Is a Variable-Speed Air Conditioner Worth the Cost?

Is a Variable-Speed Air Conditioner Worth the Cost?

If you can swing the high upfront cost, then yes, most FL homeowners will find that
variable-speed technology is “worth it” when compared to single-stage/single-
speed ACs.

Note: The term “variable-speed” can refer to two different components in your AC: the
compressor and/or the blower motor. If you’re looking at an AC that’s labeled “variable-
speed”, be sure to ask a licensed technician or manufacturer which component(s) has
“variable-speed technology”.

Variable-speed vs. single-stage/single-speed units: How do they work?

Note: To be more specific, the terms “single-stage” and “two-stage” refer to AC
compressors, while “single-speed” and “multi-speed” refer to blower motors.

Think of single-stage/single-speed units as operating like a basic light switch: they work
at one level—HIGH, which means when they’re on, they’re going full blast at 100%
capacity.

Variable-speed technology works more like a dimmer switch: they can adjust to any
operating capacity needed.
In fact, variable-speed units can operate anywhere
between 10% and 150% capacity, making them much more efficient at keeping homes
cool in the summer.

Let’s look at how a single-speed/single-stage unit would handle the extreme
temperature versus a variable-speed unit:

  • Single-speed/single-stage AC: It turns on at full-blast, cools down your home
    quickly, and then shuts off. These short ON/OFF cycles repeat continuously,
    resulting in hot/cold spots in your home and inconsistent indoor temperatures.
  • Variable-speed AC: It initially blasts at 150% to cool the home quickly, but then
    automatically ramps down to 30-40% capacity once the indoor temperature is
    close to the desired temperature. At 30-40% capacity, the AC provides a slow
    and steady stream of cool air.
    This results in even cooling throughout the entire
    home and indoor temperatures that precisely match the set temperature.

Benefits of a variable-speed AC:

  • More comfort. A variable-speed AC’s longer run times and lower speeds means
    cool air is steadily pushed throughout the whole house to provide even
    temperatures. Longer run times also allow for better dehumidification.
  • Lower electric bills. The ability to ramp down in speed means that your AC
    uses only the lowest amount of electricity needed, meaning lower energy bills
    throughout the year.
  • Quieter operation. Since variable-speed blowers can operate at any capacity
    (not 100% all the time), they have lower decibel levels than other AC units.

The downfall: Variable-speed costs more upfront

The cost to install a variable-speed AC unit is about $4,000–$8,000 more than other
units. The total cost of a variable-speed AC installation is usually around $12,000 to
$16,000.

Fortunately, variable-speed technology isn’t the only factor that can raise the upfront
cost. In fact, the overall cost of an AC installation varies depending on many factors,
including:

  • The size of your unit
  • The efficiency you choose (SEER rating)
  • Features you add (like noise reduction or air quality features)
  • The contractor your choose

Are you on a budget? Try a middle-of-the-road option

If you can’t swing the high upfront cost of a variable-speed AC, but you want more
comfort than a single-stage/single-speed unit. Try considering one of the mid-range unit
options below:

  • Two-stage: If an AC is a “two-stage” unit, it means that the compressor—the
    part in the outdoor unit that pumps refrigerant through your system—has two
    operating capacities
    (high and low).
  • Multi-speed: If an AC is a “multi-speed” unit, it means that the blower—the part
    in your indoor unit that blows cool air throughout your home—has up to five
    preset speeds
    (like a ceiling fan).

Two-stage/multi-speed units keep your home closer to the set temperature than single-
stage/single-speed ones, but still don’t offer as precise temperatures as variable-speed
units

Variable-speed vs. single-stage/single-speed units: How do they work?

Note: To be clear, the terms “single-stage” and “two-stage” refer to AC compressors, while
“single-speed” and “multi-speed” refer to blower motors.

Think of single-stage/single-speed units as operating like a basic light switch: they work at one
level—HIGH, which means when they’re on, they’re going full blast at 100% capacity.
Variable-speed technology works more like a dimmer switch: they can adjust to any operating
capacity needed.
In fact, variable-speed units can operate anywhere between 10% and 150%
capacity
, making them much more efficient at keeping homes cool in the summer.

Benefits of a variable-speed AC:

  • More comfort. A variable-speed AC’s longer run times and lower speeds means cool air
    is steadily pushed throughout the whole house to provide even temperatures. Longer run
    times also allow for better dehumidification.
  • Lower electric bills. The ability to ramp down in speed means that your AC uses only
    the lowest amount of electricity needed, meaning lower energy bills throughout the year.
  • Quieter operation. Since variable-speed blowers can operate at any capacity (not
    100% all the time), they have lower decibel levels than other AC units.