As of Jan. 23, residential air conditioner manufacturers were no longer allowed to produce air conditioning units with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) less than 13. By all accounts, the tougher standard is the biggest and most dramatic change the air conditioning industry has had to make since 1992, when efficiency requirements were raised from 8 to 10 SEER.
The new minimum standard is a 30 percent increase from the previous level and has raised the price tag of a minimum-efficiency system by about the same percentage. When 13-SEER units become the majority of sales, however, prices will come down, predicts Andy Armstrong, director of marketing for York International.
The differences between a 10-SEER and a 13-SEER air conditioner boil down to components that use less electricity. To meet the new requirement manufacturers added expansion valves to better regulate refrigerant flow, increased the coil surface area to speed the cooling process, and upgraded indoor air handler motors to manage air flow.
Systems with ratings higher than 13—ranging from 14 to 20.5—have been available for a few years and can cost anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent more than an entry-level system. These higher ratings are achieved by highly efficient components and the addition of two-stage or dual compressors, improved fan-blade designs that move air more efficiently, variable-speed blower motors that save energy as they remove more humidity from the air, and larger or multiple-coil surfaces.
A 13-SEER system is no longer the “upgrade,” and to qualify for the Department of Energy's Energy Star label, an air conditioning system must have a SEER of 14. So custom builders—many of whom previously offered 13-SEER systems as a differentiator—will need to move up an efficiency level or more to maintain the benefit that they offer over the industry standard.
However, installing a higher-efficiency unit just for the sake of higher efficiency may not make sense in northern states where an air conditioning system does not have to run frequently, Armstrong points out. In low-cooling-demand areas, 13-SEER may provide adequate efficiencies, especially if combined with zoning, indoor air quality accessories, compressor insulation, and variable-speed blowers to increase home comfort.
Where production builders will still focus on cost over comfort, according to manufacturers, custom builders should focus on installing air conditioning systems that will provide the best level of comfort in the home rather than the lowest cost—whether that can be achieved with a higher-efficiency unit or a 13-SEER unit.
The XL19i ultra-efficiency air conditioner has a SEER rating of up to 19.5. The unit features two compressors—one to operate in milder weather, the other to run on extremely hot days. A variable-speed fan motor adjusts its speed to save energy and provide maximum comfort while operating quietly. Compressor sound insulators also reduce operating noise. Woven spine fin cooling coils provide less resistance to airflow, increasing the efficiency of heat transfer. 608.787.2000. www.trane.com