5 Types of Air Conditioners and How to Pick the Right One

Allie Ogletree
Written by Allie Ogletree
Updated May 10, 2022
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When you’re sweating up a storm inside your home and the backyard pool is your only solace, a new air conditioner unit might just be waiting for you on the horizon. Whether your old AC is about to kick the bucket or it’s just not keeping your home cool, here’s what you need to know about the different air conditioners out there so that you can choose the best one to stay comfortable.

1. Central Air Conditioners

Open plan living room with air vents on the ceiling
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Central air conditioners are the AC units most homeowners choose for their homes. This popular type of air conditioner is tried and true. There are two types of central air conditioners: split systems and packaged units, though packaged units are almost exclusively found in commercial buildings.

Split-system central air conditioners contain an outdoor cabinet with a heat exchanger, fan, and compressor and an indoor cabinet that has a heat exchanger and a blower that pushes the air into your home via ducts.  


  • Effectively cools your whole house

  • Quieter than self-contained or packaged units

  • Plenty of options available

  • Easy to program


  • On the higher end of the price range

  • Require ducts

Might need an upgrade if you have an older system that uses R-22 as a refrigerant

2. Ductless Mini-Split

Mini-split ac unit mounted on the wall
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If your house doesn’t have ducts or the space to install ductwork, but you still want to upgrade your AC system, a ductless mini-split might be your next choice. These AC units have an outdoor compressor and condenser and an indoor unit that handles the cooled air. Tubing serves as a conduit that connects the indoor unit to the outdoor unit.


  • Ideal for retrofitting older houses that don’t have ducted HVAC systems

  • Flexible installation locations

  • Easy to install

  • Great for small apartments or larger rooms that get hot but don’t require a large central air conditioner

  • Can contain up to four zoned indoor units that connect to the outdoor unit

  • No energy loss from forced air system ducts, which, according to energy.gov, can lose up to 30 percent of energy

  • Nice and quiet

  • Programmable


  • Less cost-friendly, costing around 30 percent more than a central air conditioner unit 

  • Lower-performing air exchanger

  • Needs individual mounts for each unit installed

  • Won’t evenly cool your entire house

3. Window Air Conditioners

Window air conditioner unit in an apartment
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If you have a room that is extra stuffy and hot come warmer weather, a window air conditioner may be a good fit. Window air conditioners are another popular air conditioner for homes, though this is primarily true for older, smaller homes. 

These single units connect to your window or even an excavated wall and don’t contain a separate, outdoor component; instead, window ACs have an outdoor-facing exterior that blows outdoor air onto the condenser to help it cool down. 


  • Easy to install

  • Budget-friendly

  • Can be energy-efficient 

  • Many options

  • Can be used to boost the central AC unit


  • Not ideal for large homes

  • Can’t keep up in hot weather

  • Blocks windows

  • Noisy

  • Must be winterized come winter

4. Portable Air Conditioners

Portable air conditioner in front of a window
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If you’ve ever felt the powerful swoosh of an immovable window AC unit only to walk into the next room and feel a wall of heat, then you may want to consider a portable air conditioner. Portable air conditioners can be used to cool a single room and are easy to move from room to room. 

These air conditioners are self-contained units that require a route for dispelling heat. As such, you’ll need to either place the AC unit by an open window or use a hose to vent the heat out of the home.


  • Easy installation

  • Low costs

  • Portable

  • Ideal for temporary cooling

  • Can be used with a more powerful AC unit


  • Limited cooling abilities

  • Not ideal for a whole home AC

  • Heat must be redirected out of the home

  • Bulky

  • Noisy

5. Air-Source Heat Pumps

Electric heat pump mounted on an exterior wall
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Despite their name, heat pumps can both heat and cool your home efficiently. They work by transferring heat to and from your home, depending on the temperatures you’ve chosen. Like a refrigerator, heat pumps use a refrigerant and coils to absorb indoor heat and transfer it into a gas (evaporation), where it is then released outdoors. 

You’ll pay more for a heat pump—$3,500 to$5,200 on average—but these HVAC units have such low costs to run and maintain that you’ll eventually save more than the unit in energy bills.

According to the EIA, U.S. homeowners spend an average of $115 per month on electricity bills. Air-source heat pumps save you an estimated 50% in the winter, and they also dehumidify your home more efficiently than conventional central ACs, saving you in the summer. 


  • Ideal for temperate or mild climates

  • Keeps the entire house cool

  • Also serves as a heater

  • Energy efficient


  • High upfront costs

  • Poor performance in freezing weather

  • Noisy

Which Air Conditioner Type Is Best?

Though there is no best type when it comes to air conditioners, some ACs are better for your home than others. Here are a few factors to consider as you decide on a new air conditioner system:


The cost of an air conditioner system can vary well make or break your budget. As such, factor in how much you’re willing to spend on your system. A new AC unit costs anywhere between $3,800 to $7,500 to install on average, though some high-efficiency, fully upgraded AC systems can cost more than $10,000, and some smaller systems can cost just $150

For the most part, window air conditioners are the most budget-friendly, but they might require multiple units, might last fewer years, and might cool your home less efficiently than other AC unit types. Central air conditioners, ductless mini-splits, and air-source heat pumps will fall towards the higher end of the price range.


If it gets scorching hot where you live, you’ll probably want to opt out of a window AC unit to keep cool. Central air or a ductless split system is best for keeping a southern house cool come summertime. If you live in a region where it doesn’t get too hot outside, a smaller system like a window AC or portable AC might be a good option for you.

Home Size

Another factor to consider is your home’s size. Smaller homes tend to be easier to cool and might not need a more in-depth system compared to larger homes that require more power from an AC unit to maintain cool temperatures.

Home Layout

An open concept floor plan necessitates a different cooling strategy than a closed floor plan if you’re hoping to keep all rooms cool. You’ll find that a window AC unit won’t do the job for a closed floor plan, but an open concept layout might be more suitable for this AC system. 

Number of Stories

The number of floors in your home also affects temperatures through the stack effect. Hot air rises to the top levels of the house, while cold air pushes downwards, creating cooler basements and lower levels. You might need a window AC on upper levels, or you could even get away with a radiant barrier in your attic to help keep cool and reduce the need for a larger AC system. 

Current AC Setup

Do you already have a duct system in place for your AC unit? If not, you’ll have to factor in the cost to install ducts in your home if you opt for a central air unit. New ductwork installation costs anywhere from $1,900 to $6,000, or an average of $4,000.

Maintenance and Repairs

Ductwork can be costly to replace, and you also need to routinely clean your air ducts, so you’ll want to factor in potential maintenance costs in the long run. Duct cleaning costs around $400 on average.

Single-room air conditioners generally require less repairs, but they tend to have a shorter lifespan, too. Ductless mini-split air conditioners, including a ductless mini-split heat pump, tend to require fewer repairs.

Noise Levels

Peace and quiet might pose a problem depending on which AC unit you choose. For a quieter system, conventional central air conditioners or ductless mini-split systems, whose noisy components are on the outside of the house, offer the quietest options for cooling your home.

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