(This is Part II in a two-part series about replacing an air conditioning unit. Part I is Honey Progress Report: Replacing our HVAC, Part I. Honey Smith’s experience investigating solar panels is chronicled in Financial benefits of solar panels? Not so fast.)

This article is by staff writer Honey Smith.

It’s been over a year since we bought our house and, while homeownership has been a fulfilling experience thus far, it hasn’t been cheap. Our air conditioner broke last year — on a 108-degree day in August, no less — resulting in a hefty thousand-dollar repair bill. We immediately added a replacement unit to our list of priorities as the existing unit was more than 20 years old.

The bigger picture

Our next step was to do some investigation into how that would affect other work we were considering — namely, the installation of solar panels. We wanted to make sure a new HVAC unit would be compatible with a solar panel system so we could have all the roof work done at the same time. (HVAC units are installed on the roof in my area of the country.) But when we got the bid from a solar contractor, we decided that solar panels didn’t make sense for us at this time.

Good timing never hurts

With the decision on solar panels behind us, we could move forward on replacing our HVAC unit. And our timing could hardly have been better because we had gotten an email from our utility company about their Cool Cash rebate program around that time too. That definitely made the decision to replace the unit a little easier.

The utility recommended a reputable contractor to us, monitored our interaction with them, and made sure we bought a unit with high efficiency standards. You can read more about that part of the process in Part I; but in this installment, I’ll discuss the installation, the rebate process, and timing for replacing heaters and air conditioners.

Installing the unit with a “cooler” thermostat

The install took place about two weeks after the contractor confirmed their estimate. Most of what drove the timing of the installation was the fact that the contractor had to reserve a crane through another company. We used this time to investigate thermostats because the one we would get through the contractor wasn’t programmable. And while there is some debate about whether programmable thermostats actually save money, we also wanted to explore some new features we had heard about. And honestly, in a climate as extreme as ours, we thought a programmable thermostat would be a good fit for us.

WiFi — Better features in action

The thermostat we ultimately bought cost an additional $150, but this was offset somewhat by not buying the thermostat from the contractor that installed the unit. The thermostat we chose is programmable, but it also connects to our home’s WiFi. I installed the thermostat’s app on my phone so, if I end up leaving the house earlier or later than usual, the system knows to adjust the temperature. Similarly, if I am late coming home, the system doesn’t start up until my cell phone connects to my home WiFi. This means that I can run errands without worrying that my AC is wasting money cooling an empty house.

Connecting it all up

The install itself was very exciting! Men on the roof, a crane swinging huge metal boxes around, power drills in the hallway.

The whole process took about five hours from start to finish. They disconnected the unit and thermostat, removed them both. Then they installed all the new equipment and tested everything.

They tested the thermostat on manual control only because Jake and I needed to connect it to the WiFi ourselves and decide how we wanted it to operate.

Here is a picture showing the crane swinging the unit over 30 feet above the ground! Whoa.

How the warranty process works

About two weeks after the install, the contractors sent us our copy of the manufacturer’s warranty, which they filled out and sent in on our behalf. The unit we bought came with a 10-year warranty that covers parts and labor (but not maintenance). Since it is through the manufacturer, any contractor who services that brand will work with us. That means we only have to pay the annual maintenance and, if the unit breaks, maybe a service-call fee. After what happened last summer, that was music to our ears!

How the rebate process could be better

[Note: The rebate part of the process may work differently depending on the utility company.]

Our contractor submitted the rebate documents, and we received a rebate check directly from the utility company about six weeks later. The contractor told me the other utility in our city reimburses the contracting company, not the customer. So when they do replacements under that utility’s program, they offer an instant rebate to the customer and then the check comes to them after they fill out the paperwork.

That seems to be a slightly better system, since they offer the rebate up front and are then on the hook if they don’t fill out the paperwork. It also benefits the consumer because they see the savings right away instead of having to wait a month and a half for a physical check to be mailed to their house. (And why couldn’t we just get a bill credit for the amount of the rebate again?) But it’s not like I had a choice, and everything worked out in the end anyway. Huzzah!

What about the numbers?

Between the fact that we bought a high-efficiency unit that is the right tonnage for the size of our home and the programmable thermostat, we expect to save at least $400/year. The unit was approximately $5,600. So subtracting the $200 rebate and the $100 reward redeemed after paying with a credit card, we think the unit should pay for itself within 15 years.

Assuming the old unit (which we’d paid $1,000 to repair the previous summer) would need ongoing repairs due to its age, we’ll come out ahead much sooner than that. Since the previous unit was over 20 years old, we can assume $8,000 in savings just from the a/c (not counting savings from operating the heat or any repairs).

When to replace your heater or air conditioner

The timing of our replacement was due to two main factors. First, we didn’t want to finance the purchase, so we decided to pay for everything using a travel rewards credit card. (We plan to redeem the points for $100 cash back on our next getaway.) But in order to do that, we needed time to save up the full amount in our online savings account so we could just pay the credit card balance off in full with no interest.

The second reason we went forward with the replacement when we did was because in early- to mid-spring, we aren’t using heat or air conditioning. That meant it would be comfortable in the house during the install and comfortable outside the house for the contractors who were working so hard! Additionally, if the contractors encountered a problem that took a day or two to resolve, we wouldn’t need to worry.

I asked the fellow overseeing our install what the best time of year is to replace an air conditioning unit, and he said winter or spring because the repair companies/contractors aren’t very busy and tend to offer the best deals. He said that if you wait until summer, then one of two things is likely to happen: You will pay more for your unit or it will break and you’ll elect to repair it instead of buying a new one (even if a new unit is more cost effective) because you’ll be like “OMG, it’s 105 degrees! Need air conditioning now!”

If you live in a part of the country where air conditioning isn’t really a thing but heating is very important, then you reverse the timing and do your replacement in summer. And don’t skip on the annual maintenance, which can alert you to an aging unit so that you have time to save for a unit on your own terms. It’s always best to head problems off at the pass, right?

Have you replaced a heater or air conditioner in your home? Did it help you save on your utility bills? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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