Are Variable Speed Air Conditioners Worth the Money? How Much?
I continue to read Facebook comments from people shopping for a new AC unit, and those who have recently purchased new air conditioning & heating equipment, that the HVAC salespeople they met with advised them; “not to waste money on a variable speed air conditioner.”
In one particular Facebook Group for residents of Chandler, AZ., one of these comments still has me baffled.
To put the comment into perspective, the original post was; “Is variable speed air conditioning worth it – is it worth an extra $2,000”
The comment was “[Her] air conditioning guy told her a variable speed AC unit wouldn’t work for her because she lived in a two-story home with two AC’s.” There was no further explanation. Wait…he told you what?
To add to the free misinformation that made the internet famous, there were more than a few other experts posting even more madness to the string, and things were headed downhill fast in my humble opinion.
I’ve been working in the HVAC Industry thirty years, and the air conditioning company I own, Magic Touch Mechanical, has installed thousands upon thousands of air conditioning units over the last 20 years we’ve been in business. Many, many, of which were variable speed units…in 2-story homes…with multiple units…and our clients love them.
So, let’s dig in and understand the facts, pros, and cons of variable speed air conditioners. Then you can decide for yourself if it’s worth it, and if so, how much more?
Variable speed AC units are a waste of money
– said no one who actually knows anything about residential air conditioning and/or home performance, aka the home envelope, ever.
Variable speed technology can be applied in single-story, two-story, tri-levels, or any other application for that matter. I can’t think of one instance in all my time in the air conditioning business that inverter technology couldn’t be used. I can think of instances where it came with a significantly higher price tag upfront, but not one where it “wouldn’t work”.
Also, not only can a variable speed AC work in a 2-unit home, we have many clients who own 4, 5, and 6-unit homes that we’ve replaced with variable speed equipment – throughout the entire home. They work perfectly. The U.S.’s fastest growing product segment according to HVAC equipment manufacturers, is ductless air conditioning and heating, which utilizes the same variable speed inverter tech that units like Lennox’s XC25 & XP25, and Trane’s XV20i use.
Magic Touch can back that up based on our own ac replacement department numbers which have been doubling year over year. In fact, they seem to have become somewhat of a status symbol in affluent areas with very large custom homes and casitas. Further confirmation is the joining of forces we’re seeing with conventional (unitary) ac manufacturers and ductless unit manufacturers – most recently Trane and Mitsubishi Electric’s announcement of a joint venture.
Back to the FB comment:
What I hope that salespersons advice was based on, was maybe her duct system wasn’t the proper design and/or size to accommodate variable speed equipment. Or that her refrigerant lines were not the proper size…or something similar, and that it was not the right choice for her particular application. That’s what I hope anyway!
Or, I hope either she misinterpreted what he said, or he did a poor job of explaining it – and he isn’t out there as the trusted expert giving people bad information on a regular basis.
Now, some good advice: Don’t buy a new AC unit based on efficiency.
I’m not suggesting anyone not get the most efficient air conditioner their budget allows when I say not to choose based on efficiency, but there are other factors to consider that are equally, if not more important. Let’s look at a few of those factors:
Is the home envelope efficient?
The key benefit of a variable speed air conditioner is its ability to ramp its speed up or down to meet the changing demand throughout the day and night. It goes without saying the load on the air conditioner is going to be much higher at 3pm when it’s 100 degrees outside, than it will be at 3am when it’s 80 degrees outside.
If the home isn’t insulated well, has an unacceptable amount of infiltration/exfiltration (air leaks), or is under negative pressure (sucking outside air in) because of ventilation deficiencies; trying to fight those deficiencies with a variable speed AC “will not work”.
If the variable speed air conditioner has to constantly run at 100% capacity to keep up with constant heat gain in the home, it never has a chance to do what it was intended to. You may as well go ahead and purchase the single speed ac unit and “not waste your money on variable speed.”
PRO TIP: The right solution in this scenario is to fix the home. It’s easy, you call a company like Magic Touch Mechanical. We do an energy audit, measure and locate the homes air leakage, determine where and how much insulation is needed, determine where and why the home is under negative pressure, and then…we fix it!
If after the home is fixed, budget no longer allows for the additional difference a variable speed costs over a 2-stage or single-stage air conditioner, you are still better off than you were before. Even with a basic 14-SEER, single stage ac unit, you will have made a wiser investment, truly lowered your energy usage, and made your home more comfortable.
Is the ductwork properly sized, designed, and sealed?
As I mentioned were my hopes for the intentions of the Facebook comment, air conditioning duct deficiencies can and should change the recommendations from your air conditioning contractor.
Air ducts that have too many branches, excessively long runs, are not the proper size, etc., have a dramatic impact on the performance and efficiency of the equipment. Equally as impactful, leaky air ducts or ducts with high static pressure (restricted airflow), will work against the new air conditioner and heating unit. In some cases, a manufacturer could void their warranty if a deficient duct design causes compressor failure.
PRO TIP: The right solution in this scenario is to fix the air duct deficiencies. It’s easy, you call a company like Magic Touch Mechanical. We do a duct leakage test, static pressure test, determine if the ductwork is properly designed, installed, and sized, to get you the efficiency and comfort your new system is capable of, and then…we fix it!
Factors to Consider When Buying an Air Conditioner Based on Comfort
What are your pain points? What dollar value do you put on eliminating them?
Remember when I said, don’t buy a new AC unit based on efficiency? Here’s where I expand on that. I’ve put it in the form of an exercise so you can determine if a variable speed air conditioner is worth the extra money to you.
- A good variable speed AC can maintain your set temperature 24/7/365 in every room to within ½ a degree no matter what the temperature outside is. Insert how much that is worth to you here $______.
- A good variable speed AC is usually the quietest (inside and outside) unit in most manufacturers product lineup. Insert how much that is worth to you here $______.
- A variable speed unit may qualify for a cash rebate check from your utility company which lessens the price difference from a more basic unit. Example here in the Phoenix, AZ area, SRP Customers can get an $800 Cash Rebate for installing a variable speed AC unit. Insert rebate cash contribution from your power company here $______.
- Is your home in a high-income area? If you sold your home would the best & most efficient everything be expected from potential buyers? Would it be a selling feature no matter what income area you live in? Insert how much that is worth to you here $______.
- Does “being green” matter to you? Insert how much that is worth to you here $______.
- A good variable speed air conditioner comes with the best Wi-Fi enabled, full-color, feature rich thermostat available on the market today. Most download the latest weather, automatic software updates, can troubleshoot themselves, and much more. Many have the ability to connect with your smart home system, (think “Alexa turn the temperature to 72”). Some of them literally have the same feel as an iPad. Are you a tech junkie? Do you want complete control? Insert how much that is worth to you here $______.
What total did you come up with? Insert it here: Total Value $ __________.
You now have a better idea of if variable speed is worth it (not based on efficiency savings), and how much it is worth to you. Now…add the estimated energy savings to your total here $ __________ .
There’s more to consider but this article would turn into War and Peace if I kept going.
If you live in Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Peoria, Fountain Hills, or surrounding cities you can call Magic Touch for a free in-home quote and we’ll go deeper! We give you options not ultimatums, so you can pick what type of equipment is worth it for yourself. We offer variable speed, multi-stage, two-stage, and single speed models from Trane, Mitsubishi, and Lennox.
Factors to Consider When Comparing AC Efficiency
How long are you going to live in your home?
Assuming the envelope of your home itself was up to par to begin with, or has been corrected now, we should determine how long you plan on living in the home.
When you look at the estimated savings on a SEER Chart, you’ll notice the savings percentage is only 6% between an 18 SEER and a 20 SEER – both Trane and Lennox manufacture variable speed air conditioners starting in the 18 SEER range and going up from there.
If you plan to sell the home in 3-5 years, the return on investment may not be there for you. However, if you know with some certainty that you will be in the home for another decade, and when combined with the comfort improvements, the initial investment starts to become more apparent.
How old are you?
I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but it needs to be said. If you are 90 years old, and not leaving your home to your children, it probably doesn’t make sense to buy an air conditioner based on return on investment. Based on comfort yes, but ROI – probably not, unless you think you will outlive the AC unit, at which point…we’re all rooting for you!
Are you comfortable with your annual utility bills?
I talk to people regularly that based on their lifestyle, don’t have excessively high utility bills and are comfortable with their monthly costs. Sure, everyone is happy to pay less per month thanks to their high efficiency air conditioner, but if you’re okay with your current monthly bill, you may fall into the “buy on comfort not efficiency” group.
My personal opinion:
I personally own multiple properties, both residential and commercial. Some I occupy and some are income properties. I pay the utility bills on all of the properties, as my residential income properties are vacation rentals, my commercial property is occupied by my HVAC Company, Magic Touch Mechanical, and the other property is my own home.
I own some of each technology (single stage, 2-stage, and variable speed). As I replace my own equipment, I upgrade them because 2-stage and variable speed air conditioners just make good sense in Mesa, AZ.
Better yet: Fully zoned ductless heat pumps and air conditioners not only make sense, they’re the single-most comfortable and advanced way to condition your home available on the market in 2018.
In my case, I have no intentions of selling any of my properties in the near future, so from a return on investment standpoint, the payback vs. the initial investment is justified.
From a purely comfort standpoint, for me personally, there is no contest. The fact that my personal home is way more comfortable consistently than it was with the single stage air conditioner it replaced…combined with the much lower noise factor is worth the difference in equipment cost.
From an Air Conditioning Contractor’s Perspective:
While I can’t speak for any other AC company owner, I can tell you that from Magic Touch Mechanical’s perspective; we make the same amount of profit when we install a variable speed air conditioner as we do any other type of air conditioner because we use a fixed gross profit per day model.
I repeat…we make the same money when a customer purchases a basic entry level AC unit as we do when they buy the top-of-the-line system. You’re paying us for expert installation.
I mention that because I’ve also read FB comments from people who believe AC Companies are trying to “upsell variable speed, so they make more money.”
But alas, there is a reason I prefer it when people choose a 2-stage, or better yet a variable speed AC unit, or even better yet a complete whole-home ductless solution: They are typically more satisfied with their purchase.
I hear comments like; “better than expected”, “it’s so quiet”, and “my utility bill went down so much”. For any air conditioning company owner, those comments are music to the ear!