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Getting SEERious for the Moment

Starting January 23, 2006, the Department of Energy (DOE) will begin to enforce legislation that will increase the minimum SEER required for residential air conditioners from 10 to 13 SEER, thereby instituting a substantial reduction in the energy consumption of residential air conditioners. The last time the US government increased minimum energy efficiency requirements for residential air conditioners was in 1992. At that time, SEER requirements were raised from 8 to 10.

“The Alliance to Save Energy believes that increasing the minimum SEER rating to 13 may save the country as many as 150 new power plants.”

SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. It is a ratio of the total cooling output of an air conditioner during normal annual usage to the electrical energy consumed. Therefore, the higher the SEER value, the more efficient the air conditioner. The Alliance to Save Energy believes that increasing the minimum SEER rating to 13 may save the country as many as 150 new power plants. The new standard will mean that manufacturers can no longer produce 10 SEER equipment.

The mandating of 13 SEER units will result in an increase in first costs to the public. Determining whether the additional first cost expense of a 13 SEER unit will be paid back over its lifetime can be calculated but depends on a number of variables. These include electricity rate, construction quality, building U-value, building orientation, and climate. However, the DOE has produced some useful rule-of-thumb guidelines given the new regulatory change at the following website: http://energy.gov/eere/femp/federal-energy-management-program. This online brochure allows the public to convert DOE data to meet their specific conditions to help determine the payback in energy savings between different SEER levels. The example the DOE uses establishes a ‘base case’ showing that a 36,000 Btu/hr (3 ton) unit that sees 1,000 hours of cooling load hours per year at $0.06 per kilowatt-hour will payback up to $550.

The value of the payback will vary from region to region around the country, depending on climate and energy costs. For the same ‘base case’ in Pennsylvania, because cooling hours are less than the DOE assumption, an average payback is approximated at $500. Areas that have higher energy costs will see a higher payback. Areas that are warmer than DOE assumptions will also have a higher payback. Following the DOE directions in the brochure will allow you to estimate the payback for your area.

Finally, it is important to note that the last minimum SEER increase was in 1992 and many 8 SEER units are still in operation from before that time, given that residential air conditioners can last 15 years or more. Many owners will therefore see even greater energy savings if they upgrade from an 8 SEER unit to the newly mandated 13 SEER units.

– Bryan C. Smith, PE, LEED AP

Bryan is a Licensed Mechanical Engineer, LEED Accredited Professional, and Board Member of the USGBC Central Pennsylvania Chapter. Please feel free to contact Bryan for further details regarding the above information.