One of the most common questions I get as an HVAC contractor in Sacramento is, “Which AC system is the best?” I see a ton of articles online about this topic – many that someone who’s not even in the HVAC industry wrote! Some compensated blog writer wrote it or gave you a list of top-rated systems. Systems they’ve never even touched. These bloggers are telling people that nationally recognized economy line systems are better than the systems that are truly going to last you a long time.
THE BEST BRANDS:
Short and sweet, three companies have the best reputation over several decades of manufacturing, in no particular order, they are:
Now, when I say Trane, I also mean American Standard. And when I say Carrier, I also mean Bryant. Lennox is Lennox. But, American Standard systems are made in the same factories, on the same production lines as Trane systems. Bryant is made in the same factories, on the same assembly lines as Carrier. The difference? The tag is on the side of the unit. American Standard does have a different shell around the sides of the outdoor AC unit, but that’s it. I know this because I toured the factory where they make them. I’ve seen the process. (And it’s very cool!)
So, the same high voltage contactor that’s in a Carrier is in a Bryant air conditioner. The same inducer motor on a Carrier is in a Bryant furnace.
But isn’t Carrier more expensive than Bryant? And isn’t Trane more expensive than American Standard? Until now, I noticed that Bryant was a little cheaper, although they were engineered exactly the same. But now, in 2021, I see a very marginal price difference—the same with American Standard and Trane. Lennox systems are priced right along with these brands as well. So if you get different prices from contractors giving you bids, it’s because of that contractor’s overhead or desired profit margins. Not because one is more expensive than the other to the contractor.
Knowing this the list really looks like this, in no particular order:
- Trane (or American Standard)
- Carrier (or Bryant)
We sell Trane as our premium line and Coleman or Payne as our economy line. But my goal here is to try to stay as neutral as possible here so you don’t feel like I’m trying to sway you one way or the other. You’ll hear me talk about some brands being better than others, and I mean no offense to anyone or any manufacturer.
But you’ve got to take this sort of advice from someone who’s installed all of them at one point or another and serviced the equipment out in the field.
A SPECIAL NOTE:
Before I list the rest of the systems,
I want to mention air conditioning systems come fully assembled at the factory and are ready to work. However, it takes experienced technicians to modify the unit per the manufacturer’s instructions to conform to your specific home’s demands. The last steps of installing it “in the field” and adding whatever additional parts to bring it up to proper building code in your area is up to the contractor you choose. That’s an important point because buying a Trane, Carrier, or Lennox includes buying it from a professional, detail-oriented, reliable contractor that you trust and are comfortable with bringing it to life. If someone is going to install it for you, but you can’t find them after the install because they sell systems so cheap they’re out of business, or they simply won’t pick up the phone, that’s not going to help you when you need some follow-up.
You can buy any system, but if the blower settings, gas pressures, static air pressures, high and low voltage wiring, fuse sizes, a precision refrigerant charge, and airflow, water drainage, gas piping, intake air, exhaust system, thermostats, and other safety codes aren’t set up correctly, you’ll find your new system not lasting nearly as long as it could have. It can be the difference of your system lasting ten years or lasting 20 years.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD SYSTEMS:
Other brand names in the field would be considered middle-of-the-road type systems. These names, in no particular order, include:
- Rheem (or sister brand Ruud)
- Day & Night
Why are they mid-tier systems? As a technician, I seem to repair these systems more than the premium names. The repair parts are available just like others, and the warranties are just as strong. That’s never been a problem for me. But, it’s a fact that they break down at some of the most inopportune times. So just keep that in mind.
LOWER END SYSTEMS:
Even more brands perennially end up at the bottom of these lists. In no particular order they are:
These have the most challenging time breaking the stigma attached to them. They carry this stigma because they are the brands installed on newly built homes in middle America. HVAC contractors will only win their bid to get a large job like a new pre-planned community if they have the lowest bid. So, they have to use the cheapest equipment they can get their hands on.
You can find most of these cheaper systems online. They sell to whoever will buy them. And, you’ll see the cheapest contractors, home flippers, and DIY’ers buying this equipment and trying to install them themselves. This comes back around to it mattering WHO installs your equipment and not entirely about WHAT equipment you buy.
AREN’T THERE OTHERS?
If the brand you were thinking of isn’t on this list, it could be that here we are talking about your typical unitary or ducted split systems and package units. Names like Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Gree, Midea, and others make ductless mini-split systems. We’ll talk about those in another discussion.
All of the mid-tier and higher brands typically have three levels of systems they offer.
- (Entry-level) A single-stage heating and cooling option
- (High quality) A two-stage option
- (Most efficient) A variable speed option
The single-stage option has the simplest form of technology, is the lowest in price but the lowest in value. While they are UL Listed and safe to put in any home, lower-end models have more vulnerabilities than higher-end equipment.
I can’t really say whether a Trane, Carrier, or Lennox entry-level system is better than the other. The technology is the same. Heck, the compressors, which are the heart of the air conditioner, are virtually the same. I can say, for my home, I would feel a lot better installing one of these three instead of the mid-tier or lower levels. It’s not because I’m an elitist or anything. The elite products are the higher-end technology variable speed systems.
REPAIRS AND MAINTENANCE:
Almost every part of these single-stage systems can be repaired with universal parts. Meaning you don’t necessarily have to go through the distributor to get the replacement part. Single-stage motors, compressors, control boards, pressure switches, and gas valves are everywhere and readily available. Very likely even on your technician’s van right now.
Two-stage systems have better technology. They run more efficiently and control the temperature in your house without fluctuating as much. The main feature of a two-stage system is that they all typically run at around 70% capacity in the first stage and 100% capacity in the second stage. These systems will run the majority of the time in the first stage, which is where you start seeing the money savings. Two-stage systems are great for two-story homes that have two thermostats or zoning. These systems can be set up to run in the first stage when only one floor is calling for air. The second stage will only come on when both zones are calling for air. This is how I have it set up in my house.
I’ll stay with my single stage theme when I say I couldn’t pick which one is best out of the three premium names. Trane, Carrier, and Lennox are battle-tested and have been for decades in this technology. I tell people when it comes to a salesman saying, “oh, but our system is an 18 SEER, not 16 or 17 like the other brand.” I tell my customers not to get too caught up in SEER ratings and focus on the technology. Any two-stage system is going to outperform a single-stage system. The minuscule savings you’ll receive by going with an 18 SEER two-stage over a 17 SEER two-stage is trivial.
REPAIRS AND MAINTENANCE:
Two-stage motors and compressors will have to be ordered from the warehouse near your town that distributes your brand of equipment. There aren’t a lot of universal parts available for two-stage systems. Capacitors, contactors, and some other parts are universal. But with higher-end equipment, you see safety components like special pressure switches to protect the furnace or air conditioner from damaging itself. These parts have to come from the factory. With Trane, Carrier, Lennox all the way “down to” Goodman and York, I’ve never really had a hard time getting these replacement parts. At the most, we’ve had to wait for 5 to 10 business days for the part to come directly from the manufacturer. There are always exceptions to this, but, honestly, it would be the same for any brand.
VARIABLE SPEED SYSTEMS:
When you start dipping into the most efficient tier of equipment, the variable speed systems, you’ll start seeing some noticeable differences. As a Trane dealer, it’s hard for me to say this, but Trane and Carrier have sort of fallen behind Lennox. Bosch also makes a pretty sweet variable speed system. They even have the first variable speed package unit.
Remember how two-stage systems have a 70% and 100% capacity? These are the most expensive units, with technology that is less bulletproof than two-stage technology. But, if you’re a techy or just like the premium life, variable speed stands out because of the comfort levels it can produce. Variable speed systems can adjust their capacity levels from about 25% to 100% in less than 1% intervals at a time. They maintain even lower temperature swings in the house. These systems can keep your home to within a half degree of the temperature you want it.
These are the quietest systems too. Because they typically run at a slower speed, they require less energy and create less noise with less vibration.
Lennox claims the top spot as far as SEER ratings go with a 28 SEER system. Compare that to Trane’s top unit, which is 20 SEER, and Carrier’s 19 SEER version.
All of these variable speed systems have WiFi capabilities, are communicating systems, and are ultra-quiet. Lennox and Carrier variable speed systems work with the Amazon Alexa app. Trane doesn’t have that feature as it only works with its Nexia platform.
REPAIRS AND MAINTENANCE:
When it comes time to repair these variable speed systems, only their proprietary parts will work. With such intricate technology comes priciness and a higher learning curve for who can actually make the repair for you. Trane, Lennox, Carrier, and other brands with variable speed lines will usually only make these parts available to respected dealers of those brands. The skill it takes to handle inverter-type systems is next level.
When it comes to deciding which AC systems are the best, you have three systems perennially at the top of the list. Trane, Carrier, and Lennox. While each of their single-stage and two-stage systems all pretty much have the same capabilities, efficiencies, and life spans, it’s the higher-tier variable speed systems where you’ll start seeing the differences. Lennox has pulled away from the field by offering 28 SEER variable speed systems.
When you start looking for a vehicle, you pretty much have a brand name in mind. You might get a higher or lower-end model with fewer bells and whistles, but maybe you’ve always felt comfortable driving a GMC truck over a Toyota truck.
Let me know what you think about this in the comments below? I see a ton of articles online about this topic – many that someone who isn’t even in the HVAC industry wrote. Some paid blog writer wrote it. You’ve got to take it from someone who actually installs them and services the equipment out in the field.
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