Should I Buy a New AC Unit Online


We get two questions very frequently: “How much does a new air conditioner and heating system cost to install? And, “Can you give me a price to just install a new AC unit if I buy it online?” I cover the first question in detail in the article How Much Does a New AC Unit Cost? In that article, I give specific information on new air conditioner prices, including labor and ancillary items. I break it down by system type and fuel source. I.E.; split systems and package units as well as both heat pumps and AC’s with gas furnaces.

Similarly, in How Much Does a Ductless AC Cost?, I break down the cost to install a mini-split ductless air conditioner or heat pump by zone and type.

Updated 5/21/2020 – See why at the end of the article!

This Article Is For Anyone Planning To Buy A New AC Unit Online

I’ll also cover buying a new AC unit online from companies claiming you’ll “save thousands cutting out the middleman”. These companies both sell new AC units online, and assign an installer they choose. “Spoiler Alert”: They in-fact just added another middle man, and we’ll cover that in detail later in the article. Another “Spoiler Alert”: In some cases, the “assigned installer” is the same company that just sold you the unit online!

Let’s get to it then!

At Magic Touch Mechanical we’re frequently asked how much we charge to install a customer supplied air conditioner. Our answer surprises people, but is typically the answer they’ll get from most reputable HVAC Contractors. We do not install air conditioning and heating units we did not purchase directly from the manufacturer. 

You might ask, why not just charge what you’d normally charge for the labor portion to install an AC unit? What makes it any different than Magic Touch supplying the new AC unit? Especially considering you don’t have to deal with the hassle of picking up, delivering, loading and unloading, etc.? After twenty plus years of owning a Phoenix air conditioning company, I’ve learned a few things. Below I lay out the potential pitfalls of installing new AC units purchased online. As you’ll see, most of the potential hazards are to the homeowner, not the installing contractor or online retailer


How Much Is A Ten Year Manufacturer Warranty Worth To You?

  • WARRANTY ISSUES – Both before and after the installation. We’ve seen many people NOT get the warranty they were promised when there’s a problem with the equipment. Sure, it all looks legit online, and they say it’s “guaranteed”, but what really happens when there is a problem?

buy a new ac unitThe experience I’ve seen consumers have is quite different from what the online retailer promises. It’s hard to watch! Typically, the consumer bought online hoping to save a few bucks due to a limited budget. Most are living paycheck to paycheck and just need air conditioning and heating for their family. When there’s a problem, many can’t afford to pay for the repairs out of pocket.

Keep in mind that air conditioning and heating systems aren’t plug-and-play. If you were buying a new refrigerator or oven online, and can save some money, I encourage it. Those appliances are truly plug-in and you’re done. A new air conditioning system however, requires someone with specific training, skills, tools, certifications and licensing. An HVAC Installer understands how to purge the system with nitrogen. How to pull the system into a vacuum. The proper way to add refrigerant. Understands the terms superheat and subcooling, and why they matter. They know how to wire control circuits properly, adjust the blower CFM settings, measure duct static –  and so much more.

Improperly Installed AC Units Are The #1 Cause of Breakdowns!

When improperly installed, or not according to exact manufacturer specifications, the consequences can be severe. Not only will the system not operate properly, equipment can be damaged to the point where it is unusable. I’ve personally had to remove complete systems from homes because it was more cost effective to just start over.

An improperly installed unit gives the online retailer an opportunity to start finger-pointing. Then it becomes a game of he-said, she-said. Ultimately, the consumer is left holding the bag. And let’s face it, most attorney’s cost more than the unit and installation combined. Not to mention the online retailer can most likely outspend the consumer in litigation fees.


See What The Manufacturers Themselves Say About Their Parts Warranty

new ac unit warranty deniedYou’ll notice that they state they won’t warranty anything purchased online “unless installed by a licensed contractor”, so great, you’re covered, right? That’s where the problems come in. You see, because the lines start to get blurry between if the problem was created by installation issues, sizing issues, airflow issues, or actual equipment issues. Both the installing contractor and retailer have reason to point at each other as the problem, with you in the middle.

If a homeowner contracts with a licensed air conditioning company to supply and install a new unit and there is a problem, no matter if it’s an equipment issue or an install issue, it’s the contractor’s problem, not the customers. If deemed a manufacturer problem, the contractor has to work that out with the manufacturer directly. However, if you didn’t purchase the equipment directly from the HVAC Contractor who installed it, that’s another story. If you think you’ll just make a quick call to the manufacturer directly, think again – these are multi-billion dollar corporations. All the while you’ll be the party sitting in a hot or cold home.


What If You Buy A New AC Unit Online And It’s Damaged?

  • DAMAGE / RETURNS – Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario: You actually find a reputable licensed contractor who is willing to install equipment you purchased online (no small task in itself). The install crew shows up with all the additional materials needed to get the job done. They open the boxes and find the equipment was damaged in shipping and needs to be returned. Or worse, gets the equipment installed and only then discover it is DOA (dead on arrival).

The contractor fulfilled his obligation, cleared his schedule, installed the ancillary items he supplied, etc. Guess what happens next? If you guessed, you have to pay that contractor the agreed price, you are correct. Now, you the homeowner, have to deal with the hassle of contacting the online retailer, shipping it all back (hopefully the finger-pointing hasn’t started yet), etc. You have to pay the contractor again to reinstall the new, new equipment! Plus, you have to pay to uninstall the equipment he just installed…this is known as a Change Order (you changed the scope of work originally agreed upon).


It May Take A Few Years Before The Problems Start

  • WARRANTY ISSUES 1, 2, or 5 YEARS LATER – Let’s say there are no problems upfront but there is a problem down the road (not uncommon). Now let’s say the installing company is no longer in business (not uncommon – contracting businesses have a very high failure rate). Had you purchased the new unit from a licensed contractor, the manufacturer is still obligated to honor their warranty through another licensed contractor. Remember the manufacturer policy for online purchases, three paragraphs ago?

The list of reasons not to go this route is quite long. Hopefully I’ve already given you enough food for thought to show you why you will most likely not come out ahead buying a new ac unit online. However, what about buying one online from a company that subs out the installation to their “vetted” contractors?


What if I Buy an AC Unit Online from a Company That Provides an Installation

In the early days of the internet some HVAC Contractors discovered they could sell units online. They touted a network of AC companies in your area, that would install the equipment you bought from them. Many people were still leery of using a credit card online back then so most of these companies disappeared. Today, nearly everyone has purchased something online, and many do the majority of their purchases online. So, these types of companies are back.

They claim you can “save thousands” and “save time”. Their websites have wonderful testimonials like, “they vetted the contractors for me,” and “I saved $7,000”. They list of logos’ like Angie’s List, contractor licensing agencies, utility company logos, etc. All the things you’d typically expect to see on a legitimate contractor’s website. However, behind the curtain, that company is really owned by a licensed contractor. The problem is that licensed contractor is not always the one installing the equipment. They are in fact the middleman who just made a few hundred dollars being the middleman. They sell that lead (you’re the lead) to another contractor who most likely isn’t established enough to have his/her own client base yet. The money the middleman just took means that installing company has to install your new unit on a razor thin margin. Razor thin margins equal shortcuts. In HVAC shortcuts equal comfort issues, high utility bills, frequent unit failures, and shortened life expectancy of the equipment.

In some cases, the online retailer is actually the installing contractor – they don’t want you to know that! Why, because they don’t want you to know you just bought the “corner cutting package” installed by their “B-Team”.


You Don’t Get to Choose Your Contractor!

Most of these companies used to show a list of installing contractors on the website, but no longer do. Once people start researching the listed installers, they see this isn’t the “highly vetted” cream-of-the-crop the claims suggest. They’e usually start-ups, struggling contractors, or perhaps contractors without the best reputation in their market. They’re sub sub-contractors and they need leads (remember that’s you) just to stay in business.

One HVAC retailer website’s homepage says, “Sound too good to be true? Think again”. If you have to say, “sound too good to be true?” on your websites homepage – well you know how the saying goes, enough said!


Square Footage is NOT How You Choose the Size of an Air Conditioner!

Here’s one of the biggest issues I take with these sites and the part they can’t skirt around. You cannot use square footage, or the size of an existing air conditioner when replacing or installing a new ac unit! Let me repeat that, because it’s that important. You cannot use square footage, or the size of an existing air conditioner when replacing or installing a new ac unit!

Here’s the analogy I use to explain this to our own clients. Take a 2,100 square-foot barn and place it next to a 2,100 square-foot home with dual-pane windows, R30 attic insulation, etc., etc. Do they both need a 5-ton air conditioner to cool to 75 degrees when it’s 100 degrees outside? Even a layman with no HVAC knowledge knows they have different requirements, yet these sites would lead you to believe you need a 5-ton unit for both.

They know this is a problem with their sales tactics so they all add some type of statement about how a licensed contractor will come check first, verify, etc. That’s code for coming out to tell you what other things you need to pay extra for…and that’s if you’re lucky. If your unlucky they will not look for the things you really need, and install the box without them. Leading to you never getting the efficiency or comfort you paid for and a complete system is capable of. When you really start digging, you find the consumer reviews that document this all. Unfortunately for most consumers, you have to know where to dig, and what companies to look for, These companies do a very good job of covering their tracks so you don’t see behind the curtain.


You May Not Get the Right Size When You Buy a New AC Unit Online

I serve on an arbitration committee with a group of ten other contractors who review consumer complaints submitted to the Better Business Bureau. We review both sides of each case and our function is to help determine if an HVAC Contractor is at fault with regards to the technical aspect of the complaint. We recently reviewed two cases where the consumers issues stemmed from failure to properly size AC equipment. These consumers are stuck in a situation where they purchased the equipment from one of these new AC unit lead brokers and the new equipment can’t maintain the temperature in the home.

The broker is completely shielded from responsibility because they can point to the installing contractor saying it was their job to determine the proper sizing. The contractors in both cases blamed other conditions in the home as the problem (conditions which should’ve been considered in the sizing of the system in the first place). But, at the end of the day it is still the homeowner suffering and paying the consequence.


The Way to Size a New AC Unit is Manual-J Load Calculation

But Rich, I have a 5-ton unit now and it’s cooled my home fine for the last 15-years. My reply, awesome, so it’s 60,000 BTUH? You; what’s that?

Let me explain. Tonnage is not a real number, it is a range the HVAC industry uses to simplify and categorize equipment. You see, when we do a load calculation, we are determining how many British Thermal Units per Hour are needed to cool and heat an indoor space to a certain temperature at a given outdoor ambient temperature (then we still need to account for humidity). We are not determining tonnage, we are determining BTUH.

1-Ton = 12,000 BTUH…BUT…a manufacturer may call their 10,500 BTUH unit a 1-Ton. Multiply that by five. 10,500 x 5 = 52,500. Divide that by 12,000 (1-Ton). 52,500 / 12,000 = 4.375

Congratulations, you just replaced your old true 5-ton unit with a new 4.3 ton AC unit you bought online. But at least you “saved thousands” – until the power bills start arriving. No worries – sweat is produced to cool the body down. I have cross referenced some of the equipment being sold on these sites with both the manufacturers data sheets as well as the AHRI database and found most of the combinations being sold are not true to size.

What Size Is That New AC Unit Really?

The problem is one manufacturer may label their 60,000 BTUH machine as a 5-Ton when paired with a specific air handler or furnace / coil, and another model with a slightly different match up may only be 55,000 BTUH…but still categorized as a 5-Ton.

The scariest part is, there are a lot of HVAC companies out there that don’t have the first clue how to even do a load calculation. I know this for a fact because we get calls on a regular basis from competitors asking if they can pay us to do a load calculation for them (usually when they are already in trouble because an inspector is asking for it). We have also hired (many), long-time technicians and sales consultants that have worked for our competitors, or even owned their own companies at one point, who we have to teach how to do a load calc.


Home Performance / Building Science / Manual-J / Manual-S / Oh My!

Circling back to the barn vs. insulated home analogy, I want to briefly cover the whole-home approach and what is known as home performance. As one of the leading energy auditing companies in Arizona, we have audited literally thousands of homes, from brand new to historical.

More often than not we discover, improperly sized, designed, and installed duct systems. Leaky ducts. Improperly sized, installed, or missing air plenums. Misaligned, poorly installed, or completely void attic and wall insulation (even on brand new homes), home’s that are too leaky or too tight (yes that creates other issues), improperly sized or installed refrigerant piping, and on, and on, and on. All of these things determine the proper size of an air conditioning system, but more importantly…what may lead to the need for a smaller AC unit, and can truly “save you thousands”


Bottom Line – Don’t Buy a New AC Unit Online, It’s Just Not Worth It!

new ac unitThere is a lot more to be told, but that would turn this article into a novel. Search our blog using the search tool and you will find hundreds of articles that you can piece together to really educate yourself about HVAC. I guarantee when you are done you will choose a traditional approach to installing your new AC unit, and you will truly “save thousands”. Or, you can buy into the fancy website and give your thousands to a great marketing company oops, I mean buy online.

Post Script: Our blog is read far outside the reaches of our service area (a 35-mile radius from Mesa, AZ), so if you are wondering if my feelings about buying online are biased, I can assure you they are not. Check out our reputation and awards and you will see we’re certainly not struggling for business. In-fact, we struggle finding great people to add to the team so we can take all the business that comes our way. Which reminds me – if you know someone in the industry who is the “best in class” please tell them to apply at Magic Touch today!

Stay cool.


Update 5/21/2020

I originally wrote this article in November, 2017 and updated it today for the following reason: I received a phone call from the owner of a company who sells new AC units online. Note, my article doesn’t mention ANY company by name. There are many companies operating under this business model. The caller was very angry with me for simply sharing the truth with consumers. He identified this article as being about his company (what does that tell you?). I explained there were hundreds of companies selling new AC units online and this article was about that business model, not a particular company. 

My intention with every article I write is to educate homeowners about HVAC in order for them to make informed decisions for themselves. Apparently it’s working and I’m doing my part to help a few people from possibly making a potentially bad decision about their new HVAC system purchase. So, I’ve decided to revive this old article to help out a few more!

PS. To the “caller” mentioned…CHEERS!



about rich morgan president magic touch mechanical












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