Choosing the best air conditioner can be a challenge. What size do you need? How much will it cost to run? How noisy will it be? We can help you make sense of your options and find the right model for your home.
This guide focuses on split-systems, as these are the most popular type of air conditioner in Australia. You can also check out our ducted air conditioner buying guide, and our portable air conditioner buying guide.
For most homes, a reverse-cycle split-system air conditioner will be the best option. Let's break down what that means.
These have two parts: an indoor unit and an outdoor unit, connected by pipes containing refrigerant gas. They're the most common air conditioner type in Australia, and are good for a room or open plan area up to about 60m2.
Price range: $600–5500.
Similar to a split-system, but with one outdoor unit connected to two or more indoor units. Good for two or three rooms that are reasonably close together, especially when separate split-systems or a ducted system aren't suitable.
Price range: About the same as the equivalent separate split-systems ($600–5500 per system).
These have a discreet central unit, usually located out of sight in your roof, connected by air ducts to air outlets and sensors in each room. Ducted air conditioning is good for cooling and heating a whole house. See our ducted air conditioner buying guide for more details.
Price range: $5000+ (and can easily be $10,000 or more).
A single box unit, installed in a window or through an external wall. These are good for rooms and open-plan areas of up to 50m2. Smaller units can be plugged into a normal power point while larger ones may need additional wiring. They're not quite as efficient or effective as split-systems but a reasonable budget option if a split-system isn't an option (if you're renting, for example).
Price range: $500–1100.
A single unit that can be moved from room to room as needed (but generally not easily). Most have a flexible duct that must be attached to a window to vent the heat outside. Portable air conditioners are good for rooms in households where a built-in option isn't feasible (such as if you're renting), though they're not as efficient as split-systems. Check our portable air conditioner reviews to find the best models.
Price range: $300–1100.
CHOICE tip: You don't need to pay top dollar to get the best air conditioner. Some recommended models in our air conditioner reviews cost under $1500.
A reverse-cycle air conditioner can heat as well as cool – in fact, it's one of the cheapest ways to heat your home in winter.
Most cooling-only and reverse-cycle models aren't very different for cooling efficiency, but the models that score best in our test for cooling efficiency all happen to be reverse-cycle models.
Perhaps because reverse-cycle is the most popular type of air conditioner, the market for them is more competitive and it may be that manufacturers invest more into developing efficient reverse-cycle models.
Even if you only use heating occasionally, you're better off getting a reverse-cycle model in most cases
If you only need an air conditioner for cooling in summer (for instance, if you live in an area with mild winters or you already have another heating system), then a cooling-only air conditioner could be right for you. They're generally cheaper than reverse-cycle models but usually have all the same features.
But even if you only use heating occasionally, you're better off getting a reverse-cycle model in most cases.
How reverse-cycle works
In cooling mode, a reverse-cycle split-system air conditioner extracts heat from the indoor air and moves it outside via the refrigerant gas in the pipes connecting the indoor and outdoor units. The outdoor unit releases the heat and pumps the cooled refrigerant back to the indoor unit where the cycle continues.
In heating mode, the process is simply reversed to extract heat energy from the outdoor air and send it indoors (even in cold weather there's some heat energy in the outdoor air).
Here's our rough guide to the air conditioner capacity (size) you'll need for a particular room size.
For more, read our full article: What size air conditioner do you need?
|Up to 20 square metres||2–2.5kW|
|20–40 square metres||2.5–5kW|
|40–60 square metres||4–6kW|
|60–80 square metres||5–7kW|
|80+ square metres||6–9kW|
So, that's the ballpark guide, but you really need to do an accurate calculation before buying your air con, or else you'll run into these issues.
- Models that are too powerful for the room size may run frequent short cycles to achieve the target temperature. This can result in the room getting too cold or hot, inadequate dehumidification (i.e. not drying the air enough, making the room feel less comfortable), increased power consumption and running costs, and wear and tear on the system.
- Underpowered models may have to run more often at maximum output, which could dry the air too much and also lead to excessive wear.
CHOICE tip: Choose a model with equal or slightly greater capacity for the room.
For example, if you calculate the room needs a 6kW model, then look for an air conditioner with rated cooling capacity in the range of 6kW to 6.5kW (roughly). It's probably a safer bet to get a model slightly above the required capacity than slightly below it, as a little extra grunt may help in extreme temperatures. But don't go too much above the required capacity.
How to do a proper calculation
Some installers and online calculators offer only a simplistic analysis and may tend to recommend a larger capacity than you really need.
But there are a lot of variables to consider. For example, a well-insulated room with south-facing windows will be at the bottom end of the capacity range, while an uninsulated room with west-facing windows will be towards the top.
Likewise, a room in Perth will probably need a more powerful air conditioner compared to an otherwise identical room in Sydney.
A proper calculation takes all the room's details into account.
- The size of the room (length, width and height).
- The type of room (living room, open-plan living room and kitchen, bedroom etc).
- The size and orientation of the windows and glass doors (a large north- or west-facing window can let in a lot of heat in summer).
- Shading and curtains on the windows.
- Insulation of the floor, ceiling, and walls.
- The local climate.
The cooling load and heating load calculators on fairair.com.au, by the Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH), are worth using – they let you factor in a lot of details about the room, its insulation, window orientation and more to get an accurate guide to the right air conditioner size.
Omnicalculator.com also has a size calculator you can try. Alternatively you can try the calculators on manufacturer and installer websites, but we think these tend to overestimate the capacity you need.
Residential split-system air conditioners have to meet minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) to be sold in Australia. This means you can be assured that any new model you buy will be reasonably energy-efficient.
The more stars, the more efficient the model and the less it should cost to run
When a manufacturer registers a model with the government Energy Rating system, the air conditioner gets a star rating label for cooling and heating based on its test results against the Australian standard for air conditioners. You'll see the label on the model instore or online. This gives you a quick and easy way to compare models.
The more stars, the more efficient the model and the less it should cost to run, assuming it's been correctly installed.
Even a model with one or two stars is still OK, but a model with five or six stars (or more) is clearly better, though the more efficient model might also be more expensive.
The Zoned Energy Rating Label for air conditioners (image supplied by Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources).
The new rating according to where you live
The old star rating label had one rating for cooling and one for heating. Any new model registered from April 2020 onwards has a new star rating label, known as the Zoned Energy Rating Label (ZERL). This shows three cooling star ratings and three heating star ratings, based on the climate zone where the unit is installed.
An air conditioner that's good at cooling a home in an average climate zone (see below) might not be the best choice for someone living in a hot zone, for example. Likewise, others might be best suited to heating homes in cold zones. These zone ratings help you choose the best model for your area and your needs.
The three climate zones are:
- hot – northern Australia including Darwin and Brisbane
- average – the middle zone of Australia including Sydney, Adelaide and Perth
- cold – southern Australia including Melbourne, southern Western Australia, Tasmania, Canberra and eastern state mountain regions, and also New Zealand.
Our air conditioner reviews include the zone star rating labels for each model where available. There are still many older models on the market without this data. We calculate running costs for cold, average and hot zones based on this zoned energy data, for those models that have it.
Air conditioners have a reputation for being environmentally unfriendly, and to some extent that's true. They can use a lot of electricity, and collectively can be a significant drain on the grid on very hot days when everyone's trying to cool their homes at the same time.
And they contain refrigerant gases, which can contribute to global warming. The refrigerants used in the past also contributed to destroying the planet's ozone layer, but fortunately modern refrigerants don't have that effect.
To make your air conditioner usage more environmentally friendly, you can insulate your home
However, all that should be weighed against the fact that a good quality modern air conditioner is actually a highly energy-efficient form of cooling and heating. There are very few other appliances that can deliver as much cooling or heating for the amount of electricity they use.
Ideally, a home should have good thermal efficiency – insulation, window coverings, shade and so on – so that it rarely needs an air conditioner. Sadly, most homes aren't designed that efficiently, and air conditioners are increasingly a fact of life.
To make your air conditioner usage more environmentally friendly, you can:
- insulate your home
- only use the air conditioner when you really need to
- run it on your own solar power, if that's an option.
Another sustainability factor is how long the air conditioner lasts. It's poor form for an expensive appliance to end up on the junk heap (or even in recycling) after only a few years. An air conditioner should usually last at least six years, and they frequently last 10 years or more. Our air conditioner reviews include the warranty period for each model, which is an indicator of how confident the manufacturer is in their product.
Most brands offer five-year warranties, while Hitachi offers six years and Teco offers seven years for certain models during promotional periods.
CHOICE tip: Don't forget: you're still covered by Australian Consumer Law regardless of the manufacturer warranty.
We've partnered with Shop Ethical to show the ratings the Ethical Consumer Group gives to each manufacturer. The ratings take into account a wide range of factors such as the company's record on worker and human rights, its supply chain practices, signatory status on international agreements, and much more.
Running costs for a medium-sized air conditioner vary considerably, depending on the climate zone you live in, and the thermal efficiency of your home (e.g. how well insulated it is).
Running costs can vary by several hundred dollars a year. We calculate running costs in our air conditioner reviews so you can compare your options. We've recently changed how we calculate these.
Heating and cooling appliances account for about 40% of the energy use in the average Australian home
Running costs are now based on the energy usage for each model as calculated for the Zoned Energy Rating Label, which estimates its typical energy usage in cooling and heating modes in cold, average and hot climate zones.
Typically, running costs in a cold zone (e.g. Canberra, Melbourne or Hobart) or hot zone (e.g. Darwin or Brisbane) tend to be higher than for the average zone (e.g. Sydney, Perth and Adelaide). That's simply because the air conditioner is usually run for more hours in those zones, and may also have to work harder (using more energy) in their more extreme cold or heat.
|Size||Approximate yearly cost to run*|
|Small (up to 4kW)||$40–1060|
|Large (over 6kW)||$150–2760|
So which brand of split-system air conditioner should you buy? We've identified the best of the bunch based on our reviews of hundreds of models and feedback from our members on satisfaction and reliability.
Best air conditioner brand 2023: Daikin & Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
It's a tie between Daikin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for the title of best air conditioner brand for 2023. While individual models from other brands sometimes score better, models from Daikin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries models on average score well across their entire range. Both brands rate very well for reliability and are the highest scorers for customer satisfaction.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has been the consistent winner of our Best Brand air conditioner award in previous years, but Daikin was usually not far behind, and this year they both take the honours.
Best air conditioner brand 2023 scores
1. Daikin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – 74%
2. Mitsubishi Electric – 72%
3. Fujitsu, LG and Panasonic – 71%
It's important to note that the performance of specific product models may vary quite significantly, so don't assume that one brand's products are the best across the many different features, functions and price points.
To find out which specific models we recommend, click on the 'Recommended' box in the filters section of our air conditioner reviews.
The fan circulates cooled or heated air around the room. Look for a model with a wide airflow range and multiple fan speeds: from very high (to help the room cool down quickly) to very low so there's less noise and no unpleasant draught once you have the right temperature.
- Auto: Automatically chooses the mode required to keep the room at the chosen temperature.
- Cool: Pumps heat from the inside to the outside, cooling the room.
- Heat: Pumps heat from the outside to the inside, warming the room.
- Dry: Dehumidifies the air. Provides some cooling, but not as much as cooling mode.
- Fan only: Blows air without heating, cooling or drying, which is useful when all you want is a cooling breeze.
- Economy: Also called Eco mode, this reduces power consumption. Different brands implement this in different ways. It may simply reduce the cooling or heating output by adjusting the thermostat a degree or two, or it may use sensors to detect if no one is in the room and then reduce the cooling/heating.
Human presence sensor
This detects whether someone is in the room, so the unit knows to keep working. When no one is detected, the unit might switch to an economy mode to reduce power consumption (but you should still turn the unit off if the house is empty).
This feature goes by different names: Mitsubishi Electric calls it Absence Detection, for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries it's Eco Operation, for Panasonic it's Econavi, and for Daikin it's Intelligent Eye.
Many newer air conditioners can be controlled via an app on your phone.
Wi-Fi and app control
Many newer models can connect to the wireless network in your home so you can control the air conditioner via an app on your smartphone – handy if you're at work and want to turn it on before you get home, or you're at home and you've misplaced the remote.
For some models the Wi-Fi feature is an optional extra in the form of a Wi-Fi device purchased separately. These are added onto the indoor air conditioner unit and generally require professional installation. Typically these devices cost a few hundred dollars, plus installation.
Look for large, well-spaced buttons with easy-to-read labels, and a big, easy-to-read LCD screen.
This function adjusts the temperature in steps to a comfortable level for sleeping so the air conditioner doesn't work as hard (and is quieter) when you're sleeping.
Adjustable or oscillating louvres
We recommend you point them up for cool air and down for warm. This can be done via the remote for most models. Left and right adjustability helps direct air to where it's needed.
Protects the compressor by preventing the air conditioner from starting up again too soon after being switched off.
How noisy are air conditioners? Most modern split-system air conditioners are very quiet indoors and out, but it's worth checking an air conditioner's noise levels before you buy.
We measure noise as part of our split-system air conditioner reviews. In our latest test, the noise from indoor units ranged from 19dB to 53dB, and from the outdoor units, 42dB to 69dB (measured on the quietest indoor fan setting).
For comparison, here are some common sound levels:
- 30dBA – typical sound level of a quiet home.
- 50dBA – interior of a quiet car while driving.
- 60dBA – typical conversation.
- 70–80dBA – vacuum cleaner.
A noisy indoor unit may interfere with your activities, conversation or sleep. A noisy outdoor unit can disturb you (if it's too close to a bedroom or living room window) or your neighbours, so consider outdoor unit placement carefully.
Most local councils have noise restrictions relating to the use of air conditioners. Check council regulations before buying, and your strata rules if you live in an apartment, especially if the outdoor unit needs to be installed close to a neighbour's house.
A high-wall mounted air con will blow air easily across a room.
Wall-mounted or ceiling-mounted?
- High wall: The indoor unit is mounted high on a wall so its airflow can easily blow across the room.
- Floor-mounted: The indoor unit is at floor level, which may be better suit some rooms.
- Cassette: The indoor unit is mounted in the ceiling.
- Floor/ceiling: Can be mounted on either the ceiling or the floor.
Do you live in a very hot or cold region? Most air conditioners can operate in temperatures from about -10°C up to about 45°C or more. This is sufficient for most parts of Australia, but check the air conditioner's operating range before you buy to make sure it can cope with any extremes in your area. (If you live in a hot and dry climate, an evaporative cooler can be a cheaper alternative to an air conditioner.)
If you live in a cold area, get an air conditioner with automatic de-icing to avoid frost building up on the outdoor heat exchanger coils in winter.
Demand Response Enabling Device (DRED)
If you have an air conditioner with the Demand Response Enabling Device (DRED, or PeakSmart) feature, and your energy provider offers the PeakSmart service, they'll be able to remotely switch your air conditioner to an economy mode during times of high demand on the grid.
This will usually have no major impact on the air conditioner's cooling (or heating) output – you might not even notice it happening – but it will reduce the amount of power the air conditioner is using, not just saving you money but also reducing the need for more 'poles and wires' to meet energy needs.
Most air con models can operate in temperatures from about -10°C up to about 45°C or more, which is sufficient for most parts of Australia.
All air conditioners have a dust filter in the indoor unit. This traps dust from the air as it circulates through, mainly to stop it clogging up the internal workings. But the dust filter will only have a minimal effect, if any, on smoke and other very fine particles.
To filter out smoke, you really need a HEPA filter. But HEPA filters can't practically be fitted to split-system or ducted air conditioners because air conditioners have to deliver quite significant volumes of airflow into the room, and would need massively powerful fans in the indoor unit to force that amount of air through the very tight weave of a HEPA filter.
However, many new air conditioner models do have an air purification feature, typically based on ionisation or photocatalytic filters. Our guide to air conditioner air purifier filters explains the details of how these filters work.
Online, you may find various aftermarket air purifying filters for air conditioners, described as electrostatic, activated carbon or similar. They claim to be compatible with major air conditioner brands and in some cases can be cut to size to suit different models.
Be cautious with any such filters. While they may provide filtration as claimed, it's highly unlikely that they've been thoroughly tested with every air conditioner brand, and using non-genuine parts may reduce your air conditioner's performance, possibly cause damage and could void your warranty.
- You'll need a licensed air conditioner installer because of the gas refrigerant. Look for an installer with ARCtick approval, and get a few quotes. Most traders offer supply and install packages, and some installation only (meaning you'll need to purchase the unit yourself). To find out more, read our article How much does an air conditioner cost to install or replace?
- As well as an ARCtick accreditation, your air conditioner installer should have an electrical qualification in order to wire your air conditioner into your home. Many don't, but this means they'll be unable to offer a warranty on the electrical work, only the air conditioner itself.
- Likewise, plumbing your air conditioner's drain into your home's stormwater system needs to be performed by a qualified plumber. So check that the installer you choose has the necessary accreditations to carry out the whole installation.
The compressor should be installed on a firm base or attached to a wall with sturdy brackets, and protected from direct sunlight.
- It's generally better to install an air conditioner on a longer wall of a room, and not directly above a window, but your installer should recommend the best place for your individual situation.
- The outdoor unit of your split-system needs to be installed on a firm base (like a concrete slab) or attached to a wall using sturdy brackets. It should be as close as possible to the indoor air outlet, ideally with about three to five metres of pipes between the two units.
- Shade the outdoor part of your air conditioner from direct sunlight – for example, by installing it on a southern wall or providing an awning.
- Single-phase power is all you need for most single (and multi) split-system air conditioners. Three-phase power might be needed for very large multi-split or ducted systems, say 20kW capacity or more.
- Once you've got your air conditioner, don't forget to clean the filters periodically and have the unit serviced regularly.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.