Most Reliable Central Air Conditioning Systems

Brands most likely to keep you cool, according to CR’s survey of nearly 24,000 members

By Mary H.J. Farrell

As summer approaches, now is the time to make sure your AC system is in good repair, so that it’s able to keep you cool through the coming months. And for those without central AC, it may be time to think about getting a system set up.

In fact, 14 percent of the members we surveyed about their AC systems in 2020 said they used theirs much more than they had the previous summer and well over 80 percent said they used theirs just as much or slightly more. Of these, 15 percent had purchased a central AC system for the first time.

Installing or replacing a central air conditioning system is one of a homeowner’s biggest expenses, so you’ll want to get it right. Because there are so many variables, including a home’s size and design, how the system is installed, and construction of the ductwork, Consumer Reports doesn’t test central air conditioning systems. Instead, we estimate the reliability of major brands on the market by asking our members about their experiences with the central AC systems they purchased and had installed.

In our latest central air conditioning survey, our members told us about the 23,997 central air conditioning systems they had installed between 2005 and 2020. They let us know which parts break and what it cost to fix their central AC if repairs were needed. We also asked them how likely they are to recommend their system to friends and family, and used their responses to calculate owner satisfaction ratings.

“Choosing a brand with higher predicted reliability and better owner satisfaction will boost your chances of getting an air conditioning system that you can depend on,” says Simon Slater, associate director of survey research for Consumer Reports.

Members expect their central air systems to last for a median of 15 years. Our findings are based on central air conditioning systems that are used a median of five months a year. Here are the details.

Reliability and Satisfaction

Using the information provided by our members, we calculated ratings for both predicted reliability and owner satisfaction. Of the 21 brands captured in our survey only one, Trane, earned an Excellent mark on both measures.

To calculate predicted reliability, we used our survey data to estimate how likely a system is to break or cease to sufficiently cool a home by the end of the eighth year. In addition to Trane, Armstrong and Ducane earned an Excellent reliability rating. Seven other brands earned a favorable rating of Very Good; and seven brands earned a rating of Good, which is just average.

In this survey, no brand earned a Poor reliability rating, but Coleman, Goodman, Luxaire, and York received a subpar Fair rating. People should take this into account if they’re considering buying a central AC system from one of these brands.

Our owner satisfaction rating is based on the percentage of members who say they’re extremely likely to recommend their central air brand. Five brands got a top rating of Excellent for satisfaction: Trane, American Standard, Bryant, Lennox, and Carrier. Armstrong and Ducane earned Very Good satisfaction ratings, as did Rheem and Ruud. The other 12 brands earned a rating of Good (average) for owner satisfaction. (None received a Fair or Poor rating.)

Problems and Repairs

So what breaks most often? According to our survey, the evaporator coil, which resides in the indoor unit, is the part most likely to break, affecting 5 percent of owners, on average. The three brands affiliated with Johnson Controls (Coleman, Luxaire, and York) stand out for having evaporator coils that are comparatively more problematic, with a problem rate of 10 percent.

Next are problems with condenser coils (outdoors), followed by blowers, compressors, and controls (excluding the thermostat). Issues with fans and valves were reported in fewer numbers.

Of the central AC systems covered in our survey, we predict that 36 percent will break or experience problems by the end of the eighth year of ownership. In our 2018 survey the median cost of a repair was $250 when paid completely out of pocket, vs. a median of $5,700 to get a new system installed (a figure confirmed in our 2020 survey). However, our 2018 survey also showed that less than half of the repair work was paid out of pocket—among our members, repairs are usually covered by a warranty or a service contract.

Manufacturers of central air conditioning systems recommend that owners have them serviced by a professional at least once a year, and 56 percent of our members do. Numbers drop dramatically after that, with 21 percent having their system serviced every two or three years, 8 percent reporting less than every three years, and 15 percent reporting that they never had routine maintenance.

What Members Like About Their Central ACs

We dug deeper into what our members consider when they say they are extremely likely to recommend their central AC systems to friends and family. How quietly it runs is first on the list, followed by how quickly the AC cools and how reliable it is. Comfort level, ease of use, and cooling evenly also contribute to satisfaction but not as heavily.

At the brand level, we found that Trane stands out for quietness, quick and even cooling, and comfort. Members also gave props to American Standard for even cooling. But owners of Payne systems weren’t particularly impressed, saying they were too noisy and failed to provide the level of comfort they expected.

The next AC: Owners of central air systems are very unlikely to switch to another type of air conditioning if their current system needs to be replaced. When we asked our members to rate the importance of certain features when considering the next system they’ll buy, over half, 56 percent, said a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty was very important. More than 40 percent would especially like a new system that is more energy-efficient than the one they have now. Price was near the bottom of the list of important features, with only 9 percent looking for a system that costs less than the one they have now.

Brand loyalty: Only 15 percent of our members said that buying an AC system of the same brand is very important to them, but 25 percent of Trane owners indicated that it was key for them. Owners of American Standard systems are also more likely to be brand loyal than most others. Owners of systems from Heil appear to be the least.

Keep Your AC System Humming

Even if you buy the most reliable air conditioning system, it can let you down if you don’t tend to some regular maintenance. Some tasks require a professional, but others you can do yourself.

Keeping it clean: Be sure hedges and plants are at least 2 feet away from the outside unit. Clean grills and filters monthly. Clear debris and dirt from condenser coils, and check for blockages in the drain pipe.

Sealing and insulating ducts: Up to 30 to 40 percent of energy can escape through air leaks or when ducts aren’t insulated. Sealing them will keep you cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

Seasonal checks: Once a year, have a licensed professional change all filters, clean and flush the coils, drain the pan and drainage system, and vacuum the blower compartments. The contractor should also check that the system is properly charged with refrigerant, that there are no leaks, and that all mechanical components are working properly.

Source: Results are based on Consumer Reports’ 2018 and 2020 Summer surveys of owners of 23,997 conventional central air conditioning systems. Our statistical model estimates breakage rates (a system breaks down or ceases to sufficiently cool a home) by the end of the eighth year of ownership for systems that are not covered by an extended warranty or service contract. We also adjust for the number of months the system is used over a 12-month period. The median number of months during which these systems are used among our members is five per year.

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