Should I Buy a New AC Unit Online

We get two questions very frequently: “How much does a new air conditioner and heating system cost to install? and, “Can you give me a price to just install a new AC unit if I buy it online”?

I cover the first question in detail in an article titled How Much Does a New AC Unit Cost, which you can find here.

In that article, I give specific information on new air conditioner prices, including labor for both split systems and package units, as well as both heat pumps and AC’s with gas furnaces.

I also wrote a similar article where I break down the prices and cost to install a mini-split ductless air conditioner or heat pump by zone:Ductless AC Price. How Much Does a Ductless AC Cost? Which you can find here.

This article is for people wanting to buy an AC online

I’ll also cover buying a new AC unit online from one of the many companies claiming they will save you thousands by “cutting out the middleman” and providing you an installing contractor.

Spoiler Alert: They in-fact just added another middle man, and we’ll cover that in detail later in the article.

Let’s get to it then!


When someone in the Mesa, AZ area calls Magic Touch Mechanical and asks how much we charge to install an air conditioner they bought online, the answer they get is:

We do not install air conditioning and heating units we did not purchase directly from the manufacturer. This answer surprises people, but is typically the answer they will get from most other reputable, established HVAC Contractors.

Why not just charge what we would normally charge for the labor portion to install an AC unit, and not have to deal with the hassle of picking up, delivering, loading and unloading, etc.? After twenty years of owning a Phoenix air conditioning company, I’ve learned a few things, and here are a few of the potential pitfalls of installing new AC units purchased online:


  • WARRANTY ISSUES – Both before and after the installation, when there is a problem with the new AC unit, we’ve seen many people learn they do not get the warranty they were promised. Sure, it all looks legit online, and there may even be plenty of promises, but what really happens when there is a problem?

The experience I’ve seen consumers have is quite different from what the online retailer promises, and I feel bad for them because they just wanted to save a few bucks.

Keep in mind that air conditioning and heating systems aren’t plug-and-play. If you were buying a new refrigerator or free-standing oven online, and can save some money, I’d encourage it. Those appliances are truly; plug-in and you’re done.

A new air conditioning system however, requires someone who understands how to purge the system with nitrogen and R11 flush, pull the system into a vacuum, charge it properly with refrigerant (understands superheat and subcooling), wire control circuits properly, adjust the blower CFM settings, and so much more.

When done improperly, or not according to exact manufacturer specifications, not only will the system not operate properly, but can damage a unit to the point where it is unusable. I have seen this happen…this is not a drill!

The problem with that is, it gives the online retailer an opportunity to start finger-pointing, and becomes a game of he-said, she-said. The consumer is ultimately the one left holding the bag…and attorney’s cost more than the unit and installation combined.


You’ll notice that they state they won’t warranty anything purchased online “unless installed by a licensed contractor”, so great, you’re covered, right? That’s where the problems come in. You see, because the lines start to get blurry between what problem was created by installation issues, sizing issues, airflow issues, or actual equipment issues, both the installing contractor and retailer have reason to point at each other as the problem, with you in the middle.

If a homeowner contracts with a licensed air conditioning company to supply and install a new unit and there is a problem, no matter if it’s an equipment issue or an install issue, it’s contractor’s problem, not the customers. If deemed a manufacturer problem, the contractor has to work that out with them directly…but if you didn’t purchase the equipment from them directly, that’s another story.


  • DAMAGE / RETURNS – Hypothetically, you find a reputable licensed contractor who is willing to install equipment you the homeowner purchased online (no small task in and of itself). The contractor shows up with his crew and all the additional materials needed to get the job done as agreed, at the agreed price. The crew opens the boxes to find the equipment was damaged in shipping and needs to be returned…or worse gets the equipment installed to discover it is DOA (dead on arrival).

The contractor fulfilled his obligation, cleared his schedule, installed the ancillary items he supplied, etc. Guess what happens next. If you guessed, you have to pay that contractor the agreed price, you are correct. Now, after you the homeowner, have to deal with the hassle of contacting the online retailer, shipping it all back (hopefully the finger-pointing hasn’t started yet), etc., you have to pay the contractor again to reinstall the new, new equipment! Plus, you may have to pay him to uninstall the equipment he just installed…this is known as a Change Order (you changed the scope of work originally agreed upon).


  • WARRANTY ISSUES 1, 2, or 5 YEARS LATER – Let’s say there are no problems upfront but there is a problem down the road (not uncommon). Now let’s say the installing company is no longer in business (not uncommon – service companies have the second highest failure rate of any business after restaurants). Had you purchased the new unit from a licensed contractor, the manufacturer is still obligated to honor their warranty through another licensed dealer for the brand…remember the manufacturer policy for online purchases, three paragraphs ago?

The list of reasons not to go this route is much longer but hopefully I’ve given you enough food for thought to show you why you will most likely not come out ahead buying HVAC Equipment online. Which raises the next point:


What if I Buy an AC Unit Online from a Company That Provides an Installation

Years ago, in the early days of the internet, there were HVAC Contractors that figured out they could sell units online by providing a network of AC companies in your area, that would install the equipment they sold you online. It didn’t work out and they all disappeared because many people were still leery of using a credit card online.

Today, nearly everyone has purchased something online, and many do the majority of their purchases online. So, these types of companies are back…and some are even showing small signs of success.

These companies make claims that you can “save thousands” and “save time”, and have wonderful testimonial statements like “they vetted the contractors for me” and “I saved $7,000”, “I saved “$9,000” …blah, blah, blah.

They show a list of logos’ like Angie’s List, Contractor Licensing Boards, Utility Company Logos, etc. All the things you typically see on a legitimate contractor’s website. How can they use those logo’s…because behind the curtain, that company is really owned by a licensed contractor. The problem is that licensed contractor is not the one installing the equipment. They are the middleman who just made a few hundred dollars being the middleman, and basically “selling” that lead to another contractor who most likely isn’t established enough to have his/her own client base yet.

Most of these companies used to show their list of contractors, now they don’t…because they realized that once people started researching the installing contractors they saw this wasn’t the “highly vetted” cream-of-the-crop the site hyped them up to be. They are start-ups, struggling contractors, or perhaps contractors without the best reputation in their market, that need these leads to stay in business (for the time being).

One of these sites even has a statement on their homepage that says, “Sound too good to be true? Think again.” I laughed the first time I read that because if you have to say, sound too good to be true, in your marketing, well you know!


Square Footage is NOT How You Choose the Size of an Air Conditioner!

Here’s one of the biggest issues I take with these sites and the part they can’t skirt around. You cannot use square footage, or the size of an existing air conditioner when replacing or installing a new ac unit!

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important. You cannot use square footage, or the size of an existing air conditioner when replacing or installing a new ac unit!

Here’s the analogy I use to explain this to our own clients. Take a 2,100 square-foot barn and place it next to a 2,100 square-foot home with dual-pane windows, R30 attic insulation, etc., etc. Do they both need a 5-ton air conditioner to cool to 75 degrees when it’s 100 degrees outside? Even a layman with no HVAC knowledge knows they have different requirements, yet these sites would lead you to believe you need a 5-ton unit for both.

They know this is a problem with their sales tactics so they all add some type of statement about how a licensed contractor will come check first, verify, etc. – which is code for coming out to tell you what other things you need to pay extra for…and that’s if you’re lucky. If your unlucky they will not look for the things you really need, and install the box without them. Leading to you never getting the efficiency or comfort you paid for and a complete system is capable of.

I serve on an arbitration committee with a group of ten other contractors who review consumer complaints submitted to the Better Business Bureau. We review both sides of each case and our function is to help determine if an HVAC Contractor is at fault with regards to the technical aspect of the complaint. We recently reviewed two cases where the consumers issues stemmed from failure to properly size AC equipment. These consumers are stuck in a situation where they purchased the equipment from one of these new AC unit lead brokers and the new equipment can’t maintain the temperature in the home.

The broker is completely shielded from responsibility because they can point to the installing contractor saying it was their job to determine the proper sizing, the contractors in both cases blamed other conditions in the home as the problem (conditions which should’ve been considered in the sizing of the system in the first place). But, at the end of the day it is still the homeowner suffering and paying the consequence.


The Only Way to Properly Size a New AC Unit is an ACCA Manual-J Heat Gain / Loss Load Calculation combined with an ACCA Manual-S System Selection

But Rich, I have a 5-ton unit now and it’s cooled my home fine for the last 15-years. My reply, awesome, so it’s 60,000 BTUH? You; what’s that?

Let me explain. Tonnage is not a real number, it is a range the HVAC industry uses to simplify and categorize equipment. You see, when we do a load calculation, we are determining how many British Thermal Units per Hour are needed to cool and heat an indoor space to a certain temperature at a given outdoor ambient temperature (then we still need to account for humidity). We are not determining tonnage, we are determining BTUH.


1-Ton = 12,000 BTUH…BUT…a manufacturer may call their 10,500 BTUH unit a 1-Ton

Multiply that by five. 10,500 x 5 = 52,500. Divide that by 12,000 (1-Ton). 52,500 / 12,000 = 4.375


Congratulations, you just replaced your old true 5-ton unit with a new 4.3-ton AC unit you bought online…and “saved thousands”! Until the power bills start arriving anyway, but no worries – sweat is produced to cool the body down.

I have cross referenced some of the equipment being sold on these sites with both the manufacturers cross reference sheets as well as the AHRI database and found most of the combinations being sold are not true to size.

The problem is one manufacturer may label their 60,000 BTUH machine as a 5-Ton when paired with a specific air handler or furnace / coil, and another model with a slightly different match up may only be 55,000 BTUH…but still categorized as a 5-Ton.

The scariest part is, there are a lot of HVAC companies out there that don’t have the first clue how to even do a load calculation. I know this for a fact because we get calls on a regular basis from competitors asking if they can pay us to do a load calculation for them (usually when they are already in trouble because an inspector is asking for it). We have also hired (many), long-time technicians and sales consultants that have worked for our competitors, or even owned their own companies at one point, who we have to teach how to do a load calc.


Home Performance / Building Science / Manual-J / Manual-S / Oh My!

Circling back to the barn vs. insulated home analogy, I want to briefly cover the whole-home approach and what is known as home performance. As one of the leading energy auditing companies in Arizona, we have audited literally thousands of homes, from brand new to historical.

More often than not we discover, improperly sized, designed, and installed duct systems. Leaky ducts. Improperly sized, installed, or missing air plenums. Misaligned, poorly installed, or completely void attic and wall insulation (even on brand new homes), home’s that are too leaky or too tight (yes that creates other issues), improperly sized or installed refrigerant piping, and on, and on, and on. All of these things determine the proper size of an air conditioning system, but more importantly…what may lead to the need for a smaller AC unit, and can truly “save you thousands”


Bottom Line

There is a lot more to be told but that would turn this article into novel. Search our blog using the search tool and you will find hundreds of articles that you can piece together to really educate yourself about HVAC. I guarantee when you are done you will choose a traditional approach to installing your new AC unit, and you will truly “save thousands”. Or, you can buy into the fancy website and give your thousands to a great marketing company oops, I mean buy online.

Post Script: Our blog is read far outside the reaches of our service area (a 35-mile radius from Mesa, AZ), so if you are wondering if my feelings about buying online are biased, I can assure you they are not. Check out our reputation and awards and you will see we’re certainly not struggling for business…in-fact what we really struggle with is finding great people to add to the team so we can take all the business that comes our way. If you know someone in the industry who is the “best in class” please tell them to apply today!

Stay cool.