If you're sick of sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, you may be considering installing an air-conditioning system. Yes, it can be expensive, but a reverse-cycle split system can also be one of the most energy-efficient ways to cool and heat your home.
But just how much cash are you going to have to shell out to chill out? We look at the costs to install or replace a unit, what's involved, and share our expert tips to help you get the best price, service and performance.
The most common type of air con installed in Australian homes is a split-system air conditioner, which comes with an indoor unit and an outdoor unit connected by pipes. Although the upfront installation costs are more significant than a portable unit, these systems are usually one of the most cost-effective options in the long run.
How much it will cost you depends on the price of the units themselves, as well as a tradesperson's fees to install them. Split air con units can vary dramatically in price from $600 to $5500, depending on:
- the brand and model
- size and capacity (measured in kilowatts – see what size you need)
- smart features such as sensors, eco modes, Wi-Fi and app compatibility
- time of year (you may get a better price in off-seasons).
An installer's fees can range from $600 to $750 and depend on a number of factors. As always, it's a good idea to get a few quotes before committing.
You'll need a licensed air-conditioner installer because of the gas refrigerant, and they'll usually also need electrical qualifications to wire the unit into your home. Plumbing accreditation may be needed if the air con drain has to be connected to your home's waste water system.
You'll need a licensed air-conditioner installer because of the gas refrigerant, and they'll usually need electrical qualifications to wire the unit
CHOICE air-conditioning expert Chris Barnes says: "While an installer doesn't necessarily need to see your home before quoting, they should be asking lots of questions beyond simply how big your space is, or what rooms you are looking to install air con in.
"As well as asking about where you live and things such as whether your walls and ceilings are insulated, they may also ask for photos of your indoor and outdoor spaces so they can see what they're dealing with and can quote accordingly. This prevents getting hit with unforeseen costs or complications down the track."
CHOICE tip: Don't wait until it's sweltering! Installers often book out in peak season and waiting periods can be long. Plan ahead to beat the heat.
Split systems come with connected indoor and outdoor units.
Each quote will differ depending on the home. Here's what a technician will consider when quoting:
- Number of units being installed, as well as the type, size and brand.
- Complexity of the installation – i.e. how much piping or cabling is needed, and where the units are located in your home.
- Upgrades to your electrical system, if needed.
Chris says: "If you're installing a new split-system air conditioner, it should be on its own dedicated circuit and that means some electrical work will be needed to install that new circuit. That will add a bit to the installation cost."
Installers will be able to advise on the best position possible for your units, both within your rooms and outdoors, to maximise efficiency and keep costs as low as possible.
Chris says: "There's not always a lot of flexibility as to where your air-conditioning units can go. You'll want them high up on a wall and in a position that enables them to blow air clearly across the width of a room.
Position your air con so that it blows air across the full width of the room.
"Particularly with split systems, the best position is very much dictated by where the outdoor unit is positioned as you usually want to avoid a long run of piping between the indoor and outdoor unit. Generally, you'd be looking at three or four metres of piping, otherwise your installation costs may be higher."
Your outdoor unit should ideally be in a sheltered position, and attached to a wall with brackets or on a concrete base. Keep in mind that wall-mounting brackets or poly/concrete bases for your unit may add to your installation costs. If you have limited outdoor space for units, you may consider a multi-split air-conditioning system that can connect several different indoor units to a single outdoor unit.
CHOICE tip: If you live in a strata-managed apartment, you'll probably need approval from your body corporate to install air conditioning.
If you have an old system, or a broken one, it may be time to upgrade or replace it. The average lifespan of an air-conditioning unit is 15 to 20 years. New models are much more energy efficient than older units, so by installing one you should be able to save money on your energy bills in the future.
It's usually cheaper to replace older air-conditioning units than to install a completely new system. This is because the installer can usually use the same pathway for the piping, so there's less need to drill holes through walls or pour a concrete base.
New models are much more energy efficient than older units, so you should save money on your energy bills
"Replacing an old split system with a new one shouldn't require any new electrical work in most cases, so that would help keep your costs down," says Chris.
However, the old piping will usually need to be replaced, as new systems may use a different refrigerant gas that operates at different pressures and requires different piping, or the old piping may be contaminated or damaged. For new installations, the warranties usually require new piping to be used.
In some cases, it may be possible to reuse the existing piping after it has been flushed of any oil and refrigerant residues. Your installer can advise if this is the case, but make sure to check that the warranty will still be valid.
Remember: there might not be much cost saving between cleaning and reusing the old pipes compared with installing new ones.
Chris's first bit of advice is to do your research and plan ahead before the heat or cold kick in.
"Installers are usually very busy during the main seasons," he says. "Don't presume you're going to be able to call someone and get them to come quickly to your house and do it all for you – there could be a significant waiting period, particularly if there's a lot of hot weather. It's also a good idea to get at least two quotes if you can."
Chris says there are three common options to getting a unit installed:
1. Choose an installer who offers supply and installation in one
Pros: The popular option, it offers a 'one-stop shop' where everything is handled for you.
Cons: You could be restricted to using a certain brand or type of air conditioner.
2. Buy the unit yourself from a retailer that offers installation from a preferred provider
Pros: Much of the process is still managed for you, but you have a bit more flexibility to shop around for a better price on your unit.
Cons: You still have to manage the logistics of buying the unit yourself, having it delivered and storing it until installation. You'll also be tied into using the retailer's preferred installer.
3. Buy the unit yourself and arrange your own installer
Pros: Offers the greatest flexibility in shopping around for a good deal on your unit and working with an installer of your choice.
Cons: Requires more research to find the best unit and right tradesperson. We recommend finding an installer before buying a unit.
Some installers will only work with certain brands and models, so check with them first.
Chris's advice on installation options
Chris says: "The advantage of buying the air-conditioning unit yourself is that you can shop around for the cheapest deal to save yourself some cash – there are often some bargains to be found online.
"However, then you need to find your own tradesperson. Be sure to choose one that is licensed to install air conditioning. Availability can be an issue, especially in peak seasons, and some tradespeople won't want to do the install of a product they haven't supplied, or a brand they don't usually work with.
"While some 'all-in-one' air-conditioning suppliers and installers will only work with certain brands, you still may be able to be specific about which brand or model you want – just ask."
Always do your research
Either way, it's vital to do your research to make a well-informed choice. Chris recommends looking at how different brands perform in our reviews and urges caution of suspiciously cheap models.
"Cheaper upfront costs on air-conditioning units usually mean the model is less energy efficient, so you could end up paying more in electricity bills in the long run," he says. "It's often worth it to invest a bit more in a reliable, quality brand."