowsill; parallel to the wall).
Some window AC units also serve as heat pumps; that means they can also provide heating output in the winter. For more, you can check window AC with heat combos here.
#3 Wall-Mounted AC Units (Price Range: $300 – $1000)
Best For Older Building Without External Unit Permit
Wall-mounted air conditioners are quite a niche cooling devices. They are perfect for people who live in older buildings that become very hot during the summer months.
The perfect type of AC unit to use here would be a powerful split-system device, but these older buildings are usually a part of heritage. As a consequence, you are not allowed to put any AC shell on the outside wall.
What you can do is mount the AC unit on the wall.
With strong supporters, you can hang these types of air conditioners on the wall (the higher, the better). Additionally, you have to install 2 air pipes through the wall behind the AC unit for the hot air to be released outdoors. Obviously, you will need professional help with the installation.
The thru-the-wall mounted air conditioners are usually a bit bigger. Also, if you run them continuously on 100%, the wall behind them can become quite hot. The two air pipes dispersing the heat outdoor can warm up quite a bit if you’re not careful.
The window-mounted air conditioner type with an in-built heater can be more expensive but will provide a source of heating in the winter as well as a source of cooling in the summer.
If you have a unit mounted on the outer wall, you would usually require an AC support bracket for window AC units. In New York City, for example, you are required by law to install them to provide additional support for outdoor wall units.
#4 Floor Mounted Air Conditioners (Price Range: $200 – $800)
Becoming Obsolete With Portable Air Conditioners But Can Also Be Used As Heaters
Floor mounted AC units are quite similar to wall-mounted air conditioners. Pretty much the only difference between them is, you’ve guessed it, that the floor ones are mounted on the floor instead of the wall.
This type of air conditioner also has two metal pipes going through the wall to release the heated air. However, we see less and less of them. This might be unusual given how energy-effective they are.
Nonetheless, they do take up a lot of space and cannot be tucked away during the summer months like portable air conditioners. They can come built-in in older buildings but, honestly, no decent architect with incorporate them in his designs in the 21st century.
#5 Spot Coolers For Boats, Ships (Price Range: $1000 – $4000)
Big Industrial Mobile AC Units (Speciality Use)
These big ones are useful only for guys who own a boat, ship, or even an airplane. The ‘Spot coolers’ usually have more than 30,000 BTU capacity; which such capability, you can cool down a mid-sized boat.
We mention them because they are unique as far as where they are positioned. Spot coolers are mobile and are “parked” outside the boat (the warm side).
Most types of air conditioners are placed inside the room (the cold side). Spot coolers have two or more pipes that go inside the boat and suck the warm air out while blowing the cold air in.
Split-System AC Units (5 Different Types)
Split-system air conditioners are comprised of two shells. Inside the house is a smaller (sexy) quiet shell, and the bigger noisier (uglier) one is outside.
That means that the cooling coil is inside your house and the heating coil that dispenses heat and compressor are outside your house. There are several advantages these types of air conditioners have:
- They are very quiet (compressor is outside, remember?).
- They have a big capacity and can cool your house quickly and efficiently.
- The inside shell is usually smaller and is better looking.
- There is no need for air vents as with monoblock AC units.
Obviously, the two drawbacks are a higher price, not a piece-of-cake installation and you have to attach the outside unit somewhere on or near your house.
The split-system air conditioners are, above all, exceptionally capable of cooling down your entire house.
Here are several types of split-system air conditioners:
#1 Central Air Conditioners (Price Range: $4000-$8000)
A Wholesome Solution For Every Home (Most Popular)
More than 50% of houses in the US have ‘central air’. As you probably know already, it is a ducted air pipes system that can spread to any room in your house or apartment. It’s safe to say that central air conditioning is the most complex to install but easiest to operate.
This duct-mounted air conditioner system usually comes pre-installed into your home. If you are looking for a replacement for your current AC unit, the central air conditioner would be great, but the installation process alone is bothersome. It can cost you upwards of $10,000 due to all the ceiling you have to break and all the walls to be penetrated.
Central air conditioner (sometimes referred to as ‘channel air conditioners’) use a combination of indoor and outdoor air, cools it down, and makes everything look easy. The whole unit’s powerhouse is a central AC unit shell that is located outside, usually attached to the house or in the yard.
Obviously, you need an expert engineer to install the ducked air conditioner piping in your house. If you have an existing central AC unit, you can also call in an air conditioner replacement expert to help you out. Central air just isn’t a simple DIY project.
#2 And #3: Wall Mounted And Floor Mounted Air Conditioners (Price Range: $400 – $3000)
Same As Stand-Alone AC Units But With A Quieter And Stronger Split-System Installation
The AC units mounted on the wall or the floor can be a stand-alone system or a split-system installation.
Hence it’s not unusual to have a 15,000 BTU wall-mounted split-system air conditioner that is quieter than a 6,000 portable air conditioner.
Here is how the floor-mounted air conditioner looks like when installed:
One advantage of this type of air conditioner is that you can connect 2 or 3 AC units like this one to a single outside AC shell (generator with ventilator and compressor).
In practice, this means you can have 3 units, let’s say 9,000 BTU, 12,000 BTU, and 15,000 BTU units inside the house. Outside the house, you would have a bigger, noisier generator. Such a system has a 38,000 BTU capacity, which is quite impossible for any stand-alone type of air conditioner to achieve.
You can check out the best ductless mini-split AC units with the highest SEER ratings here.
Recently, Mr COOL has developed a mini-split system that you install yourself (and save $3,000 installation costs). You can check the Mr COOL DIY mini-split review here.
#4 Ceiling Type Of Air Conditioner (Price Range: $1000 – $10000)
Aesthetic High Capacity Units Perfect For Offices
This type of cassette-like air conditioner is most appropriate for office spaces. The air conditioner is installed on the ceiling (or even suspended from the ceiling) and is effectively attached to the invisible air pipes throughout the building.
The main advantage of ceiling air conditioners is aesthetics and power.
In short, they usually have a modern-looking design, don’t ‘stick out’ of a wall or from the floor, and look expensive (actually, they are expensive, to be honest). The only thing that ‘sticks out’ of the ceiling are the 4 outlet louvers.
The other part is sheer power. Because the airflow is attached to central airflow, one of these cassette types of air conditioners can replace up to 5 window air conditioners and up to 7 portable air conditioners.
Given their position, the direction of cooling air is vertical instead of horizontal. Most of the air conditioners are mounted on the wall and produce a ‘sideway breeze’. Because the cassette air conditioners are installed on the ceiling, you will experience a ‘downward breeze’ when standing under the AC unit.
#5 Mini-Split System Ductless Air Conditioners (Price Range: $500 -$5000)
Currently The Most Popular Big Type Of Air Conditioners
Mini-split air conditioners are taking over the HVAC industry. The split-system portable air conditioners:
- Need no ductwork.
- Lower installation costs than central air (and you can even find DIY mini-split units like MrCOOL).
- Extremely high-energy efficiency (in the list of the best mini-split AC units, you can see that the SEER rating of the best units surpasses 20).
- Large capacity range; from 12,000 BTU to 60,000 BTU.
The mini-split system is quite easy to understand. You have one coil inside that gathers heat indoors and the other coil outside the house/apartment where the heat from inside is dissipated outside.
Most of the time, we have to look (and hear) the inside shell of the wall-mounted or floor-mounted air conditioner. The split-system shells are usually smaller, nice looking, and, above all, quiet.
That’s because the compressor – the thing in an AC unit that generates the most noise – is located in the shell on the outside of the house.
The standard mini-split has 1 outdoor and 1 indoor unit. If you want to install a unit with a bigger capacity and in several rooms, you can choose systems with:
- 1 outdoor and 2 indoor units; dual-zone mini-splits. Average capacity: 27,000 BTU.
- 1 outdoor and 3 indoor units; 3-zone mini-splits. Average capacity: 36,000 BTU.
- 1 outdoor and 4 indoor units; 4-zone mini-splits. Average capacity: 36,000 BTU.
- 1 outdoor and 5 indoor units; 5-zone mini-splits. Average capacity: 48,000 BTU.
As a general rule, the split-system AC units are more powerful, but they tend to be more complex and pricier.
Pick The Kind Of Air Conditioner That Fits Your Needs
When choosing the right type of air conditioner, there is no better advice than this:
“Pick the type you need.”
Some people invest $10,000 for a central air conditioner, where a simple 6,000 BTU portable air conditioner might suffice.
Others are buying a simple 6,000 BTU portable air conditioner to cool down a 5,000 sq ft house in Texas.
The integral part of picking the type of air conditioner that is best for you is to be realistic about how much power (BTU) you need. Next up is to decide if you’re prepared to drill holes in your walls, have an outdoor AC shell, or how quiet you want your air conditioner to be.
In all cases, being realistic will spare you a whole lot of trouble (sweat + money) when a summer hot is near the corner.
Short update: New technological advancements have enabled HVAC engineers to create new kinds of air conditioning units. One such example are battery-powered air conditioners; they use 12V or 24V lithium-ion batteries and generate 2,000+ BTU cooling power while being completely portable.