Let's face it, one thing that we can all be sure of this prices will rise; and rise they have. Materials such as copper, aluminum, steel and refrigerant have gone up. Ten short years ago, an air-conditioning system for an average sized house could be had, installed, for $1300 and some change. Now, because of the price of materials and government regulation that system is $3500 installed. I've seen homeowners do anything to have their cake and eat it too; mainly keeping their cool and their wallet. However, there is a fundamental law of business: It's impossible to pay less for more. If a contractor offers you a cut rate on a fully installed air-conditioning system, there's a reason, or reasons he "can" do that. I'm going to bypass variables such as shoddy workmanship and cut right to the chase. As of now, there are two and even possibly three ways that contractors can cut corners on an install and you wouldn't even know it. That is you wouldn't know it until the system needed service or your anticipated cost savings of buying a new system weren't realized.
As of 2006 in the United States, the federal government has mandated that ALL new residential central air-conditioning systems must be a 13 S.E.E.R. or higher. S.E.E.R. stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating and these are 13 to 21 at present. The higher the S.E.E.R. the more efficient the equipment. For each point in S.E.E.R. you go up, you stand to save up to 7 percent off the cost of running the equipment, provided you have the maintenance done and use a furnace or air handler with an energy efficient motor. Until 2006, it was legal to manufacture equipment with a 10 S.E.E.R., so the cost to operate a 10 would be higher than a 13. One note: The words "high efficiency" on a piece of equipment mean next to nothing. Also, the S.E.E.R. drops as the equipment ages or from lack of maintenance. So that 10 S.E.E.R might be a 7 for all you know. Before this rule went into effect, some contractors rushed to beat the clock and bought up a bunch of these older systems. Most were destined for property management clients, but if the contractor goes out of business and these change hands, you could end up with one of these beauties. There isn't anything wrong with a 10 system, but if the contractor charges you the "13" price and you run your A/C a lot it will cost you more all the way around.
Refrigerants have also changed in the past 10 to 20 years. R-22, or Freon 22 was a mainstay in residential and commercial air-conditioning equipment. As of January of 2010, equipment with R-22 is no longer being sold. However, firms are getting around this law by selling 'dry' systems and adding R-22 to save money. R-410A, or Puron is a blend of two refrigerants that's costlier to make but is used in all new systems due to environmental regulation. As of 2020, no new R-22 can be made, which will make this stuff much more expensive. I bought several 30 pound jugs of R-22 in the 1990's when it was less than $2 a pound. Now it's nearly $7 to $8 a pound wholesale. My point is that if you keep this system long enough, you probably will have to recharge it and hopefully fix the leak. If the old stuff runs out, you're out of luck. Make sure you have a 410A system. It'll be a lot better than trying to find a 'drop in' substitute or resorting to finding it on the black market.
The final bell tolled on this article is one that contractors make, but seldom admit to and never suffer from. The customer will pay dearly for this deliberate act of cutting corners and could even wreck a very expensive air-conditioning system if the unit runs out of refrigerant. This is using plumbing solder on air-conditioning connections. Because plumbing solder is a lot less expensive than silver solder and the equipment to apply it is too, the temptation is there. However, plumbing solder is not code for air-conditioning in many places and because it's softer is not able to handle the higher pressures associated with refrigerants, it WILL leak. While most residential water systems use 40 to 60 pounds per square inch, air-conditioning systems will use anywhere from 60 to 100 p.s.i. on the low end and 300 on the high end. Soft solder will fatigue and crack at these pressures, resulting in a very expensive service call to weld the joints and replace the refrigerant. My last bill to do this was $664 on an R-22 system with 2 pounds of refrigerant. I probably negated any savings the homeowner realized on their installation. Maranatha!